Minding Their Business

The unfinished battle for sex workers’ rights

Members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee hold a May Day rally in support of sex workers in Midnapore, West Bengal, in 1998. From its origins as an HIV-prevention project in Sonagachi, in Kolkata, the Durbar Mahila has grown into a collective of tens of thousands of sex workers striving for their own best interests. achinto bhadra
01 June, 2020


THERE WERE BREATHTAKING SIGNS in that heady era, when India was celebrating 50 years of independence and a new millennium shone ahead, that a revolution was underway for the country’s sex workers. In November 1997, some five thousand women, hijras and men who sold sex reached Kolkata from far-flung parts for a national conference, the first of its kind, organised by the city’s pathbreaking sex workers’ collective—the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, or “indomitable women’s collaborative committee.”

These thousands crowded into Salt Lake Stadium. This venue itself—an iconic football ground—spoke of the headway their cause had already made. It said that West Bengal’s Left Front government had, even if reluctantly, accepted the sex workers’ demands for rights and respect. Astonishingly, the union home minister, Indrajit Gupta, a legendary freedom fighter and Communist Party of India leader, was the chief guest.

“The women I was with almost couldn’t believe it,” Shyamala Nataraj, a Chennai-based journalist, recalled. Nearly a decade earlier, when India was gripped by panic as AIDS first began to spread, Nataraj had helped free hundreds of HIV-positive sex workers imprisoned by the Tamil Nadu government. “And when Gupta appeared on the dais, we were blown away,” she continued, “because he was this distinguished, grandfatherly figure who exuded a huge moral authority.”