India is a diverse country, not only in terms of ethnicity, but sexuality as well. The transgender community has always been a part of India’s culture. We can find their prominent mentions in the ancient literatures and their existence in mythical narratives – which only goes on to prove that they were very much a part of Indian society for as long as the country has witnessed civilization.
In India, transgender people are together grouped under the ‘third gender’ along with other categories like intersex, transsexual, transvestite and others. The community is collectively referred to as the Hijra community. The term has often been used in a derogatory sense, to insult, to mock or to hurt someone’s feelings.
In this article, we have tried to paint a picture of the past and the present – to understand how from holding important statures, they became a marginalized community before society started to re-recognise them again, gradually.
History and legend
The religious texts and pantheons of Indian culture have multiple references to the existence of a vast and quite influential third gender community. Kama Sutra and other Vedic and puranic texts call them ‘tritiya prakriti’ – which means conforming to any gender identity, inside or on the outside, other than the binary male and female. They also recognise the psychological makeup of a person’s sexuality, which is the very basis of being a transgender person. We can see carvings or stucco figures on the walls of the ancient temples that represent the third gender as well.
The ritual where transgender people bless newly marrieds or new-born babies is said to have started in the Hindu epic Ramayana. The story goes, that when Rama asked his followers, the ‘men and women’ to leave him when he got exiled for 14 years, it is the hijras that did not leave his side. Impressed with their devotion, Lord Rama bestowed upon the power to bless others on auspicious occasions as such.
Mahabharata too includes the community. In fact one of the main characters, Shikhandi – the one responsible for the demise of Bhisma, was a transgender person. She had a male’s body but had the mind of a female, of her previous incarnation of Amba.
Source: http://www.devdutt.com by Devdutt Pattanaik
Hindu mythology identifies Goddess Bahuchara Mata as the patroness of the third gender community. The deity of Ardhanarishwar, where the progenitor of the cosmos, Shakti and the destroyer of the same, Shiva are merged into one single body, with both masculine and feminine qualities in equals.
During the Mughal period, eunuchs, transvestites or transsexuals used to hold high positions in the court and acted as the king’s or queen’s close companions and advisors. They were considered as loyal, trustworthy people and were entrusted with protecting artillery, religious shrines or women’s quarters. They often had free access to all parts of a palace or fortress. We can see examples of that in movies like Jodhaa Akbar.
It is during the British imperialism that their position in the society started to become \marginalized. Starting from the colonial era of mid-1800s, they were not only denied of lands, homes, education and jobs, they were facing discriminatory hate and violence. The Criminals Tribes Act, 1871 was the final nail, which criminalized the hijra community on the basis of their lifestyle.
Though the British left us long ago, it took us many, many years to try and give them back the status they deserved in the society or had many centuries ago. Up until the last couple of decades, they were still vehemently discriminated against. People used to disrespect them for performing in public for money, but did not address the fact that they had no other means of livelihood because no one employed the third gender.
In post-independence era, the Article 14 (equal rights to law), Article 15 (no discrimination on the grounds of race, caste, religion, sex or place of birth), the Fundamental Rights of Article 19 and freedom to have personal liberty by Article 21 of the constitution ideally includes the transgender people too. But that has not been practised largely.
At present, the situation is much better than what it was. Several state and central policies, along with Supreme Court rulings have made comparatively safer spaces for the community.
The 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017)
The 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) proposed to empower the third gender by offering them housing facility, employment, skill development opportunities, general education, healthcare and legal services and overall social recognition. Including the column of third gender in any government or non-government document that requires personal information.
C.S. Dwarkanath Backward Classes Commission of 2010
The commission recommended including the third gender under the OBC category so that they can access the governmental benefits.
Peoples Union for Civil Liberties
The report recommended that at “Civil rights under law such as the right to get a passport, ration card, make a will, inherit property and adopting children must be available to all regardless of change in their gender”.
Rights of Transgender Persons Bills, 2014
A private member’s bill named ‘Rights of Transgender Persons Bills, 2014’ was passed by the Rajya Sabha and introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 which includes several other aspects of social inclusion, employment issues, workplace rights, compensation, discrimination and exploitation. However this bill is yet pending in the lower house.
There has been some other suggestions of bills and recommendations for amendments that popped up, but none of it could actually define the concept properly and neither could they holistically solve the issue in every aspect. So as of yet, there are no law that unanimously practices transgender laws across the country.
Source: Human Rights Watch
However, in the last few years, transgenders have been employed in government and private sectors, they have had access to better education and healthcare, they have had their voices better represented across platforms, they were cast as actors and models in mainstream media and they even had a safe and peaceful chance to cast vote with their legitimate voter’s ID.
It is mostly the south Indian states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka that have contributed a lion’s share towards the overall development and empowerment of the transgender community.
We will talk about the different occasions when these states scored a win for the trans-community in our next blog. It will open up a discussion for what the present should look like everywhere in India, and what the future might have in store.