‘Hijra has become a political identity’

Interview with Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli and Rachana Mudraboyina.

Published : Jul 19, 2017 12:30 IST

Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli (left) and Rachana Mudraboyina at a cafe in Hyderabad.

Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli (left) and Rachana Mudraboyina at a cafe in Hyderabad.

IN May 2017, after a long wait of three years, Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli finally received a letter from the Telangana government informing her that her name had been changed. She had applied for the name-change soon after the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgment in April 2014 ( National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India , also known as the NALSA judgment) which recognised the transgender community as a third gender and granted it a legal identity in all spheres of life and society. It took another year for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to formulate rules that would enable transgenders to open bank accounts with their chosen names and gender identities. The letter from the Telangana government means that Vyjayanti, a transwoman, can now change her gender identity with her chosen name in all official records such as passport, voter ID and driver’s licence.

While progress has been slow and incremental, the NALSA judgment has given India’s transgender community a benchmark to compare any government decision regarding its rights and protection. At the ground level, it has resulted in sporadic but notable political mobilisation outside the NGO (non-governmental organisation) lobby circuit. It has also led to indignation against the 2016 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill introduced in Parliament by the Central government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which, if passed, will replace the NALSA judgment as the law governing the transgender community. This law seeks to put in place a district-level screening committee headed by a doctor to ascertain the veracity of a person’s claim of gender identity, going against the Supreme Court ruling which allows for self-identification regardless of sex reassignment medical procedures.

Aged 38 and 40 respectively, Vyjayanti and Rachana Mudraboyina are rising trans activists in Hyderabad. They are part of a collective called Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti (THITS), which they say is a “non-hierarchical, unregistered and unfunded” political pressure group that comes together to fight instances of discrimination against the community. Both Vyjayanti and Rachana are scathing in their criticism of NGOs that “take money in the name of the community and do nothing for it”. They are also part of a vocal, politically rooted network of such collectives nationwide that have formed alliances with other causes such as Dalit and Adivasi rights, women’s empowerment, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) issues.

While THITS has made steady progress over the past five years, Vyjayanti and Rachana admit that there is a dire lack of visibility of transmen, not just in their own collective but across the country. They speak candidly of their challenges to collectivise; explain why transmen are under-represented; admit to undercurrents of caste discrimination within India’s trans community and how their own collective is attempting to address it; and specify where they view themselves on the political spectrum.

Excerpts from an interview Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli (VVM) and Rachana Mudraboyina (RM) gave Frontline :

Both of you have emerged as well-known activists in India’s trans movement. THITS, the collective that you are part of, has been vocal about instances of hate crime against the trans community. Do you think it is now time to address inequalities within the trans community in India? For instance, do you think caste is a factor in determining access, privilege and rights within the transgender community?

VVM: Yes, undoubtedly yes. When the state, the media and corporations interact with the community, the first few transgender people who have access to them come from dominant castes and privileged class backgrounds. They wield a lot of power. I am not saying this to discredit the good work that they have done. Some of their work and political positions might be problematic, but a lot of their work is really good.

So is there an inherent prejudice within the trans community along caste lines?

VVM: Yes. For instance, we know a renowned transgender activist who said, “I am born into a Brahmin family. I cherish Hindu culture.” Cherishing Hindu culture is okay, but being proud of her Brahminical roots could be interpreted as a sense of superiority.

True. Do you think this hinders the collectivisation of the community?

VVM: Yes.

You have chosen not to register your own collective, THITS, as a non-profit. Why?

VVM: I don’t want to say that all NGOs are corrupt, but I do believe that the NGO model in itself is a flawed one that often leads to institutionalised corruption, especially if it is the only available model for social justice. It decimates people’s movements because most NGOs are funded and the politics of funding requires them to stay silent on any discrimination or dual standards followed by their funding agencies. This includes the state, private corporations and so on. In practice, NGOs have done little good and much damage. That is not to say that there are no ethical NGOs at all; there are, but very few.

We are not a registered body. There is no hierarchy because we don’t want this to become a retirement home that we turn to for funding or income. Also, we don’t want to set up a hierarchy, because under the current Societies Registration Act or any other law, we need to have a board of trustees, which is invested with some power.

So if you are not going to do all of that, how are you going to sustain yourself—not only financially but also in terms of your outlook to the movement?

VVM: We work as a collective, like the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI). It is not registered. There is no board. There are many other such unregistered collectives which do a lot of good work in India.

