Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India

Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India

by Stephen Legg

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Officially confined to red-light districts, brothels in British India were tolerated until the 1920s. Yet, by this time, prostitution reform campaigns led by Indian, imperial, and international bodies were combining the social scientific insights of sexology and hygiene with the moral condemnations of sexual slavery and human trafficking. These reformers identified the brothel as exacerbating rather than containing "corrupting prostitutes" and the threat of venereal diseases, and therefore encouraged the suppression of brothels rather than their urban segregation. In this book, Stephen Legg tracks the complex spatial politics surrounding brothels in the interwar period at multiple scales, including the local, regional, national, imperial, and global. Campaigns and state policies against brothels did not just operate at different scales but made scales themselves, forging new urban, provincial, colonial, and international formations. In so doing, they also remade the boundary between the state and the social, through which the prostitute was, Legg concludes, "civilly abandoned."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822376170
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/19/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Stephen Legg is Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi's Urban Governmentalities and the editor of Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos.

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Prostitution and the Ends of Empire

Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India

By Stephen Legg

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7617-0




Governing Concepts

Between 1857, when Delhi was reclaimed from the "mutineers," and 1947, when it became the capital of independent India, the city saw the emergence of a class of "common prostitutes," whose existence posed the city's governors with challenging questions concerning the medical and moral security of the city. These new figures were reviled in biological terms, as contagion, and in social terms, as sexually licentious and transgressive, bearing, as always, the blame for satisfying the demands of their male clients. This revulsion was not represented in space, but constituted and reproduced in and through it. The bazaars in which prostitutes publicly solicited and enticed men into their brothels and kothas became the target of petitioning and reformatory zeal. The Municipal Committee selected particular places into which the women could be segregated, which sparked further protests from local residents unwilling to cohabitate with this abject community. This process did, at least, accept that the women had a right to dwell and work in this manner somewhere in the city. However, in the mid-1930s a new campaign in Delhi sought to abolish brothels and public soliciting in the city altogether.

These two campaigns, to segregate prostitutes into one part of the city or to abolish their infrastructures of support altogether, reflected the ideological positions that were struggling for supremacy in interwar India and the world at large. Broadly speaking, different branches of urban government in Delhi adopted these opposing measures. The partially elected Delhi Municipal Committee (DMC) responded to local complaints against prostitutes in bazaars by segregating the women in a series of locations, leaving them and their activities relatively unreformed. This resulted in the women's gradual exclusion from the confines of the walled city. In contrast, the centrally appointed Delhi administration began, in the 1930s, to support suppressionist legislation, in line with pressure from international campaigning groups and the military. To compensate for these measures, voluntary associations worked to provide basic infrastructures to socialize "rescued" women and children and to make prostitutes a topic of popular concern, thereby including these women in Delhi's emergent colonial civil society. The support for these women was, however, wholly inadequate and simply marked another stage in the persecution and punishment of prostitutes within patriarchal orders (British and Indian) that were already structured to exploit them to the fullest. This chapter will seek to explain the simultaneous processes of exclusion and inclusion operating through both civil society and the state, both of which came together to place Delhi's prostitutes in a state of civil abandonment.

This analysis will show how two imagined natures, or "domains," were central to this process: the city as a space of sexual propriety, and civil society as an ordering force. In terms of the specifically colonial context, the city apparently needed extra regulation while civil society had to be fostered by (not emerge in opposition to) the state. The attempts to rescue and include women and children in Delhi resulted in a dense networking effort, in an attempt to create the impression of a sexually civil city. But these networks clashed and betrayed the constant interventions of national and imperial people and ideas into the city. The parallel effort to exclude prostitutes named them as the problem, and too rarely as the victims, of the city. While the women resisted these categorizations, the need to protect Delhi's name was too great. The capital risked becoming, the Delhi YMCA had suggested, a "byeword for immorality." It appeared that Delhi was still, as Viceroy Hardinge (cited in Legg 2007b, 56) had insisted when he relocated the capital from Calcutta, a "name to conjure with."

