A people, historically othered, never recognised as individuals, discriminated against, kept outside of society, were finally acknowledged as worthy of rights by the Supreme Court in 2014. Here, one speaks of the broadly categorised 'transgender' community in India.
A year after the establishment of their right to an identity, the Rajya Sabha passed a private members bill drafted by the office of MP Tiruchi Siva to further introduce protection of trans rights.
The conversation seemed to finally be moving forward, especially with the National Legal Services Authority vs. Union of India judgment (NALSA judgement), that is, until The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016 came into being.
This Bill, which stands to be introduced in the Lok Sabha and is currently pending before the Standing Committee, is, as a group of transgender and Hijra voices point out, "seriously problematic".
This is so because a lot of these voices were not consulted for the drafting of the Bill and as one of them said, "bas NGOs ko poocha hai sarkar ne. Community se kisi ne baat nahi ki." (The government consulted with the NGOs and not our community.)
Two bills, two interests
While the original Bill was sensitive to the right of a person to identify themselves as "man", "woman" or "transgender", the current one sees in binaries.
This is to say that while the original Bill would have accommodated the need for a man born as a woman to be identified as a "man" or a "transgender", depending upon their preference, the new Bill only allows for "transgender".
Not only does the Bill reject any claim for a 'transperson' to identify themselves as male/female, it further breaks down what a transgender person is, albeit rather problematically.
The Bill assumes that transgenders are, quite literally, an embodiment of the mythicalardhanarishwara. Basically that they're "neither wholly female nor wholly male", "a combination of female or male", or "neither female nor male", leaving no room for fluidity.
Also, the Bill fails to factor in socio-economic aspects, culture, their histories and only registers a trans identity as a biological one. And even there, it's flawed.
A large percentage of Indian trans population belongs to the Hijra or the Kinnar community. And going by the meeting on 16 November, where representatives of the community from different Indian states were present, they're completely opposed to this Bill.
Leave us out
Their biggest opposition to the Bill is that they were kept out of the drafting, undeniably a body blow to their identity, as they see it.
Transpeople from Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu collected under one roof to discuss the Bill, their plan of action, and how to arrive at a consensus.
"We'd like to be kept independent of this Bill," says Ekta, a Kinnar Samuday leader from Delhi. "Please let us maintain our culture," she insisted.
Ekta, like many in the Hijra community, doesn't feel the 'transgender' identity, and therefore the Bill, represents her.
It questions the culture and community within which the Hijras exist. This, is unfathomable to Ekta. Insisting that it's a ludicrous demand to suddenly expect Hijras and Kinnars to reintegrate in society, Ekta says, "Most of our community has been illiterate. We've been raised in isolation. How's this possible?"
The Bill proposes to criminalise begging, a means of livelihood for this community.
Aruna from Tamil Nadu puts it starkly. "The community has never stopped anyone from education and progress. But we have a singular culture - To ask.
"You can't take that away."
Stressing on how not everyone can suddenly take up jobs, Aruna says, "A lot of the people in the community, including transwomen here, are over 50-60 years of age. I understand that the the government can help with employment opportunities for the young, but the old members can't work. They won't get jobs."
Angry at what she sees as apathy on the government's part, Aruna says, "You don't want to give us our rights? Why don't you just line us up and shoot us? Would be easier."
Another big blow to the community has been the large question mark placed on their culture.
The simple question that Ekta seems to ask is why is your guru-shishya parampara greater than ours?
"The government doesn't want to recognise our guru-shishya system. But why ours alone? If they were to stop the system for all other communities, then they can tell us to stop our work."
"We demand that our community's tradition isn't touched," says Aruna, adding, "In our culture, community living is important. The children who come to us are usually ones who don't feel at home with their families, with their bodies."
Aruna sees the Hijra community's upbringing as one that emancipates the child, and this, in her opinion, doesn't reject mainstream education.
"There have been educated, progressive members of our community, but they stay within the culture, she says, adding, "My granddaughter is a sub-inspector, for example. But she respects the culture."
The children wish to surround themselves with people they can identify with, she suggests. And that the community helps them do that.
"We teach them a system, a hygienic life. They understand the familial structures like who is dadi, who is nani, within the community."
They accept that society views them as extortionists. As Ekta says, "Most of the people who harass you are not Hijras. They are men dressed in sarees."
"We are associated with harassment. The average Indian recognises us that way, but that's not who we are."
The role of NGOs
Who are they, then? A people consistently shunned by society who, until recently, did not have ID proofs. They have been represented by NGOs and groups that they may not trust, for the lack of an identity also means the loss of voice.
As Bittoo, a trans male activist, points out how NGOs stand to benefit. "The NGO funds depend on how much they represent the community," he says.
NGOs, according to Aruna, are "entirely 'prevalence' based and not empowerment based. What I mean is that they talk of issues like HIV like all of us are HIV victims."
The lack of Hijra identity shows in the very name of the Bill, points out Rachna from Hyderabad.
"The Bill is worded as 'Protection of Trans' rights. The word 'Hijra' does not even feature," she says, asking, "Why can't it be a Bill for Protection of Trans and Hijra Rights?"
Rachna also finds the pace at which the Bill is being pushed rather suspect. "The NALSAjudgement hasn't been implemented yet and suddenly there's a big hurry with this Bill? Why?" she asks.
Mechanisms for protection
Transpersons in India face discrimination that they cannot even seek redressal for. At least not in the case of sex workers or members of the Hijra community.
As made evident in the recent case in Chennai where a transwoman, Tara, allegedly burnt herself to death after being harassed by the police, discrimination is a vital aspect that needs to be addressed in any Bill that speaks for the community. This Bill, however, mentions it without definition.
Therefore, convinced that the Bill cannot protect Hijras for it involves the police, Rachna says, "The police will implement the rules proposed in the Bill. The police is also the mechanism that abuses us. How will they protect us?"
"They're suggesting 2 year imprisonment for begging. Do note that transpeople have historically been arrested for crimes they are easily associated with due to society's perception," says Rachna.
"This law about begging will only result in more TG people getting arrested, people who may not even have any association with the Kinnar community."
Vyjayanthi from Telangana Hijra Samiti, in reference to the current Bill's failure in ensuring reservation as demanded in the original Bill, said, "Incentivisation is what we need to be focusing on.
"Incentivisation and reservation are two very different things. Even if you don't give reservation, do not take incentivisation away," she says.
Vyjayanthi makes this plea in light of the fact that despite the government promising jobs for members of the trans community, the reality in the market is different. Biases don't disappear with SC judgments.
"Let's make one thing clear," she says. "As long as I hadn't expressed that I was trans, I had a job. The moment I came out, I lost it."