The ancient relationship between sex workers and law-keepers could be entering a new phase in Calcutta. The visibility of female sex workers have become a great deal more widespread in the city. Their activities are confined neither to the usual red-light areas nor to the times of the day or night when such things have traditionally caused less offence. This has undoubtedly made things a lot easier for those who avail themselves of their services, but supply has always been more important than demand in determining the tone of public morality in this matter. Hence, the feelings of outrage and helplessness in the city police in not being able to keep pace with the burgeoning of this profession. They want more powers. They want to be able to pick up any woman deemed by them to be making indecent solicitations in a public place and subject her to as much as a week’s imprisonment or fine her up to Rs 500. They also want those in the force who have the prerogatives of a magistrate to be able to pass such judgments. The complications of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act hinder such summary punishments, and hence the police have made this appeal for augmented powers to the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
Leaving something as subjective as “indecent” female public behaviour entirely to the discretion of the police should be the result of extremely careful deliberation on the part West Bengal’s home department. The scope for the abuse of such powers is endless, and the police’s track record in sexual or punitive restraint with women has been far from reassuring. The archaic notions of “indecency”, “public nuisance” and “unnatural offences” in the Indian Penal Code — continuing unchanged since the the time of Lord Macaulay — have given the police enough scope to abuse, blackmail and terrorize perfectly innocent citizens with impunity. Abominable forms of corruption and injustice have been perpetrated in the name of law-keeping. Conflating the magistrate’s power to punish with the policeman’s responsibility for enforcing the law runs the very grave risk of intensifying such abuse.