The Nature of the Social

Nikolas Rose (1999, 101) has described the domain of the "social" as the conceptual space through which intellectual, political, and moral authorities, in certain territories, think about and act upon collective experience. Most definitions describe a belief in an autonomous domain with lawful dynamics that inform social institutions and aggregate in social agents (Poovey 2002, 47), the emergence of which Foucault (1977–78 [2007]) described as central to the sciences of government. Definitions of the social have included eighteenth-century considerations of abstract human nature, nineteenth-century organicist and evolutionary models, and the more structural formulations of the interwar period (Joyce 2002, 11). This evolution involved a shift from seeing the social as a natural and material force to it being conceived of as a product of conscious will and purpose, maintained by people and associations that were encouraged and regulated by the state, yet existed outside of it. The term's complexity can be comprehended through the different levels of abstraction used to define the social. These include first order, "empty" units such as society and economy; second order, historically specific, narrative paradigms of the social; and third order, public dynamics and desires by which these abstractions are lived out (Poovey 2002).

Within these complex genealogies, and from Mary Poovey's second order, the concept of "civil society" must have a special place. Both Hegel and Marx agreed that the distinctive feature of political modernity was the separation of state and civil society. Hegel described the latter as a sphere that was neither the family nor the state, but where private individuals came together under the regulation of the state. As such, while conceptually distinct, the state exerted its authority in civil society through administrative mechanisms. Marx radicalized Hegel by attributing the production of poverty to civil society, a superstructural product of wage-labor relations (Neocleous 1996, 13). As such, Hegel's mediating institutions were reinscribed as tentacles of the state that subsumed social struggle into the administrative machinery. Antonio Gramsci (1971, 12) later made the distinction between "political society," which was characterized by these very institutions and coercively exerted direct domination through the state and juridical government, and civil society, which achieved hegemony noncoercively. Churches, schools, clubs, and political parties marked the latter; police, the government, armed forces, and legal apparatuses marked the former.

Foucault also considered civil society a means through which to govern, but one that involved a more decentered power dynamic (see Cohen and Arato 1994, 255–98). Mark Neocleous (1996, 58) has argued that Foucault's assertion depoliticized social relations by dissolving the state into the "social body" and law into administration. He also argued that Foucault dismissed the state/civil society division, focusing on the normalization of society through administration, and dismissing the cold monster of the state. This argument was made mostly on the basis of Foucault's (1977a) work on discipline and also assumed Foucault's lack of attention to different types of power, whether of the state and civil society or of the group or individual. At exactly this period, however, Foucault was turning his attention to the role of conflict: first, between civil society and the state or business; and, second, between groups within civil society. In the Society Must Be Defended lecture course (Foucault 1975–76 [2003], 18, 61), the formative and continuing role of conflict in civil society was stressed. Society was here posited as a new subject of history that emerged in the eighteenth century, but one that was quickly colonized by institutions that made race and class struggle function as a way to normalize this new social body. Civil society was later posed as a product of the state, a means of regulation and control (Foucault 1977–78 [2007], 349). The relationship of civil society to the social is thus parallel to the relationship between political economics and the economy, or biopolitics and the population. Such a visualization breaks down the imaginary boundaries between state and society, but also subverts the scalar ontology that sees the state above the population and embeds the state in the complex "power topographies" of the local (Ferguson 2004).

But Foucault's lectures also made clear, to a greater extent than his discussion of biopolitics, how civil society (also referred to as governmentalized society) organized the fragile and obsessive object called the state (Foucault 1977–78 [2007], 248). Foucault denied that civil society was an aboriginal, preexisting reality or a construct of the state. Rather, he argues, it was a correlate of a political technology of the state and, as such, was variable and open to constant modification: "For Foucault, the political objectification of civil society plays a central role in determining a relatively open-ended and experimental problem-space of how to govern: that is, of finding the appropriate techniques for a government oriented by a problematic of security. This 'transactional' domain at the frontier of political power and what 'naturally' eludes its grasp constitutes a space of problematisation, a fertile ground for experimental innovation in the development of political technologies of government" (Burchell 1991, 141). Tailoring these more abstract concepts to the spaces of the city, Patrick Joyce (2003, 172) has shown how the social took shape in direct relation to the threat that nineteenth-century urbanism posed. Cities would now be town-planned into order, creating an ideal demonstration testing ground for the new social sciences. Social processes, facts, and the bonds of people to society came to be explained by the now-established statistical machinery, which promised to make the population amenable to secure governance, while providing liberal checks against any over-intrusions of the state.

