Prostitution as an institution has existed in Kashmir since ancient past. Kalhana has shamed some of the kings like Kalasha, Kshemagupta, Uccala and Harsha for patronising prostitutes, paramours and courtesans. It was Sultan Sikander who is reported to have banned prostitution, in his Sultanate. It later resurfaced during the rule of Mughals and Afghans.
In 1846, the British government sold Kashmir for a sum of 7.5 million Nanakshahee rupees to Gulab Singh whose first job was to recover that money from the naked, starving and suffering Kashmiris. During the rule of Dogras (1846-1947) everything was taxed. Robert Thrope and Walter Lawrence have provided us with information on taxes which include Khutna or circumcision fee and prostitution tax. The sale of young Muslim girls in Kashmir to established houses of ill-fame was both protected and encouraged by the Maharaja, because it cost only 103 rupees to obtain this license. The Dogra Maharajas not only supported but encouraged the institution of prostitution at State level, as it brought then the much sought money in the form of Kanjur tax.
To legalize the institution of prostitution, the Dogra rulers, sanctioned ‘The Public Prostitutes Rules 1921’, whereby, a prostitute desirous of engaging in prostitution could do so, by registering herself as a ‘public prostitute’. The chief clauses of the rules are as follows:-
1. The Rules were applicable to any part of the Jammu and Kashmir if declared applicable thereto by the minister- incharge of municipalities.
2. By “Public Prostitute” was meant any woman who earned her livelihood by offering her person to lewdness for hire.
3. Every prostitute starting already in ‘business’ was required to have her name entered in the register of the place and obtain a certificate of registration
4. Every prostitute was required to make an application in person for registration to the officer charged with preparation of the register.
5. Any registered public prostitute might, at any time apply to have her name removed from the register on the ground that she intended to cease the business for which her name was registered and if the officer, in whose register she was entered, was satisfied with her intention, her name would be removed from the register
6. A minister- in- charge of municipalities was empowered to prohibit the keeping of a brothel or the residence of a public prostitute in any specified part of the place to which the rules applied
7. Prostitutes acting in contravention of these rules or any notice or order issued there under would, on conviction before a (judicial magistrate) be liable to be sentenced to a fine not exceeding Rs 100 or simple imprisonment not exceeding a period of one month.
The sale of girls and the traffic in women has been described by Arthur Brinkman, the author of Wrongs in Kashmir in the following words:
‘The classes engaged in it [prostitution] are owned as slaves and others, who were formerly in their position. The authority of the latter is backed by the whole power of the Dogra Maharaja, to whom reverts at their death all the wealth gathered by the prostitutes, during their infamous life. Should one of their bondwomen or dancing girl attempt to leave her degrading profession, she is driven back with the lash and the rod into her mistress’s power. These facts are certain.’
The flesh-trade came to the notice of British Government after the devastating famine of 1877-78. According to the British Official reports, about 15 to 25 percent of the revenues of the state came from taxing the prostitutes, who were for this reason provided licenses by the state. In 1880, there were in Kashmir, according to a Report, 18,715 ‘registered prostitutes’ who gave away a share of their ‘income’ to the state in the form of taxes. The registered prostitutes, it appears, belonged to the lower sections of society, and a significant number of them actually came from the untouchable classes, such as the Bhangis (scavengers) and Hanjis (fishermen). The prostitution racket, however, was not just regional, but had by the twentieth century spread to all over India. Kashmiri girls were found in the brothels of other parts of India. According to the census 1921, out of the 2995 prostitutes in the brothels of Bombay, 41 were the natives of Kashmir.
According to the Henvey’s Report, the young English residents were involved in helping prostitution to flourish, and the authorities made no efforts to suppress it, since it was a source of revenues for the state. In 1877-79, a total of 12, 977 patients reported for treatment at the Srinagar Mission Hospital. Among them, 2,516 patients were suffering from venereal diseases, most of them prostitutes.
