Illegality: Translation

From the Series: Illegality

Photo by Patrick Pierre.

When I went to interview an anti-trafficking police officer at a bustling police station in Kolkata, she was trying to console a woman who sat sobbing loudly on the floor of her office. The police officer explained to me that the woman had been arrested as a suspected trafficker (wrongly, she added). The woman and her husband were intercepted at the railway station as they were about to take a group of girls (some underage) to work as maids in New Delhi. The couple and the girls came from a cyclone-affected region in West Bengal. The police officer had sent a team to Delhi to investigate, and learned that the couple was working with a maid placement agency, and had placed the girls in “good homes.” Sensing my barely-masked surprise at her evident sympathy for the alleged traffickers, she went on to say, “Come on, you are Indian, you can understand—these people are poor and illiterate, they have been affected by Cyclone Aila... After all, they are helping the girls get jobs. Poverty is the cause for all this; until you generate employment, no rules or Acts can stop this.” She emphasized that this situation was different from “immoral” trafficking where girls were forced into prostitution and should be rescued. “You have to be a little open-minded,” she told me [Excerpt from my field notes, July 2010].

At a different fieldwork moment in 2012, a police officer in New Delhi was annoyed at being sent to rescue young, unpaid domestic workers, pointing out that their situation was better than “those girls in G.B. Road (New Delhi’s red light area).” Both interlocutors thus indicated their willingness to respond to sex trafficking over situations that might entail labor trafficking or labor exploitation. Their assumptions were often at odds with anti-trafficking NGOs that urged them to arrest or rescue people, based on their own translations between donor-driven global humanitarian agendas and Indian laws on labor and prostitution. These moments illuminate the multiple registers of translation shaping the work of those directly responding to a potentially illegal situation. They show how institutional actors decide who should be arrested, who should be rescued, and who can be left alone, bringing various cultural, legal and “common sense” frameworks to bear on their decisions.1 In my first example, the police officer drew a distinction between what she assumed to be my globally mediated understanding of labor trafficking as illegal, and her own knowledge (that I ought also to have), of the socio-economic exigencies that poor rural migrant labor face. She implied that “an Indian” would inherently have a different understanding of the relationship between poverty, migration and trafficking than what global anti-trafficking campaigns assume.2

Both police officers also mapped their perceptions of illegality on to anxieties about immorality. They invoked a moral framework wherein ending up as domestic labor appears a better situation than ending up in a brothel, even if the means by which someone was brought into either situation could be similar. “Immoral” trafficking into prostitution was deemed more worthy of intervention than what might potentially be labor trafficking.

In my research on how state institutions and NGOs respond to sex trafficking in India, the concept of illegality was inextricably entwined with that of immorality. An unsurprising coupling, but one through which the ethnographer can tease out myriad ways in which illegality is perceived and acted upon through a hierarchy of moral concerns. For instance, “immoral traffic” directly references the title of India’s federal legislation that deals with commercial sexual exploitation and not other possible forms of trafficking.3

In his robust Provocation, Daniel Goldstein ponders what the self-appellation of “illegal people” as illegal might mean. It is also productive to observe the appellative logics of those who “illegalize” (see Heyman 2013, 304). Ethnography in institutional sites and processes allow us to witness moments when the legal and illegal, the victim and the criminal are not so easily distinguished. As Srimati Basu puts it, “translation can only be seen as seamless if the unruly moments which struggle to fit within legal discourse are invisible” (2010, 376). This becomes especially pertinent vis-à-vis migrants, who easily slip through “discursive gaps and challenges” (Agustin 2007, 5). Those whom otherwise punitive immigration regimes would regard as deportable can be designated victims of trafficking, gender violence or illness (Brennan 2014; Ticktin 2011), and those initially rescued as victims of trafficking may be adjudged illegal immigrants (O’Connell Davidson 2006, 16).

A judicial officer in Mumbai spoke to this point while articulating the following conundrum. She explained that previously, Bangladeshi women in Mumbai’s sex trade were apprehended as illegal immigrants. With anti-trafficking NGOs conducting more rescues, state agents were directed to consider whether they could be victims of trafficking. But she was puzzled by women who crossed the border multiple times. “Such women who come again and again are not victims. Maybe the first time they were victims.” In her view, crossing the border more than once without documents probably entailed some knowledge or consent, making it a punishable offense. She added, “I am quite sure when she comes back next time, she brings another girl. So now this woman might be a trafficker.” Explaining how she arrived at this perspective, she first cited a government document on cross-border trafficking, and then a judgment of the Gauhati High Court on illegal immigration which, I read later, expresses explicit anxieties about the “cancerous growth of Bangladeshis crossing the border.”4 The legal repertoire of those tasked with “processing” the undocumented can thus be shaped by mixed sociopolitical messages, translated into perceptions of victimhood or criminality.

That experiences, narratives and situations cannot be easily or adequately translated into the fixity of categories is Anthropology 101. And yet, translate some of our interlocutors must, with all the inevitable fissures, tensions and omissions their acts entail. How can we make the most of our craft to move beyond unraveling and critiquing their assumptions and practices, towards deeper forays into their social worlds and frames of reference?


1. Mariana Valverde (2003) urges socio-legal scholars to take seriously the “commonsense, job-based knowledge” of “lowly” officials as they seek and produce legal truths.

2. On the vexed relationship that global anti-trafficking discourses have with poverty and migration, see Shah (2007).

3. India adopted the UN Protocol’s broader definition of human trafficking into its criminal law in 2013. See Prabha Kotiswaran’s discussion at

4. Judgment of the Gauhati High Court in the case of Mustt Sarabari Begum @ Syera vs. State of Assam & Ors on July 25, 2008.


Agustin, Laura. 2007. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets, and the Rescue Industry. New York: Zed Books.

Basu, Srimati. 2011. "Impossible Translation: Beyond the Legal Body in Two South Asian Family Courts." Law, Culture and Humanities 7, no. 3: 358–75.

Brennan, Denise. 2014. Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Heyman, Josiah McC. 2013. "The Study of Illegality and Legality: Which Way Forward?" Political and Legal Anthropology Review 36, no. 2: 304–6.

Kotiswaran, Prabha. 2013. "A Battle Half-Won: India’s New Anti-Trafficking Law." Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking.

O’Connell Davidson, Julia. 2006. "Will the Real Sex Slave Please Stand Up?" Feminist Review 83:4–22.

Shah, Svati P. 2007. "Distinguishing Poverty and Trafficking: Lessons from Field Research in Mumbai." Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy 14, no. 3: 441–54.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Valverde, Mariana. 2003. Law’s Dream of a Common Knowledge: The Cultural Lives of Law. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.