The boundary between the social, as conceived, and the state was complex and blurred. The social was never thought to be as much an autonomous force as the economy. This was not because it had been swallowed by a police state, but because the state began to become as complex as society, taking on new roles and interventions. Colin Gordon (1991, 34), drawing on Michel Foucault's lecture courses and the work of Jacques Donzelot, described the social as the field of governmental action operating within and upon the discrepancies between the economy and society, many of which had biopolitical manifestations and solutions. Social governmentalities were not persistent policies; instead, they responded to certain crises such as overcrowding, theft, and crime, but also to epidemics and diseases (Rose 1999, 101). The state did, from the late nineteenth century onward, begin to intervene more in the social sphere, in line with what Stuart Hall and Bill Schwarz (1985, 9) refer to as the replacement of laissez-faire liberalism with state interventionism. Colonial states, however, were differentiated by the excesses and neglects of their interventions. While it is an accepted feature of colonial governments that they were less liberal in terms of checks on the disciplinary actions of the state, their limited intervention on social issues was also a key feature. Whether from fear of offending "native" sentiment or a simple financial reluctance to invest, the colonial state recurrently displayed an unwillingness to intervene in the domain of the social.

This can be better understood by framing the social as a key domain in the liberal art of government. The social was not part of the state, but it was governed through (Joyce 2002, 10). Liberalism constitutes governance through freedom: of the self, the family, the economy, and society. Yet this freedom depends upon free and self-regulating individuals. As such, we must ask: What form does the social take in regimes of colonial governmentality? How was "oriental" society conceived of by an authoritarian liberalism that assumed the fundamental difference, rather than sameness, of the Indian people (Metcalf 1994)? And to what extent had Indian nationalists, by the interwar years, reimagined samaj as a non- and even anticolonial version of "society" that was consonant with the nation, even as "it retained the fault-lines of caste, community and gender throbbing right under the surface."

Partha Chatterjee has complemented his earlier work on the colonial rule of difference (Chatterjee 1993) with further meditations on the relationship between the epistemological objects of the population and civil society in the colonial context. Chatterjee adopted Gramsci's distinction between political society (policies relating to the mass of the population) and civil society (the elite) and argued that, in the United Kingdom, modern forms of government arose following the spread of civil rights in civil society. However, in Asia and Africa, the techniques of governmentality preempted, and constituted, the nation-state (Chatterjee 2004, 36). As such, the mass of the population was conceived of as subjects, rather than citizens, to which the colonial state was determinedly external (also see Prakash 2002, 81). Contact with the population was maintained by ruling via the traditional social forms of the community, those collective bonds and rights based on imagined ties of kinship, religion, culture, and the past.

Building upon understandings of community and colonialism, Chatterjee (2004, 6) chose to stress the heterogeneity of the social, as against the supposedly homogenous, empty time of the nation-state. The multiple techniques of colonial governmentality created crosscutting and shifting classifications of the population: as criminals, residents, workers, or slum dwellers, for example. Yet beyond these considerations of political society, the colonial environment did foster a civil society. For most cases of the nineteenth century, Chatterjee (1993, 24) was right to claim that "the only civil society that the government could recognize was theirs; colonized subjects could never be its equal members." Yet, though without equality of status, Indian elites were incorporated into civil society, even as this society was itself colonized by nationalist sentiment (Kalpagam 2002). This increased the heterogeneity of the social through the formation of, for instance, a Hindi-language public sphere (Orsini 2002); philanthropic, educative, and religious institutions (Watt 2005); political organizations campaigning for self-government and political citizenship (McClelland and Rose 2006); and associations campaigning for women's rights (Basu and Ray 1990). In addition, during the twentieth century the government encouraged the formation of a civil society that could mediate the state and the social. The latter would be a domain in which subjects were encouraged to think of themselves as citizens with the obligation to work together in "social service."

