Sovereign Silence: Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and Legalizing Sex Work in Sonagachi



Drawing upon ethnographic work with a grassroots sex workers’ organization in Calcutta, Durbar Samanwaya Samiti (Durbar), this article analyzes the relationship between subalternity and silence. I discuss how sex workers, especially new entrants, use silence as a subaltern strategy to resist state and non-state surveillance intended to oppose trafficking. The increased surveillance is a direct result of the global anti-trafficking narrative, led mainly by the United States, in which developing countries, like India, adopt measures to avoid being downgraded in the United States’ Trafficking in Persons Report. I contend that these national and international efforts have led to a quandary where the lives of these sex workers are rendered inaudible. Here I specifically examine the practices of the Self-Regulatory Board, established by Durbar to identify new entrants who may have been unwilling trafficked and do not want to join the profession. I argue that the Board, in replicating state practices, in effect has created an environment where women prefer to embrace silence in order to confront its power.