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Dr. Smarajit Jana will be remembered for the thousands of lives he touched, and we join in the grief of his passing. 

Dr. Jana was one of CREA’s most important teachers. Through many patient and wise conversations, he brought us into so much of our thinking on sex workers’ lives and rights. 

Dr. Jana was a champion for structurally excluded women. He has been a visionary voice for stigmatized people for over 25 years. He had a major role in the formation of the unique collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), which CREA visited, learned from, and partnered with for years. With his astute support, sex workers of West Bengal became forceful advocates, demanding their rights to health, education, financial independence, work, pleasure, and lives free of violence. 

Dr. Jana had a gift for bringing people in, encouraging them to learn and, most importantly, to listen. Though he was such a founding and quiet guiding force at DMSC, he never inserted himself. He saw that sex workers were their own advocates. He treated everyone with respect, regardless of age, experience, or work.

CREA was fortunate to be guided by Dr. Jana for so many years. We recognize that much of the genesis of self-led moments likely emerged from DMSC’s pivotal example.

His passing leaves us deeply saddened and we send our heartfelt condolences to his family and all those he inspired. We will continue to grieve the loss of his mentorship and friendship even while we continue the advocacy that he taught us so much about: sex work is work.

Thank you, Dr. Jana. Rest in Power.

-CREA Staff (10 May 2021)

Smarajit Jana – A Tribute

By Srilatha Batliwala

A great soul has departed this world, but his imprint will live on, in the hearts and minds of thousands of Calcutta’s poorest, most stigmatized women and their families, whose reality he helped transform. His name was Smarajit Jana, and he was my friend.

I first met Smarajit-Da, as I used to call him, sometime in the late 1970s, when I was working with the Foundation for Research in Community Health and was active in what was then known as the “Medico Friends Circle”. This was a group of doctors and other health activists committed to democratizing access to health care, especially in rural areas. Such greats as Anant Phadke, Abhay Bang, Amar Jesani, and Smarajit Jana were its prime movers. It was an entirely voluntary network, and we would convene once a year in one or the other community health project area, and hotly debate the big public health issues of the day.

What I remember so clearly about Smarajit-Da was that like any classic Bengali, he loved a good argument, the more polemic the better, but however he strongly disagreed with you, at the end of the day, he would put a brotherly arm on your shoulder and say, with no rancor whatsoever, “Good debate, haan?” A beautiful, warm smile would accompany those words, making you completely forget that he had trashed your own position in that debate just an hour earlier!

Our paths diverged after I left the community health arena and began working with the pavement and slum dweller women in Bombay, and we did not reconnect again for nearly three decades. During this time, what Smarajit-Da had done became legendary. While researching and developing a pathbreaking HIV-prevention program in the poorest settlements of Kolkata, he took the radical step of inducting sex workers as peer educators and outreach workers, and soon realized that regardless of this awareness-building work, sex workers were unable to access HIV or other health services and act on the information they received, due to police raids, extortion by local goons, and the biases of the health care providers.

The peer educators and outreach workers’ discussions of this reality, with Dr. Jana’s critical insights, led to the realization that a different approach was needed – one that empowered sex workers at the individual and community level to go beyond health issues and organize themselves as a strong and vocal group, a political force. Thus the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) was formed in 1995. “Durbar” is a Bengali word that means unbeatable or unstoppable.

Beginning in the Sonagachi area – one of the largest red light areas in the country at that time – the DMSC activists began organizing sex workers across the city, raising awareness of their rights, building their individual and collective self-esteem. They challenged the “fallen women” image of sex workers and the “moral-immoral” binary and confronted the exploitation and social discrimination they faced. Perhaps most importantly, they began to reframe their struggle as workers and citizens, who should receive the same rights (such as voting in elections) and benefits.

Smarajit-Da would be the last person to seek any personal credit for these radical shifts or extraordinary achievements – but the sex workers themselves would have no hesitation in acknowledging the critical role he played in all these processes. His unswaying support, his sharp analytical mind, his political astuteness, and his loving generosity of spirit and support were all essential, if intangible, ways in which he contributed to building this powerful movement. To me, he has always symbolized the power of leading from the back – never claiming centre-stage, never seizing power or voice for himself, but always there, guiding with love, clarity, and conviction.

Nor did he stop with embracing the generally unpopular cause of recognizing and decriminalizing sex work – he was equally engaged in supporting LGBTQI groups – indeed any person who was systemically excluded, stigmatized and criminalized by virtue of their identity, their sexual expression, their economic status, or the work they chose to do. And DMSC itself went on, with his support, to connect with the movements of unorganized sector women workers in India, to form the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), and to lead the formation of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), with sex workers networks from Thailand, Japan, Philippines, Bangladesh, New Zealand and many other countries. He was thus a much-respected figure in many global spaces.

It was sometime around 2015 that Smarajit-Da and I reconnected when I was working with AWID, and we were putting together a set of “movement stories” for an upcoming AWID Forum. Smarajit- Da and DMSC were among the very first movements that I reached out to and he was delighted to reactivate our dormant but long-standing friendship. He seized the idea of creating a short, easily-accessible and readable version of DMSC’s history, vision of social justice, mission, achievements and challenges, and said, with touching faith, “And Srilatha, I know you will write this fittingly! You are someone who understands our politics and all its subtleties!”

I remember with some amusement that he deluged me with emails and material for writing the story – articles, presentations, videos – until I felt almost sure that I would never be able to separate the woods from the trees. Finally, I struggled through the clutter and created a 10-slide profile of the movement that he thoroughly and enthusiastically approved. When we next met in person, at a CREA meeting sometime in 2017 or 2018, he embraced me warmly and told me he had shared that capsule history with hundreds of people – “It is now the official short history of DMSC, Srilatha – DMSC leaders are so happy!!” We spent many evening hours reminiscing about the old community health days, and all the leading lights of the community health movement that we had the privilege of knowing and working with.

It is a cruel irony that this precious human being, who still had so much to give, was a member of the ICMR National Task Force on COVID-19, and yet became one of its victims. An irony also that he and his team had strongly fought to enable sex workers to vote in large numbers in the recent West Bengal elections, through their sustained advocacy over a decade, and yet the events held around that very election created the huge surge in infections that overcame him. But even as I rage at this unjust fate, I know he would probably smile, shrug philosophically and tell me that no one person matters, it is the movement that must not die!

I can feel him now, from wherever his soul has reached, wishing us all well, urging us to keep the struggle alive, and sending us the strength and courage to do so.

Godspeed, Smarajit-Da – smile upon us from your new abode.