Indeed, at the blurred boundary between the state and the social domain were independent reformers, charities, and voluntary associations who recoded crises of government as moral problems with national consequences (Rose 1999, 102). In the twentieth century, the colonial Indian state was increasingly pressured to regulate the moral domain and encourage standards of self-conduct. This included intellectual education to encourage foresight, prudence, and planning, but also involved targeting the body to encourage hygiene, virtue, and normalized sexuality. Further confusing the scalar politics of the state/society boundary, voluntary associations involved in this endeavor were often international organizations that implanted transnational governmentalities into local contexts (Ferguson 2004). Attempts to normalize sexuality came to be conceived of in the dense and emotionally charged circuit of the sexual, which Frank Mort (1987) has argued constituted a governmental domain in itself. Yet this interest in sexuality must be framed within the particular articulation of sovereign power that the imperial context brought to the social and civil society in colonial India.

Abandonment: Inclusive Exclusion

When thinking about how colonial civil society, in cooperation with the state, worked to govern the population, we must address the specific conditions of colonial governmentality. Beyond being conditioned by "race" (Chatterjee 1993), colonial governments were structured by a series of excesses and neglects (Legg 2007b, 21). Considering these over- and under-reachings reminds us, also, of Foucault's failure to theorize the colonial world. This is equally true of his writing on the social and civil society.

As I explained above, the state both limited and partly constituted colonial civil society. But we must also situate civil society within a colonial state that often ranked the powers and techniques of government and discipline beneath the exigencies of sovereign power. In my previous work I argued that the landscapes of ordering in Delhi displayed the ways in which sovereign power was imbricated with different types of power relation: from hierarchical categorization (New Delhi residential landscapes), to discipline (policing), and biopolitics (improvement of Old Delhi). This chapter extends that analysis to the study of civil society and its regulation of prostitution in Delhi.


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction. Spatial Genealogies from Segregation to Suppression 1

1. Civil Abandonment: The Inclusive Exclusion of Delhi's Prostitutes 41

2. Assembling India: The Birth of SITA 95

3. Imperial Moral and Social Hygiene 169

Conclusion. Within and beyond the City 239

Notes 247

References 259

Index 277

What People are Saying About This

Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire - Philippa Levine

"Prostitution and the Ends of Empire deftly reveals that the attack on the brothel in interwar Delhi was more than just a city-specific act, but rather demonstrated the power of international, imperial, and local networks. Using Foucault's and Agamben's work, Stephen Legg persuasively shows the reimagining of the brothel as a space of danger that required its suppression. Legg's use of scalar analysis is carefully constructed and brilliantly conclusive. This is an important and original reading of colonial prostitution."

Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire - Mrinalini Sinha

"Stephen Legg's Prostitution and the Ends of Empire excels in providing an insightful analysis of how the 'brothel' in colonial India, once tolerated for its alleged socially useful fringe benefits, became during the interwar period the target of an extensive campaign for abolition. Legg is at his best in the meticulous care with which he charts the roles and motivations of a wide variety of civil society actors—individuals, institutions, and organizations—who were important players, alongside the colonial state, in this interwar shift, including the policy of the forced removal of public 'prostitutes' out of the city in Delhi, from places like Chowri Bazar and Ajmere Gate Bazar, to marginal locations. With the skills of a geographer, Legg tacks nimbly between the space of the brothel itself and the interlocking scales of the urban, provincial, national, imperial, and international that framed it as a problem. This smart and thoroughly researched book will be welcomed by students of colonial urbanism, of sexuality, and of transational methodologies in the study of India."

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