UNLEASHING THE HIDDEN POTENTIAL OF HIJRAS (EUNUCHS) AND MAINSTREAMING THEM INTO SOCIETY
Recently at the Mundan (“shaving a baby’s first hair on the head”) ceremony of my grandnephew and grandniece, I was witness to the auspicious yet unpleasant sight (depending on your view point — no offences implied or controversies warranted) of Hijras landing up seeking to bless the newly borns and looking for some offering or gifts in return. To put the record straight in Hindu Mythology blessings of Hijras at auspicious occasions (births, marriages, house warming, new ventures et al) are taken very seriously since they are believed to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits (it seems the Hijra community has a well-developed network to gather information about such events in their defined geographical areas) to which extent their visit was not entirely unexpected and may be even welcome.
However, what was somewhat galling was their transparently disappointing and dilapidated physical and (may be) economic state of affairs — a reflection or their status in society and the consequent endless haggling and argument over the quantum and nature of gifts to be given to them thereby lending a somewhat jarring note to the entire episode. Added to this was the recollection of the rather unwelcome sight of members of this community singing and dancing at street corners and streets, seeking to draw attention and begging for alms. It was at this juncture when a conversation with a relative turned my thoughts towards the need to gainfully exploit and employ the resources exemplified by Hijra community and to integrate them with society.
However, before starting, it was necessary to do some elementary research into the history of this community and their status in Indian society over various time periods. India has a large community of Hijras and in fact Hijras have played a significant role in Indian society in general and are an integral part of Hindu mythology and folklore and occupy a special place in Hinduism.
Hijras were well-respected and revered in ancient India and recorded history clearly mentions their role in the social, religious and even political context. They find reference in ancient texts like the Kamasutra. Even the Ramayana talks of the situation when Lord Rama after being banished to exile told his followers to leave him and go back to the kingdom. It is said that while all the others left and went back to the Kingdom, only the “Hijras” in a steadfast show of loyalty kept on waiting and refused to leave until Lord Rama returned fourteen years later.
In ancient India, the Hijras were a community that was respected for being extremely loyal and were well trusted enough to be given important religious and governmental roles. Hijras also held religious authority and important court positions and administrative roles in Mughal era India. Before the dawn of the colonial era they were very much a part of “mainstream society” and even held positions as political advisors, administrators and performed significant functions.
However, in the colonial era, the relationship seems to have become largely tenuous with this community being subjected to incessant hate, discrimination and subjugation. Starting in the 19th century, Hijras were sought to be eradicated by the British colonial authorities as a result of the endeavour of the powers that be to enforce their western ideas and beliefs on Indians. This goal they sought to seek by enacting moral laws that banned anything that western society viewed, by applying their own yardstick, as unclean and dirty. This included the enactment of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which made illegal any “unnatural offense” that was deemed “against the order of nature.”
From the introduction of Section 377 in 1858 to it being deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2018, it was used as a justification to mistreat and punish the Hijra community. This encouraged anti-Hijra sentiments throughout the Indian subcontinent, the legacy of which continued even in the post-colonial era. The saving grace, and that too to a very limited extent, being their blessings sought on various occasions (referred to earlier) which however, I may say slowly petered out into an endless fracas.
This downturn in the fortunes of the Hijra community led to they being branded as social outcasts leading to socio-economic difficulties and denial of educational opportunities, jobs, medical facilities, housing and discrimination in all facets of their lives which made them to resort to begging, dancing and even prostitution as a means of livelihood.
Although India gained independence in 1947, the progress to mainstream this community in India by removing roadblocks was painfully slow despite sustained public awareness campaigns and a steady increasing group of supporters with the political class being seemingly slow on the uptake in dealing with the issue. Perhaps being numerically somewhat limited in number this particular section of society did not appeal to the political class as a significant vote bank.
A Supreme Court judgement in 2014 mandated the Government to recognize a third gender(one which is neither male nor female )as an official category (which probably paved the way for granting them access to social welfare benefits and educational and employment opportunities akin to OBC’s. The judgement affirmed that the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution of India will be equally applicable to the third gender and also signified acceptance of the existence of the Hijra community by the Government.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 was enacted in 2019 with an aim to provide for the protection of rights of transgender people, their welfare and other related matters. It seeks to recognise the identity of transgender persons and prohibit discrimination in, inter alia, the fields of education, employment, healthcare, holding or disposing of property, holding public or private office and access to and use of public services and benefits.
In addition to legal successes, there have also been gains, albeit sporadic, in societal acceptance and integration of the Hijra community with members of third community becoming judges, police officers and even beauty pageant winners. Even on a corporate level, Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. became India’s first Government-owned company to provide bulk employment to Hijras.
While the Supreme Court decision and other legislative actions have enabled Hijras to be officially recognized as a third gender in official legal documents, the process of their social integration and gainful employment is still a long way from becoming reality. Till then the hope that the social stigmas that have plagued the Hijra community will soon be fully erased only remains a mirage with no sustained/concerted efforts to gainfully realise and positively exploit their latent resource.
A review of their chequered history, their rather tenuous relationship with society as well as the powers that be and the recent efforts, although somewhat limited whether legislative, judicial or social that this community has achieved, the concern of their gainful employment and acceptability and integration into society still remains apart from dealing with issues such as healthcare, social welfare, housing, employability, education et-al a solution to which can only aid and hasten the process. The fact remains that while seemingly numerically insignificant they are an important resource, somewhat latent and definitely with a lot of potential, for which doubled up efforts and required to not only integrate them but also make them employable taking into consideration their innate capabilities and strengths and more so by considering them to be as much a part of society as another.
With the declaration of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional and a broader consensus on the acceptability of the LGBTQ community in India, the need to reform, educate and uplift the Hijra community is all the more pressing and urgent. While a change and subtle shift in mindset, will naturally take its own time in coming to fruition, the need is for a public awareness campaign and sustained, earnest and pointed public as well as private efforts towards uplifting their community.
The focus should be on provision of basic as well as substantive amenities including health care, housing, education, employment, social security etc which will only accelerate the powers of social integration and acceptability. Side by side, ways and means can also be found for them to fulfil their traditional roles in Hindu society. It is only them that the unwelcome right of begging for alms and dancing at streets and other unwelcome activities be put to a stop. A pyramidical effort, birthing at the level of individual households and gradually and sustainably spreading its reach to the locality, neighbourhood, state and nationwide supported by the influential sections of the society and opinion makers will only lead to the amelioration of this numerically miniscule yet significant section of society and gainful exploitation and utilisation of the resources inherent and exemplified by them for overall social benefit.