We come to know from the official British records that the prostitutes in Kashmir were usually sold at a tender age by their parents to brothel-keepers for a price that varied from rupees 100 to 200. Child trafficking was officially recognized by the state and the purchase of the girl-child by pimps and brothel-keepers was registered and sealed on stamped paper. The children sold for prostitution were usually fooled into believing that they would be married off. For most poor parents marriage was not an option, for the Dogra state taxed marriages as well, and the tax on marriage was usually so high as to be beyond the reach of the poor parents. The tax on marriage amounted to as much as Rupees 3 to 864.
The prostitutes were divided into three classes according to, what the records term as ‘gratification’, which included considerations of the age, income, looks and caste of the prostitutes and were taxed accordingly:
Class-I Prostitute: Rs 40 per annum
Class- II Prostitute: Rs. 20 per annum
Class- III Prostitute: Rs. 10 per annum
The young girls, once sold for prostitution, had no hopes of release, and were destined to work as ‘sex slaves’ all their lives. It was of course almsost impossible for them to save enough money to buy themselves back. These unfortunate girls were also denied permission to get married and settle down in life. Nor were they allowed to change ‘profession’, and earn their livelihood through other means. In one instance, a woman who entreated the officers to be allowed to marry and lead a settled life was refused permission to do so. She attempted to fly with a man she wished to marry, but was prevented from doing so and was forced to remain in prostitution.
It was Mohammad Subhan Hajam, a reformer, a social activist and a visionary who succeeded in mobilizing public opinion for eradication of prostitution in Kashmir. He was born in 1910 near Gawkadal in a barber’s family. His couldn’t bear the sight and plight of ill-fated girls forced into this immoral trade. During the day, he worked at his saloon near Lal Chowk, Srinagar but at night he would lead his team of youngsters and start picketing at the entrances of the brothels urging people not to go in or otherwise face mass condemnation. He wrote poems full of sarcasm and satire directed against the pimps, flesh traders and the customers and would keep reciting them aloud . He would address the roadside gatherings explaining to them the evils of prostitution ands its social and moral hazards.
In order to suppress his voice, several false cases were filed against him in the courts. False witnesses were produced. He had to sell all his belongings to meet the expenses of litigation but he didn’t stop. He was also attacked multiple times by the goons of a rich and influential pimp known as Khazir Gaan ( Pimp Khazir).
Due to his persuasion, 700 people, including Church Mission Society, Tyndale Biscoe, Molvi Mohammad Abdullah Vakil and hundreds of other Kashmiri Muslims, Pandits and Sikhs supported him and submitted a memorandum seeking a ban on prostitution to the then district magistrate in Srinagar. Even the Viceroy of India asked the Maharaja to provide him detailed information, about the flesh-trade in Kashmir.
After this intense public pressure generated by Subhan, the state Assembly passed the Suppression of Immoral Trafficing Act in 1934. The assembly even ordered deputation of two Police officers to find and repatriate Kashmiri girls from the red light areas of Rawalpindi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Delhi, Mumbai and Lucknow. A police officer, Abdul Karim recovered a large number of unfortunate girls.
Fines were imposed on people who opened/operated brothels. Most of the prostitutes took to charka while some others were absorbed in silk factory Srinagar.
Muhammad Subhan Hajjam won the battle. But lost his life to Asthama soon after.
Now, so many decades later, Kashmir is once again seeing a substantial expansion in the number of prostitutes, as violence, poverty and broken homes are driving an increasingly growing number of women to prostitution. There are bone-chilling stories about how girls and even married women are being forced into prostitution in Kashmir. The Pattan sex racket and the Chinar sex scandal shook Kashmir in the 1980’s. A VIP sex scandal surfaced in 2006. The legal cover which the Public Prostitutes Registration Rules, 1921 provide to flesh trade in Kashmir is a sort of protection for people involved in flesh-trade.
The soul of Subhan Hajam cries again while the society and the government, both, as spectators, look on, doing nothing…
(The essay is an edited part from a long chapter from Women’s Development Amid Conflicts in Kashmir: A Socio-Cultural Study, a book written by Dr. Shazia Malik. The book is mainly the research of her PhD from AMU.)