For Silchar’s sex workers, Durga Puja is celebration of womanhood
It is believed that the idol of Goddess Durga is made using soil from brothels. But the sex workers do not get a chance to participate in the festival in public places. In Assam’s Silchar, an unregistered brothel exists where 450 sex workers, mostly victims of human trafficking, live together with their children.
Since they are not allowed to attend any Durga Puja pandal or temple, they have started conducting a Puja inside the red-light area. They said that it is a symbol of welcoming the goddess at their home during the festival and celebration of womanhood.
On the eve of Maha Shasthi, when the goddess is believed to arrive at her father’s home, the religious celebration officially begins. On Monday, the sex workers were seen preparing to welcome goddess Durga at their temple located inside the redlight area. It is comparatively a small puja where no idols made of earth are used. They offer the puja before a large portrait of goddess Durga.
A senior sex worker who has spent 50 years of her life in the Silchar redlight area said, “We are rejected individuals from society, we cannot take part in common celebration. But, in the end, we are human beings, we cannot just pass these four days without celebration. So, we welcome goddess Durga to our home because she is our mother too. We follow the rituals which also include Lakshmi puja after 4 days of Dussehra. We celebrate Kali Puja on a larger scale. All of them are women and we celebrate womanhood by offering Puja to Maa Durga, Lakshmi and Kali.”
She also informed that around 70 kids are residing with their mothers. “They sometimes want to be outside and we make arrangements for this,” she said.
Another old lady said, “We are not even allowed to worship Maa Durga or Maa Kali during the festive season in public areas. So, we have made our area of worship. This area has idols and pictures of many gods and goddesses. We are believed to be one of maa Durga roops, so we worship her in our temple.”
The red light area located near the Premtala area of Silchar town is called ‘Chouddo Nombor Galli’ (Lane Number 14) and is one of the largest active brothels in North East India. Local historians say that the brothel in Silchar was established during the second world war.
There was some army movement in this part of India during the war and the brothel was initially made for them. Silchar town was very small during that period. Later, it became the second-most important urban area of Assam after Guwahati because of the trade possibilities. Prostitution is not legal in India but everyone knows that this area near Premtala point of Silchar is an undeclared brothel.
There are several cases of trafficking against the brothel and so many times, young women were recovered by police and NGOs from this place. Two Delhi-based bar dancers were recovered in 2019 based on a complaint lodged by an NGO. There were many such cases in past when girls from several parts of India and other countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, were rescued from this brothel.
The ladies who ended up being here are victims of trafficking and several other issues, so it is quite natural that they couldn’t keep their documents along. When the first draft of NRC was released in 2018, more than 200 sex workers of the Silchar redlight area could not find their names in the list. Many of them got names enlisted in the final draft after they went home, met the families to find the family trees.
Unlike Silchar, brothel inmates in various parts of the country, including Sonagachi brothel in Kolkata, have been given voter identity cards and Aadhaar cards by the government. There are several unions of sex workers in West Bengal and other states which are fighting for their rights and protection. But in Silchar, there is no such union that can raise demand for these sex workers.
There is anger among locals about this redlight area in the middle of the town. In the past, several attempts were made to remove it but somehow the attempts were not successful. Sometimes, the women, especially the young ones, try to escape but they end up getting caught.
Social activist and advocate Tuhina Sharma is one of the strongest voices of these ladies. With the help of Lions Club Silchar Central and other NGOs, she distributes sanitary pads, sanitizers, condoms and contraceptives among these sex workers. She also helps the inmates get voter identity cards and other documents so that their names get mentioned in the administrative records.
She said, “These women are mostly victims of violence and injustice, they are vulnerable for various reasons. First, we need to ensure that they have a registered identity. After that comes hygiene and safety. As per the records, we know, around 450 women from this place have voting rights. We have heard that some candidates have come here to ask for the voting process. Both the Congress and BJP in their manifestos have said that ladies will get some financial benefits. I want to ask both the parties if these sex workers will get the advantage?”
During the lockdown, the area was shut for almost a year. Various NGOs and some officers from Cachar police extended their support to these ladies. Food, sanitizer, mask, clothes and medicines were sent to these sex workers. Some NGOs, with the help of the health department, conduct monthly HIV test drives. Now, Covid-19 tests are being conducted regularly.