Friday, 25 November 2016

Traditional Transgender Communities in India

Indian parliament is debating a bill on the rights of transgender persons. In 2016 it is being discussed in Loksabha, the lower house of parliament. However, some groups of transgender persons (TGPs) are opposing parts of this bill, arguing that it will harm their rights.

Recently a press conference was organised in Delhi about the TG bill. Representatives of TGPs from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Haryana and Delhi were present. This article tries to understand their main concerns. (Below, an image from the press conference).

Before we talk about the concerns of traditional TGP communities in India, it is necessary to understand what kind of communities are these.


Different sacred texts of Indic religions provide examples and stories of TGPs including the Ardhnarishwar avatar of Shiva, the Mohini avatar of Vishnu during the churning of oceans for the nectar of immortality and the episodes from Mahabharat where Arjun becomes a woman called Brihannala and the story of Irvan during the Kurukshetra war.

While ancient texts illustrate traditional attitudes and practices regarding gender and sexuality, societies do not always behave according to those ancient ideas. The attitudes towards TGPs in today's India include giving them specific social and cultural roles in circumscribed areas such as weddings, child-birth and traditional theatre, while at the same time excluding them from mainstream community lives. Some of them are sex workers, which is often used against them for their further marginalisation and exploitation.

There have been a few examples of transgender persons assuming power and playing important social roles in medieval India such as Malik Kafur, a military general of Alauddin Khilji, and Malik Sarvar and his adopted son Malik Qaranfal (known as Mubarak Shah), who ruled Jaunpur in what is now Uttar Pradesh in the 14th century. However, these can only be considered as exceptions that prove the rule of social marginalisation of TGPs in India. In the post-independence period, many TGPs have broken out of the societal boundaries to study and to take up different professions, but again, they are still a small minority among the TGPs.

"Traditional TGPs Communities"  of male-to-female (MtF) persons came up to deal with their exclusion from mainstream community lives. In different parts of India the traditional TGP communities share many similarities but are also different. These are led by senior TGPs, who may be called Guru. The members of communities also identify each other through family kinship-names such as nani, dadi, mother and sisters. Such TGP communities have specific names such as Haveli or Dera, used by their members.

Though the ancient Indic stories also include female-to-male (FtM) persons such as the Shikhandi story in Mahabharat, FtM persons are less visible in India and are not part of the traditional communities.

Different parts of India have different terms about TGPs including Hijra/Hijda, Kinnar, Kothi, Aravani, Khusra, Pavaiya, Maada and Jogappa. These terms may be used in different ways in different parts of India.

There is limited documentation and understanding about the lives of TGPs in the traditional communities. Often the documentation and understanding come from persons trained in the western/modern analytical methodologies rather than from persons who have grown up in the TGP-communities with a consequent distortion of what they understand and how they explain it.

Not all the TGPs in India live as members of these traditional communities, many of them live outside. Considering the huge amount of discrimination and violence faced by TGPs, I feel that even larger number of TGPs may be hidden in their families. However I have been unable to find any studies or even estimates of the percentage of TGPs living in traditional communities and outside these.

The traditional TGP communities of MtF persons are organised in family clans with state and regional level structures. The proposed bill has prompted the coming together of these communities to form a national level body. Male transgender persons (FtM) are also participating in the building of the all India TGP organisation.

A national meeting of the TGP communities from different states is being planned in Madhya Pradesh in December 2016, where the constitution of the All India organisation will be formalised.


The national census conducted in 2011, for the first time, collected separate data on transgender persons. According to this data, there were 4.8 lakhs (a little less than half a million) transgender persons in India including 11% of children. Around 56% of them could read and write, though literacy rates varied between different states. For example, around 68% of TGPs in Maharashtra could read and write while in Rajasthan the percentage went down to 48%.

Considering that many TGPs remain hidden in their families to avoid societal prejudice and discrimination, actual number of TGPs in India is likely to be much higher.

Most of the data regarding TGPs collected in the 2011 census has not yet been analysed. This data can provide us with important information about the lives of TGPs such as - how many of them reach old age, how many of them have university degrees and how many of them live in communities with other TGPs. I think that organisations active in the areas of human rights and in more specific issues of Queer rights need to take this up with the Census department of Government of India so that the details of this data are released. 


The bill was originally presented in the Upper House of Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) by the DMK leader Tiruchi Siva on 12th December 2014. After some modifications this private bill was passed by Rajya Sabha on 24th April 2015. The bill approved by Rajya Sabha was presented in the lower house of the Parliament (Lok Sabha) on 26 February 2016. Since then, after consultations with various bodies another version of this bill has been developed.

All India Transgender Persons’ Organisation was happy with the initial version of the bill introduced in 2014. They felt that the amendments introduced in the version passed by Rajya Sabha had diluted some of their rights, but they still accepted and supported that bill. However, they express strong opposition to some of the changes introduced in the present version of bill being discussed in Lok Sabha.

