It’s a story of unconventional courage, diligence and organisational ability, that made ‘Durbar‘(meaning, ‘indomitable’) to stand on its feet and resist against the age old stigma, deprivation, torments and the guilt that was related with the presumably world’s oldest profession.
‘Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee‘ (DMSC), which represents and works for the welfare and up-liftment of the sex workers in Asia’s largest red-light area, the infamous Sonagachi, in Kolkata, won one of its long fought battles, when sex workers of Sonagachi have for the first time broken shackles of social prejudice to organize their own Durga Puja, the biggest festival of eastern India.
“It is the largest festival of Bengalis and when the rest of the city is celebrating, why should we be left out? So, we decided that we should have our own Puja Pandal this time,” said Bharati Dey, the Secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. The Committee organised its first ever Durga Puja in the red light district, in 2013.
“Making of a Durga idol is considered incomplete if one does not have soil collected from a sex worker’s doorstep. Ironically, there’s no place for us the sex workers, within this society. Whereas the society has always learnt to live with us. And this is sheer hypocrisy, double standard!” observed Dey.
When they applied in 2013, the Kolkata Police denied permission for the Pandal. Which they said would encroach portions of the footpath.
The sex workers then challenged the Police decision in the Calcutta High Court.
The Bench of Chief Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Joymalya Bagchi heard the petition and ultimately DMSC got permission to go ahead with the Puja.
In the first year, the budget was of Rs 2 lakh, which was mostly contributed by the sex workers themselves.
They followed all the solemn religious rituals and a Brahmin priest also agreed to conduct the Puja. Two ‘Dhakis‘ (drummers)also came to the Puja Pandal, where the girls of Sonagachi danced and performed the Arti.
And for the first time in history, the ladies of Sonagachi took part in ‘Sindur Khela’, a ritual otherwise observed by the married women, in front of Goddess Durga.
Some donations also came on the way. Local residents, specially the educated, socially conscious and office goer women had contributed ‘Chanda’. Some local residents too lent their helping hands, and among the insiders, one had also took care of the entire Saptami, expenses for the first day of Puja.
The idol was brought from the usual Kumartuli area. Some local electricians helped with light designing and the girls and the women of the red-light area even served Bhog and Prasad, which people had happily received.
‘Komalgandhar’, the cultural unit of DMSC, of the children of sex workers, organised the cultural programs to showcase their talents in dance, music and dramatics.
The Struggle Continued
But the bureaucratic, police and public apathy continued. Next year too Police and Municipality denied them permission. Again the Court intervened. But the Puja had to conduct indoor, as no bigger public space was available for them, in the area.
Inspired by the first year’s Puja, the community was looking forward to a bigger celebration and made preparations accordingly.
“But the Kolkata Police told us that we can’t set up a larger Pandal than 15 ft by 10 ft.We had to abide and had to change our order for a smaller idol”.
Not only that. Inspired by DMSC, sex workers from other areas, like Bowbazar in Kolkata, Durgapur, Asansol, Seoraphuli and Bishnupur applied for permission to perform Durga Puja in their areas. But only Bishnupur Police gave them permission, the others denied.
“When we approached the local police for permission, they told us that we had to get permission either from the High Court or the State Government,” the local sex workers said.
But the girls were encouraged and elated, when the West Bengal Minister of State for Women and Child Welfare, Dr Sashi Panja came forward to inaugurate Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee’s Puja .
Dr. Panja said, “We appreciate the organisation’s initiative and DMSC has all our support. It’s a platform to showcase the ongoing fight of sex-workers for equal rights. We wish many such successful Pujas in the coming years and will always stand by the needful. It’s because of the public that we are able to what we are and will always be there to support in whatever we can.”
Puja In 2015
The women of Sonagachi had brought Maa Durga into the forbidden land, two years back, despite a lot of hardship, but finally they have managed to achieve a big win this time around. In the third year, these indomitable women of Sonagachi have successfully brought the Puja out in the open, organizing it in the public space.
This year too, their plan to celebrate Puja in a grand way was stuck in a logjam.
The police and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) turned down their request to set up a big Pandal, compelling them to approach the Calcutta High Court, yet again.
The Court put some hard questions this time, before the Municipality and Police. Asked the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, why they allow other Durga Puja Committees with influential people and politicians to set up huge Puja Pandals that flout rules!
Justice Dipankar Dutta wanted to know if they were aware of the Durga Puja Pandals blocking roads in north and south Kolkata too. “I have the list. I can give it you,” Justice Dutta said.
He wanted to know what steps the authorities have taken against those who flouted rules. “Let me know what steps you have taken. What amount have you fined them? I am born and brought up in Kolkata and I know what the scene is like during Durga Puja. Even I have to take a detour to reach home,” he said.
“The guideline is good but its application should be uniform,” the learned Judge observed.
