Hierarchies of morality were used by the British to justify colonial intervention across India. By depicting Indians as ‘immoral’, the state further entrenched binaries between the colonized and the colonizer. Such entrenchment paved the way for Western thought to be dominated by the perception of empire as a civilizing mission. Prostitution enabled imperialists to portray empire as a mission of civilisation. The colonial administration projected sexual deviance onto virtually all Indian women, regardless of their caste, class, and self-identification. This had huge implications for British rule, as the mission to control Indian women spread into a mission to control Indian society.
This logic is exemplified by both the emphasis the regime placed on venereal disease, and the passing of the 1868 Contagious Diseases Act. Labelled as prostitutes, Indian women were blamed for the spread of venereal disease. The creation of moral panic over phenomena enabled Britain to expand its control through legislation. The Contagious Diseases Act, despite being framed as a moral policy aiming to protect public health, subjected women to strict and invasive policies. It authorised arrests of women suspected of prostitution, requiring them to undergo genital exams. It confined diseased women in hospitals where they were forced to stay to ‘recover’. Sentences could initially be up to three months, yet this quickly increased to one year. This act also enabled the surveillance of women in bazaars, which were regarded as areas of prostitution. Such surveillance demonstrates how the state used narratives surrounding prostitution and morality to repress and survey Indian women. Ultimately, the sexual health discourse was an imperial method of strengthening control.
Partha Chatterjee – a prominent political scientist – proposed a theoretical framework which conceptualised colonial and post-colonial histories. This framework helps one understand how moral hierarchies were used to further British control in India. He clarified that upper-caste Hindu males divided society into outer and inner domains, those in the latter were subject to colonial intervention. Within this framework, Chatterjee argued women belonged to the inner sphere, and if such women stayed out of British control, India was never have truly colonised. His framework politicised the female Indian body, therefore, highlighting how the body was a topic of debate between the British and Indian patriarchs. This reinforces the idea that British colonisers used narratives of morality and prostitution as forms of control.
Morality and prostitution were central narratives of both colonial intervention and the control of Indian women. By projecting immorality and prostitution onto women, Britain could not only portray imperialism as a ‘moralising mission’, but further its control over women. As demonstrated by Chatterjee, this narrative impacted governance in India by revealing how the regulation of female bodies played a central role in the empire.