Government officials have assured them that after the end of the on-going winter session of the parliament, a national level meeting will be organised in Delhi where all the different groups of TG persons will be invited for discussions on the proposed bill.


The main concerns about the proposed bill are as follows:

Representation of the TG communities: TG persons feel that Government has consulted only NGOs about the bill. In their opinion, NGOs get funding for and are focused only on HIV prevention and they do not understand what it means to be a TG person and all the different issues that are part of their lives in traditional TG communities. Therefore, TG persons ask for direct representation in consultations with Government of India.

The Bill is against the traditional TG communities: Often TG persons, including children, are abandoned or forced out of their families. Working adults, when they decide to come out with their TG identity, they lose their jobs. The traditional TGP communities take care of and provide emotional support, peer support, help and advice to them. They feel that the proposed bill negates and criminalises these roles of the traditional communities.

Traditionally TG persons have not had opportunities for education and proper employment, while over centuries they have developed social roles such as Badhai system where they visit families during marriages and other happy occasions such as birth of children.

While better opportunities for education and employment of children and young TG persons are welcome steps in the proposed bill, making traditional activities such as Badhai as illegal is not the right answer. TG communities already have children and young persons who are going to school and who want to take up proper professions. However the older TG persons who are not educated and do not have professional skills, how will they survive if they can not take part in their traditional activities and if their traditional communities are seen as illegal?

The bill proposes punishment and jail for persons who will discriminate against TG persons. However they point out that among those who harass and exploit the TG persons, police persons are the biggest perpetrators. Thus they ask how will this anti-discrimination work?

The bill proposes jail for TGPs found begging on the streets. Such provisions ignore the prejudice, discrimination, oppression and exploitation faced by TG persons from the police. Such laws will increase the police harassment against TG persons because they can be simply picked up from streets.

Promoting work and empowerment of TG persons: The original version of the bill included incentives to private companies for employing TG persons. They feel that this was a useful provision and should be maintained.
Definitions of TG Persons in the Bill: The proposed bill also has some definitions which are problematic. For example, references to half-man and half-woman (Ardhnarishwar) are taken from ancient texts such as Mahabharat, which are metaphorical and not related to real TG persons.

A related issue is the lack of the words such as Hijra and Kinnar in the proposed bill. The bill does not use these traditional words and ignores their meanings and significance to the traditional TG communities in India.


I think that the concerns of All India TGPs Organisation raise three kinds of issues:

(i) The first is a practical issue regarding lives of adolescent, young adults and older TG persons who have grown up in traditional communities outside the mainstream society and who feel threatened by the measures proposed in the Bill, because it increases the risks for their criminalisation, oppression, exploitation and marginalisation.

The measures proposing the right of TG children to live in their families, to study, to work and to live lives with dignity are important and should be promoted but without penalising those who have grown up and live in the margins of the mainstream communities.

In my opinion, traditional TGP communities are a societal response to their marginalisation. Families when they decide to expel and exclude their child with gender dysphoria, they call upon these traditional communities to take away those children. Children should have a right to live in a loving and caring atmosphere in their own families. However, the social change will not come just because a new law is made. Declaring traditional communities as unwanted and unwelcome will mean removing their existing social support system.  Thus, there has to be an adequate period of transition.

(ii) A second issue is more cultural. Traditional communities that have developed over centuries, provide specific roles of peer support, guidance, emotional support and sustenance for TGPs. Little is known or understood about these roles. Promoting their dismantling and declaring them as unwanted, without understanding the kind of support and services they provide, does not seem to me  to be a good idea.

Thus, I believe that there is an urgent need for research and studies in TGPs issues conducted by transgender persons themselves including persons who live in traditional communities. It is also important to develop adequate research methodologies which do not view everything only from western/modern analytical frameworks but which give equal importance of ideas and understandings of persons in the traditional TGP communities.

(iii) A third issue is about the role of the public institutions. As the TG persons complain about their exploitation by the police, similar complaints are also made about gender-based violence and other issues related to marginalised population groups. Measures are needed to promote institutional changes in the police and judicial system.

One way to promote institutional change in the police could be to nominate a local group of TG persons as expert-advisers for their local police stations, so that they have opportunities for regular interaction with police to inform them and to sensitise them on TG issues. However, this would also require opportunities for training of TG persons to play this role.


While traditional TGP communities have a long history, TGP movement in India is just beginning. I plead my own limited knowledge about the issues. From what I have understood, TGPs are divided in different groups including traditional communities, other persons outside the communities, some persons in or working with NGOs and the silent and hidden group of people who remain in their families.

These different groups may share many common goals but they also have significant differences. Building a national organisation in which these different groups can join together to share their common goals and make a joint fight for their rights would probably be a long-drawn process. In this sense, formation of All India Organisation of Traditional Communities of TGPs should be seen as an important first step.

Note: Apart from one picture from the press conference (second from the top), all the remaining images used in this post are from the North-East Queer Pride Parades 2015-16 held in Guwahati (Assam, India).


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