Transgenders are misunderstood, mistreated and considered misfits. Will that ever change?
It’s five in the morning in Kolkata. The morning calm hasn’t yet been broken. The tea stalls have a steady stream of visitors enjoying their hot cuppa. The chirping of the birds and the cool breeze after heavy showers have turned the weather cool and pleasant.
But Neha Mukherjee has no time to soak in the present as she sprints to catch the suburban train approaching the Serampore station in Hooghly district of West Bengal. The 26-year-old cannot afford to miss the train. It could even cost her the entire day’s income if she fails to board the Howrah bound EMU that is pulling into the station.
Draped in a salwar-kameez and a black dupatta, she wears dark glasses and lights a cigarette. She boards the train and begins her job: seeking alms from the passengers. Neha is a transgender who earns her living by begging in trains. She has been following this routine for 14 years.
She often travels to the neighbouring states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to do ‘launda’ dance that is performed by transgender women during marriages and other social gatherings. She has no other choice as she has to feed the hungry stomachs of her family, which includes her parents and two sisters.
Sexual assaults and torture by men are common but that hardly bothers her. She is aware of the bitter truth that the transgender community remains a butt of joke for cops who seem to take pride in shooing them away.
Neha is not alone. The transgender and hijra community in West Bengal has to encounter the same humiliation and agony in everyday life due to the apathy of successive governments.
The West Bengal government had announced the formation of a Transgender Development Board in March 2015 with an aim to look into the needs of the community that is deprived of education, employment, healthcare facilities and survives mainly by begging on the streets and trains.
The board comprised 12 members and representatives from various transgender communities, with women and child development minister Sashi Panja as its chairman.
Claiming that the board was the first of its kind in the country, the minister had then announced that the board would hand out identity cards, look after their health and education and ensure overall development.
Other states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have transgender development bodies, but those are meant for welfare and not development, Panja had then said.
More than two years have passed since the board came into existence, but the community members say that nothing noticeable has been done to change their lives as they continue to be treated like pariahs by society.
Worse, the board, which was required to meet once in a month, held only 13 meetings in the past 24 months.
Ranjita Sinha, a board member who also runs the non-profit Association for Transgender/Hijra in Bengal (ATHB), says that the problems cannot be resolved merely by forming the board and holding sporadic meetings.
“The disparity is more in rural than in urban areas where it is almost impossible for a community member to raise his/her voice because of the social hierarchy. It is very necessary to have such development boards at the district level too where the transgender can go if he/she faces any problem.
Moreover, school curriculum should include a chapter of their rights in order to the change the mindset from the grassroots level. A cosmetic approach coupled with lip service and lofty speeches will not address the problem.”
Her anger is not without reason, as the state doesn’t even have an authentic figure for the population of ‘Others’ in West Bengal. The 2011 Census had pegged their number at 30,349. But those working with the community believe that over one lakh transgenders and hijras live in the state.
“The census is unrealistic as the population is much more than what is being depicted in the government records. During the Census, we had asked the government to take a member of the community along with them as they would be in a better position to identify the ‘others’ in a family. The government officials refused to listen to us and the census proved to be completely bogus,” said Aparna Banerjee, who runs Samarth, a non-profit for the community.
She cites the instance of her adopted daughter, Sohini Boral, to highlight the perspective of parents.
Sohini, a trans-woman who aims to become a lawyer and a model, says that her parents had initially tried to protect her identity by all means. Yet, she was later shown the door.
“I was born as a boy, but was psychologically a female and loved to dress like a woman. My father, an engineer, was worried about his prestige in society and tried to conceal my real identity by all means, but one fine day he threw me out when I started to go out in a female attire,” says Sohini, who is preparing for her Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) exams. For the past four years, she has been staying with Aparna and also looks after her non-profit.
A transgender, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fumed: “The doctors and other medical staff consider us as their favourite pastime and love to crack jokes. They even refuse to grant us admission, stating that there are no separate facilities for us in the hospitals. They are hardly aware of our health ailments. The attitude of the cops is no different as they refuse to write our complaints.
“We dance on occasions like marriages and child births. There are punishment for rapes and sexual assaults in the law, but what about us? We continue to face physical and mental torture at every level of the society but have to bear everything silently, as nobody takes us seriously. It is even difficult to change our gender status mentioned in the birth certificate. The board, which could have taken up these issues, has maintained silence so far. We hardly have any hopes from the board. It seems to be another ploy to gobble the funds sanctioned for us,” added the transgender.
The state government has, however, recently announced the building of public toilets for transgenders in the state capital. Community members feel that the priority should be to look into their health, education and employment issues in order to mainstream them in the society.
Minister Sashi Panja, however, is satisfied with the working of the board for transgenders.
“We are doing our best to address their grievances. The priority is to build separate toilets for them as they face problems while using ladies and gents toilets in public places and are often turned away. All the issues would be sorted one by one. Funds are also a constraint for us. But the government is serious about them.”
It is not all gloomy. There is hope too.
Shree Ghatak Muhuri, a 30-year-old theatre artist, became the first transgender woman in West Bengal to get legally married.
She had socially married long-time partner Sanjay Muhuri in a traditional Bengali wedding last year. The couple, however, got their marriage legally registered in February this year.
Ghatak underwent sex reassignment surgery in 2015, and took up the name Shree. Before that, especially during childhood, Ghatak recalls being mocked. Her husband too had to face ridicule for being in a relationship with a trans-woman.
“Initially, our families were very much opposed to us getting married. They were worried about what people would say. But once I underwent the surgery, my in-laws welcomed me with open arms,” she said, looking visibly excited about starting her new life.
Manabi Bandopadhyay, who shattered stereotypes and went on to become India’s first transgender college principal, has led a challenging life. She is also the vice-chairperson of the transgender development board.
Manabi took over as principal of Krishnangar Women’s College in West Bengal’s Nadia in 2015. She faced lack of cooperation from some staff members and students and resigned as the college principal in 2016. She had to continue as the state government refused to accept her resignation.
Born as Somnath Banerjee, she underwent surgery in 2003 to embrace feminity. She then took up a new name, Manabi, which means “beautiful woman” in Bengali.
Raina Roy, who is trying to create awareness among the community in rural Bengal through her organisation Samabhabona, says that a slight change is visible in the mindset of the people. She adds that a complete transformation will take time.
“We organise street shows along with college and university students to create awareness among people. They are responding towards our rights, but it is a time-consuming process. Everything cannot be changed overnight.”
As dusk begins to envelop the sky, Neha alights from a train and walks back to her dingy house. She is tired and refuses to discuss anything on the subject. “I have to wake up early tomorrow to catch the train. I would certainly talk on the day when promises translate into actions,” she says as the sky opens up.
(The article appears in the June 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)