Codes of Misconduct tells us the story of how through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the colonial government in Bombay city passed a series of laws against prostitution. Many of these laws, strangely, were repetitive and seemed to cover the same ground over and over again. In the meantime, Bombay saw a massive expansion in sex-trade, and soon came to be seen—both globally and nationally—as a critical node in the international network of trafficking in women. It would appear that colonial laws, like many postcolonial laws, were either not honestly implemented or were simply impossible to implement. Ashwini Tambe, however, tells us that such a commonsensical reading is not just naive but in fact misleading, for it misses the very point of the story of law-making, reform and sexuality in colonial modernity.
Tambe studies laws on prostitution not only for the sake of the prostitute. It is true that the prostitute works as a particularly intractable figure in modernity, because she disrupts the ordering regimes of modem civic life founded on binaries such as the public/private and the felon/victim.But Tambe also studies laws for the sake of law as such; and for her, the prostitute offers a critical entry point into the story of the many lives of law. She argues that law must be understood not in terms of its ‘success’ in prohibiting what it seems to prohibit, but precisely in terms of the mismatch between letter of the law and the implementation of it. For modern-day laws are intended to do two things simultaneously —one, establish the realm of law-making as the privileged site of public contestation, sometimes as substitute, sometimes as supplement to the realm of politics itself; and two, constitute newer channels of state intervention through the production of newer laws and correspondingly newer crimes and newer forms of discipline arid surveillance. The story of prostitution and law-making in Bombay must be read in this light.
Tambe talks of three moments in the story of laws against prostitution—marked consecutively by questions of venereal disease, international trafficking in women and the rhetoric of abolitionism. She demonstrates how the story is over-determined by discourses of race and nationalism. In the nineteenth century, Tambe tells us, theprostitute was administered as a carrier of contagious diseases and therefore as a threat to white soldiers, even as the colonial state continued to officially promote prostitution as a more legitimate form of sex than having white soldiers develop long-term alliances with native women, leading to miscegenation and racial contamination.The prostitute was therefore subject to constant arrest, imprisonment and invasive medical examinations. In the colony, unlike in England, scientific or medical invasions often exceeded its military location and affected civilian groups—poor native women being seen as potentially dangerous and contagious beings as a class. This was also the beginning of a long process of the gradual criminalization of the prostitute in India.
Tambe then explores the phenomenon of white prostitution in Bombay—through discussions of the Bombay government’s opportunistic use and evasion of international anti-trafficking conventions in the name of management of inter-racial sex. She describes the creation in the city of a red-light district meant to house primarily white prostitutes, who could then be systematically deployed to service a foreign population. As a counterpoint to the history of white prostitution, Tambe offers a moving portrayal of the death at work of a certain Akootai, a poor Indian prostitute. These two chapters demonstrate the difference between the direct disciplinary mechanisms meant for white prostitution and the brothel-based administration of native prostitution that the colonial police promoted. Akootai’s gruesome death raised questions about the role of brothels, informal allies to the colonial police in their promotion and regulation of prostitution, and generated the rhetoric of victimthood that would animate reformist and nationalist discourses about sexuality itself. She analyses in great detail the trial around Akootai’s death, and connects it to the debates around the 1923 Bombay Prevention of Prostitution Act. Tambe also has a chapter on nationalism and the question of prostitution. She discusses Gandhi’s well-known anxiety vis a vis prostitutes. She also discusses the emerging middle class notions of morality, hygiene, reform and rescue, which underlay not only mainstream nationalism but also the women’s movement of the time. She also gestures towards other issues—such as the devdasi system, concubinage, matriliny and age of consent in marital and non-marital sex—all of which came to be elaborated around the specific figure of the prostitute and her sexuality.
Tambe’s work shows how the prostitutegets increasingly criminalized through decades of legal debates and law-making—even as an apparently sympathetic discourse about her victimhood laced the process. In her earlier work, Tambe had shown how in the debates around age of consent, all forms of non-marital sex were clubbed together as prostitution—that is as the opposite of marriage and thus as illegitimate and immoral, if not criminal, by definition. In this book, however, Tambe does not further elaborate on this question, though that indeed would have enhanced the book’s significance. Tambe also shows, and this is particularly important, that it is not quite correct to assume that middle-class morality in India as a derivative of contemporary Victorian mores. In fact, what was foundational to colonial modernity was the imperial elaboration of a notion of alternative and inferior Indian sexuality, along with the colonial imperative of preserving and promoting so-called non-European sexual mores—such as concubinage, low age of consent, even prostitution—as a racial marker. In response to this colonial imperative, the middleclass nationalist would speak less the language of Victorian moralism and more a global, or rather ‘international’, language of women’s and human rights.
Ashwini Tambe extends and nuances an important field of feminist historiography a la Ann Stoler, Antoniette Burton, Philippa Levine, Janaki Nair, Mrinalini Sinha and others—which has richly demonstrated that modernity was founded on a global configuration of race, sexuality and law, a configuration that can be grasped only if we look beyond discrete national histories and understand the ‘imperial social formation’ as a domain constituted by both colony and metropolis. Despite a chapter on the nationalists, the book is primarily about colonial governmentality and the centrality of the figure of the prostitute—both white and coloured—in it. Tambe’s introductory chapter that puts forward the question of law from the perspective of a very specific figure of deviancy—namely, the prostitute—is very promising. However, in the main body of the work, she primarily demonstrates—through details of the non-implementation of law and of endless and reiterative law-making—the fact of governmentality itself. This, to my mind, does not push the question of law far enough, though her own materials seem to provide ample scope for just such a rethinking. It seems to me that what the prostitute as a problematic offers us is a somewhat distinct story of how in modern times, morality gets transformed and translated as law. Perhaps one needs to move away a bit from a pressing focus on the state—which by Tambe’s own telling, is not, despite statist claims, the only location of the story of law-making.