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A colonial haunting : prostitution and the politics of sex trafficking in British India, 1917-1939 Chang, Sandy


Following the murder of a Bombay prostitute in 1917, the Government of India launched a series of investigations and commissions of inquiry in order to determine the scope of prostitution and extent of sex trafficking across British India. Between 1917 and 1939, these colonial projects produced a vast archive of ethnographic and statistical information about those women whose lives were intricately tied to brothels in the Indian subcontinent. In this paper, I examine the politics behind these projects of knowledge production and the colonial desire to make these women “known.” By situating this colonial history within the international climate of the interwar period – a time when the legitimacy of the British Empire was increasingly challenged by Indian nationalists and subject to scrutiny by the League of Nations – this study argues that colonial administrators appropriated the highly publicized death of an Indian prostitute to elicit emotions of shock and pity and in turn, preserve the ideological legitimacy of “enlightened” British rule by fashioning themselves as “modernizers of indigenous patriarchy” in India. The death of the prostitute, much like the controversy around sati and child marriage in the nineteenth century, became a metonym for the social ills of India which justified colonial intervention as a form of benevolent paternalism. However, these knowledge production projects rarely materialized into tangible social reforms for the women at question. They were, instead, a public relations exercise meant to bolster the international image of British rule India and create an illusion of the success of the colonial technologies of surveillance. Sustaining commonsense assumptions about colonial prostitutes required an ongoing effort to produce statistics, social “facts,” and tropes about them. By scrutinizing these colonial reports and the context of their production, this study attempts to illuminate both the illogical and unpredictable nature of state commissions of inquiry and the ulterior motives of imperial legitimacy behind seemingly benevolent colonial social reforms for Indian women.

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