Numerous books have been written, movies have been made, and organizations have been created to address various social issues and problems that have plagued our country from time to time. There are laws to protect the rights of all sections of the society, women, children, minorities, religious groups, and even environment and wildlife; each has received their due share of importance from time to time.
Yet there is a certain section of the society that has been conveniently ignored, whose interests are unprotected. They live in stigma, there are hardly any books or organizations to support their cause, and only a single (non commercial) movie has been made to address their issue. They are mocked at in public, and despised by all. They are the most feared and yet the most vulnerable section of the society. Or are they a part of this society anyway? They are known as “Ladyboys” in Thailand, the “Two-Spirited” in native America, Eunuchs in English and the “Hijras” in India.
For 5 consecutive days I searched the net, trying each and every phrase in the Google search, looking up any site that barely mentioned anything about the third sex. Yet there was no hint, no clue, and no information about the legal provisions for eunuchs in India. I could locate sites that talked elaborately about the homosexuals, trans-genders, transsexuals and the like, but references to the “hijra” community were scanty.
Some of the earliest Google search results, led me to understand that Hijras included “men who go in for hormonal treatment, those who undergo sex-change operations and those who are born hermaphrodite.” They are known as the “queer community” and “the very sight of them is said to provoke emotions of fear, anger and revulsion.”
They are despised for their begging act and for extracting money in return for “their blessings”. To quote one of the sites, “It’s time that the Hijras take upon something else rather than begging in the streets and attending marriage parties. In India one might give them a blank look as for their sexual orientation while applying for job; however, it is the so-called Hijras who are to be blamed for inculcating that notion amongst the public. It’s high time that they consider themselves equal to others than just applying a slack of lipstick on their lips and look awkward.”
But unfortunately, the author forgets that neither the society nor law recognizes them as individuals nor allows them to establish their own identity. The Hijra community is deprived of several rights under civil law because Indian law recognises only two sexes. This means that Hijras do not have the right to vote, marry and own a ration card, a passport or a driving license, or claim employment and health benefits. Hijras are not allowed in most restaurants, even when they have the money to eat. The treatment of Hijras in hospitals is an issue of great concern because whenever a Hijra is admitted into a hospital, the doctors never knows whether to place her in the male ward or female ward. Moreover, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. PUCL Report on Human Rights Violations Against Sexuality Minorities demonstrates that Sec 377 becomes the basis for routine and continuous violence against Hijras and other sexual minorities at the level of the street and the police stations by the police and also allows the police to indulge in practices of illegal detention, sexual abuse and harassment of the “queer people”.
So, which hospital do they get admitted to in case of an emergency? Where do they register a complaint of sexual harassment by a police constable? Which school do the younger people of their community attend without being humiliated by the staff and fellow students? Where do they go to seek jobs without facing harassment from the employer/interviewer? In fact, do they even have the right to dream, to aspire to become doctors, engineers and lawyers? If we ourselves deny them the right to earn their living, then what makes us flinch at the very sight of them? Why do we crib about giving alms to them? If we have people in law enforcement, medical practice and the judiciary treating the eunuchs as people without rights, the legitimacy of their behavior really comes from the law.
As Mr. Arvind Narrain, Human Rights Activist, rightly points out, the prioritisation of human suffering has been an integral part of our social history. At various points of time there were, and continue to be, excluded people. From time to time, the human rights community has taken up various causes, such as that of women, Dalits etc. Due to the sustained struggle of these social groups, they have finally managed to find a voice at the ‘mainstream’ human rights table and today hardly a single human rights activist would agree that there are more important issues than these. But since the same logic of prioritization is applied to the ‘Hijra’ community, the torture of a Hijra in the hands of society and police is seen as less of a human rights concern than the torture of a woman or a Dalit. It is indeed a piteous situation where the importance of an issue is judged on the basis of how comfortable the society or the human rights group is in dealing with it. A nation can take a huge leap on the path of development only if it is independent, both politically and socially, such that its people are free in a way that they are capable of tackling every problem with equal ease and don’t have to hide their discomforts behind a veil of genteel ignorance.