DMSC’s Counsel and senior Advocate Arunava Ghosh then submitted that the authorities may allow organizers to occupy a portion of the vacant plot adjacent to the Subham Community Hall, to set up the Pandal
The Court sent lawyers to look into the matter and ultimately allowed the sex workers to host their Puja in a bigger way at the Subham Community Hall, inside the red light area.
The hall is run by Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
“This is just the beginning. Next year, we will move the Court again so that sex workers are allowed to hold the Puja on a venue at the Abinash Kabiraj Lane and Masjid Bari Lane crossing, we are looking for. In this stretch there is no traffic problem,” said Dr Smarajit Jana, founder of ‘Sonagachi Research and Training Institute’ and a patron of DMSC.
“Your society has allotted a role for us, all these years. Now, if we are going out of the defined role and trying to be within the society, they are feeling threatened, and resisting us at any cost. But we are also the citizens of this country, and we have every right to live like any other citizen.” Demanded an activist of DMSC.
“For us, organizing this Puja is a way of empowering sex workers and ensure that they enjoy equal rights as other citizens,” said Purnima Chatterjee, a senior activist of ‘Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee’ (DMSC).
Rising Against All Odds
Just a few minute’s walk from central Kolkata’s Sovabazar Metro Station takes you to Sonagachi, which is home to over 7,000 sex workers. The place is credited as the largest red-light district in Asia.
In the alleys of Sonagachi, in the nooks and crannies of the age old buildings, live the distressed damsels of this metro, who are traditionally tormented by countless Middlemen, Matrons the Kotha owners, the Anti-socials of the area and the local Police.
And the scenario is just similar, in the other parts of this country.
Sex Workers existed in India, since the ancient times.
In Shudrak’s drama, ‘Mricchakaṭika‘ (The Little Clay Cart), written in third century BC, the courtesan Vasantasena is the central character.
It the well known treatises like ‘Kama Sutra’ or ‘Ananga Ranga’ , a courtesan or a sex worker is also attributed with significant roles.
Kautilya’s ‘Arth Shastra’ also mentions them with importance and elaboration.
These hapless multitudes of women are also a part of the society, existing on the fringes of mainstream. Shunned, shooed and abhorred socially, but patronized clandestinely by its respectable members! In the yesteryear, the Nawabs and the Zamindars were their big patrons.
Legally speaking, Prostitution as a profession is illegal in India. But generally the government hardly interferes its daily activities, unless there is any big trafficking scam. Leaving a grey areas which are exploited utmost ,by the Police and various law enforcing agencies.
Round the year, these women are busy in attracting customers, with their lascivious looks, gaudy make up and colorful dresses . However, despite the glitter, the utter helplessness of these women can’t be ever missed or overlooked.
Most of them are forced here . Stricken by poverty and as the victims of trafficking, these women can’t go back to the society. With over a hundred multi-storeyed brothels, Sonagachi is always full of clients and busy in world’s oldest business.
Facing tough competition and prodded by the middlemen, the girls have very little choice or earning left with them. The anti socials and the Police, both milch them, knowing well that the trade has no permission by the law.
And the personal and sexual health of these women are always a matter of grave concern. The Government and NGOs, despite their efforts, find controlling HIV, a highly challenging ordeal.
In the year 1992, with the help of the Social Workers, Doctors , the Legal Community and various NGO’s, the women of Sonagachi formed an organisation , the ‘Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee’(DMSC), to protect the interests of this marginalized and neglected community.
DMSC has not only demanded their work to be accepted as a profession, but also asked for their rights.
They organised protest rallies, held all India Conferences on the plight of Sex Workers and tied up with various other organisations, working for the rights of the Sex Workers.
DMSC today comprises some 65,000 sex worker members across West Bengal. Sex Workers from as far as Mumbai, Bhopal, Lucknow, Agra, Hyderabad , Chennai and elsewhere are keeping in touch with them to open their Branches.
AIDS workers and Community representatives from all over the globe now visit their office at Nilmoni Mitra Street , in north Kolkata.
It campaigns regionally, nationally and internationally for sex workers’ rights, but is best known for its HIV prevention work – particularly, the ‘Sonagachi Project ‘, which uses a community development approach aimed at empowering the sex workers.
With the help of the ‘National Institutes of Health’ (NIH), USA, Indiian Health Ministry , NACO and the University of California, Los Angeles(UCLA), Durbar is now working on an important project, regarding commercial sex and drug use , one of the most important and overlapping drivers of the HIV epidemic in India.
A globally designed supplement has been introduced to test whether a Rapid Policy Assessment and Response (RPAR) intervention carried out by the grassroots NGO (Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee [DMSC]) can identify and foster changes in laws and law enforcement practices that will enhance HIV prevention among sex workers and drug users in Kolkata and in the country, in the course of time.
Another purpose of this project is to test whether conducting a legal RPAR can significantly develop DSMC’s capacity as a leading HIV-prevention organisation.
A path breaking organisation like DMSC is into many path-breaking endeavors , these years.
Let the Goddess , make their every endeavor a success!
By Deep Basu
Images are author’s self-contribution.