On 1 May 1958, a young woman was an unusual cynosure of all eyes in a courtroom in the north Indian city of Allahabad.
Husna Bai, a 24-year-old woman, told Judge Jagdish Sahai that she was a prostitute.
Invoking the constitution, she had filed a petition challenging the validity of a new law to ban trafficking in human bodies.
By striking at her means of livelihood, Bai argued, the new law had “frustrated the purpose of the welfare state established by the Constitution in the country”.
It was an act of radical public defiance by a poor Muslim prostitute. She had forced the judges to look at women on the street at a time when life in India had excluded prostitutes from civil society.
Their numbers – 28,000 in 1951, down from 54,000, according to official records – had dwindled, as had public support for them. When prostitutes offered donations to the Congress party, Mahatma Gandhi refused and told them to take up spinning instead. All this despite the fact that they were among the few groups of people who were allowed to vote because they earned money, paid taxes and owned property.
Not much is known about Husna Bai’s personal life – and a search of the archives turned up no photographs – apart from the fact that she lived with her female cousin and two younger brothers who were dependent on her earnings.
But the largely forgotten story of her struggle for the right to ply her trade is part of an engrossing new book by Yale University historian Rohit De.