The Troubling Case of Shweta Basu
Shweta had won the National Award in 2002 for the best child artiste for her role in Makdee
The struggling actress was caught in a police raid on an alleged prostitution racket 3 months ago.

On Tuesday the Mumbai Mirror’s cover story was an interview of Shweta Basu-Prasad. She is an award-winning actress. She won the National Award in 2002 for the best child artiste for her role in Makdee. She also won several awards for her remarkable role as the sister of the lead character, in the 2005 film Iqbal. She has had a successful career in films and television across four languages. But the Mirror interview was not really about her acting career.

Shweta is in the limelight because three months ago she was caught in a police raid on an alleged prostitution racket. On a tip-off, the Hyderabad police planted a decoy customer, who paid an “agent” some advance money. Based on this tip-off and payment, the police raided the hotel where Shweta was staying, and “rescued” her. She was sent to a rescue home for six months. Her mother intervened through a court order, and Shweta was released in two months.

There are many troubling aspects to this case. Firstly, was Shweta being arrested or was she being rescued? If arrested, should she not be formally charged with a crime? What was her crime? Soliciting for sex? Prostitution? But prostitution has two sides, a buyer and seller of sex. You can’t just arrest one side of the transaction. Where was the buyer? How come no arrest of buyers? Was she alone in the hotel room? Most often women are coerced into prostitution, either due to economic circumstance or threats of violence. There are stories galore of the exploitative “casting couch” in the film industry.

Here too the woman is participating not by choice, but by coercion. Recognizing this asymmetry and inequality, Sweden criminalized only paying for sex, and decriminalized the prostitute in 1999. This law was fully adopted in Norway and Iceland, and partially by UK, Israel, France, Korea and Finland. Freed from the shadows of illegality, prostitutes pay taxes, get health insurance coverage, and get legal protection from pimps under such Swedish type legislation. But in India, as illustrated by Shweta’s case the shame is only on the prostitute (assuming this is what she was charged with).

If Shweta was not arrested, then she was rescued. Which means that she is really a victim. Then she should be entitled to her privacy and anonymity. For instance, the law prohibits anyone from disclosing the identity of a rape victim. The penalty for disclosure, even accidental and unintentional disclosure is imprisonment. Even after death, Nirbhaya’s identity is protected. By contrast, Shweta’s name, as well as details about her life, how much she allegedly “charged” have all been happily broadcast by all (including the police). To this day we do not know anything about the “pimp” or all those paying customers. They have all evaporated, or did not exist. As a victim she deserves full protection of anonymity, and all the support that survivors get. Thankfully many prominent citizens, film actors and others came out strongly in her support. But the social stigma of having been caught in a police raid will never go away. This is most troubling, that someone who is a victim has to hide her face in shame. And those who exploited her enjoy immunity from the law and the spotlight.

Another troubling aspect arising out of Shweta’s case is how we treat victimless crime. In a recent insightful article, the author Amit Varma writes that selling sex (if not by coercion) is similar to selling other services. Like manual labour, or software writing skills or tutoring. If you can accept money for those services, then surely there’s nothing wrong with selling sex out of one’s own free choice (so long as it does not harm anyone else). This is an extreme libertarian view, which you don’t have to agree with. But it’s clear that Shweta has committed a victimless crime, or is a victim. By awarding her shame and stigma, we as society have done her a grave injustice.