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.