A Step Forward for LGBTs in India?

3 Aug

Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay now heads the Krishnagar Women’s College in , Nadia District, West Bengal, INDIA.

Dr Rina Mukherji, Kolkata, INDIA

For the first time ever, a transgender academician –Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay- has taken over as Principal  of the Krishnagar Women’s College in , Nadia District, West Bengal, INDIA.  Dr Manabi Bandyopadhyay is the  first transgender person in India  to have completed a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and worked as a professor.

Bandyopadhyay had earlier worked as Associate Professor in Bengali at Vivekananda Satobarshiki Mahavidyalaya ( Vivekanada Centenary College) in Jhargram, Midnapore District . But notwithstanding her qualifications, leaders of the student union and other lecturers  at the college took umbrage at her ambiguous identity, and humiliated and threw her out of her job in the ‘90s. At home, as a woman trapped in a man’s body, she was subject to the taunts of her father and other family members. Ultimately, a sex-change operation in 2003 paved the way to a new identity, and a better life.

However, when she got married to a businessman as per Hindu rituals, the landlord of the house they lived in, locked them out. Her husband was taken away by his parents, and she was accused of being a “ witch” and an anti-social abuser of children. The police only stood by, while her house was attacked.  Ultimately, she had to take her case up to the state human rights commission to get justice.

Yet, she has remained outspoken, both in her personal life, as also in her writings. She has even authored a best-selling novel-“ Endless Bondage, “ on eunuchs, besides being a poet.

A brilliant student, and excellent academician, Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay took charge as Principal of Krishnagar Women’s College on June 7, 2015.

Her appointment as India’s first openly transgender Principal comes close on the heels of the upper house of the Indian Parliament having passed a bill for transgender rights. The bill was passed by consensus vote through the initiative of Tiruchi Siva, who had moved it in his capacity as a private  member.

A year ago, in April 2014, the Supreme Court of India, recognized transgenders as a third sex, following a public interest litigation filed by NALSA,  and other prominent civil society groups. This historic judgement, recognizing trangenders , that is eunuchs as educationally  and economically backward, called on states to construct public toilets for them, in keeping with their medical needs, and called for reservation in jobs and education on the lines enjoyed by  other backward castes.

However, does this mean that the social ridicule, and exploitation transgenders face in India will end forthwith?

One is not sure. The condition of transgenders is aptly summed up by the name Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay has chosen for India’s first magazine for transgenders  that she has been bringing out-“ Ob—manab” ( Sub-human)

Transgenders, or those who are born male or female, with ambiguous sexual organs, or those who are male, and dress up as females by choice, or those who are born male, and get castrated to go around as female, face a tough life in India. Many, who undergo modern sex-change surgery, face problems since a sex-change makes it difficult to get a valid passport.

Even otherwise, the transgender, or hijra-that is, eunuch, was never accepted as a “ he” or “she.” Many demanded to be classified as “ she,” but that was not accepted.

With this step, a lot is bound to change, at least , legally.  As advocate and human rights activist Ambalika Roy, who has been working on this issue through her organisation, Centre for legal  Aid & Rights, tells me, “As per the judgment ( of the Supreme  Court) a transgender may choose his/her gender based on self declaration. The Apex court has also directed the concerned departments to take necessary action for guaranteeing a transgender’s right to identity. However in practice we do find many facing problems in changing their identity cards as the personnel in respective departments remain unaware of the change in law. Besides, each department follows a different process for changing of identity cards.

We- as an organization ( Center for Legal Aid and Rights)-and a petitioner in the case that brought forth the landmark judgement, have been part of the expert committee formed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for Transgender issues..

At the moment, a uniform process for changing documents is needed, besides greater awareness on the processes involved.  The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has already formed an inter-ministerial committee for this.”

However, she concedes, “ it will be useful to take up individual cases before the Court for apt interpretation on various aspects of the judgment.”

Notwithstanding the legal safeguards and assurance to the transgender community, the issuance of passports remains a prickly issue in a world battling terrorism. A male who has had a sex- change operation to become a female or vice versa faces an uphill battle wherein a new identity that overlaps the old can be suspect. Often, notwithstanding this judgement, transgender individuals can be denied passports and travel documents, making matters difficult for them as citizens.

Ms Roy, however, finds this ridiculous. “There are specific international guidelines like Standards of Care (Harry Benjamin guidelines on transgenderism) which are followed medically to ascertain whether a person is a transgender or not. Proper security measures can be taken to check out whether the change of identity has been effected with an ulterior motive. The Ministry of External Affairs can then verify about the changed gender before granting him/her a new passport.”

Although she is right on the legal aspects, bureaucratic red-tapism and ignorance continue to deny transgenders their rights as equal citizens in the world’s largest democracy.

Socially, eunuchs continue to be shunned. Generally denied education, they end up making a living by begging, or operating as pimps in red-light areas. Many indulge in dangerous sexual (MSM ) practices , and can end up terminally ill.

Traditionally, in India, eunuchs are  invited to sing and dance whenever a child is  born in a family,  or during the christening  ( namkaran) ceremonies. This is when they receive generous gifts and cash. But otherwise, they have few options to earn a living.

Eunuchs or hijras live in communities, or groups, presided over by a guru ( teacher/leader).

Many who live in these communities, though, may not be natural hermaphrodites, but actually homosexuals or those who feel trapped in male bodies. Such individuals willingly get castrated and become part of these communities.  Today, many see these gurus as having a vested interest in preventing  transgender individuals getting educated, and living independent , self-sufficient lives, since this is bound to affect their hold on the groups they command and preside over.

Meanwhile, Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay has also taken charge as Vice-chairman of the Transgender Development Board in the state of West Bengal. Among other things, the Board is slated to look into matters relating to sex reassignment surgery. Dr Bandopadhyay’s elevation and the apex Court’s order has seen also  other major changes in this eastern state.  Kolkata’s Presidency University and Jadavpur University have already made changes in their admission forms this year for inclusion of the third gender.

These are but first baby steps for now; one only hopes the new law opens several new vistas for these unfortunate individuals and helps them live fuller lives through education and better employment opportunities. One can be sure, then, to have many more Manabi Bandopadhyays in the near future!

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