We hold several rallies where we are able to call out a lot of powerful people. That is the main advantage of not receiving any funding. But yes, we need money to even organise a protest. We work on the principle that no cash changes hands. Say, if anyone wants to contribute to this event, we come together to declare cost heads—that we need so many sachets of water, loudspeakers, shamiana, and so on. We accept contributions only in kind. So when you supply, you supply, say, only audio equipment.

In the long run, do you see yourself as a political movement? If yes, what is your vision?

RM: THITS is a political collective. Before we set up THITS, we did try to set up an NGO, a society. We realised the problems inherent in setting up an NGO. We experimented a lot and ultimately decided not to register ourselves. After a couple of protests, advocacy and other kinds of intervention, we realised that this sort of collectivisation lent a greater political status not only to us but to the community as a whole. The community has better visibility now. THITS has become an emblem, a logo, of this community. Hijra has become a political identity. As a community, we see ourselves as political identities.

Have you considered joining mainstream parties? You must be aware of transwomen like Shabnam Mausi, who got elected to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in the late 1990s, and Madhu Kinnar, who is the Mayor of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh.

RM: Earlier, I used to hate politics. But after learning about the instances that you pointed out, and our own journey from the NALSA judgment to the 2016 Bill, we realise that there are a lot of structural discrepancies in the lawmaking process, where someone else talks and takes decisions on our behalf! So, yes, I am actively considering entering the political mainstream, at least for the sake of more representative policy interventions. There is such a wide gap even in communication, we thought that there is a need for us to sit in the lawmaking process at least to be able to shout at the people who are making those decisions.

Do you plan to form chapters in other States?

VVM: Many States in India have strong and vibrant collectives. For example, after the BJP government came up with this draconian, regressive Bill in August 2016, we protested within three weeks in Chennai, shortly before we left for the U.S. [to attend the State Department-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) for two months. The 2016 focus of IVLP was on trans issues]. A lot of people turned up and we organised a mass rally. Tiruchi Siva, Rajya Sabha member from the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], who has been an advocate for the trans community, was our chief guest. Two busloads of trans people came from each district of Tamil Nadu. So that meant around 5,000-6,000 people protested at Valluvar Kottam [a central location in Chennai]. This feat was not pulled off by NGOs; it was organised by thirunangai s[as transwomen in Tamil Nadu refer to themselves]—unaffiliated people.

Do you consider yourself a group coming from the Left? Or do you think that it is a movement that needs to get different persuasions together on rights-based issues?

VVM: Both. We suffer class discrimination and caste-based violence and exclusion too. We have barely succeeded in using the Nirbhaya Law for acts of sexual violence against transgender people—maybe once or twice. The base of the transgender movement has a lot of Dalit transgenders. We have leveraged and filed cases using the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

There are vast numbers of Dalit and Adivasi transgenders across the country. I speak from my experience in Telangana. Within the hijra system, almost everyone has been ostracised and thrown out of their families. That’s what brings us together.

Much as we would like to think that caste barely exists, we know for a fact that it does. Because we come together for sex work, we know that the Brahmin sex worker is treated preferentially over the Dalit sex worker.

Where do you belong in the caste hierarchy, if you do not mind me asking?

VVM: I do not come from a dominant caste, but I do have a class privilege.

Which has enabled you....

VVM: … to compensate for the lack of upper-caste status.

RM: I want to share a few problems we have experienced in this journey, with both the Left and the Right. Having been marginalised from multiple directions from the beginning, we prefer not to take any ideological positions but instead make alliances as broadly as possible with civil society, because we need their support to win our battles.

Let us try to define our struggle. It is the struggle to access the same things that men and women already have access to, democratically and legally. Our collectivisation is on these lines. Like Vyjayanti said, we would like to think that among us, caste, class and religion do not exist, but they are all there! Trans people have taken a gamble by embracing their gender identities openly, but some have benefited because of the privileges from various other layers of identity. That said, our collective has functioned democratically right from the beginning. No voice is weak or feeble and no one is higher than the other.

Coming back to the question of occupying political office—often gender identities and sexual orientation are seen through a moral lens, and the right wing normally defines this along binary lines. One could say that the BJP or the Shiv Sena have such stated positions. Therefore, one would assume they would not be your allies.

VVM: No, they are not.

RM: That’s why we see ourselves as part of the movements against caste discrimination such as the one at the University of Hyderabad after [Dalit PhD scholar] Rohith Vemula’s death. We participated in full strength in the hunger strike soon after his suicide. As Vyjayanti was saying, the leaders of the transgender community do not want to benefit because of caste or class privileges. We will be part of movements of other marginalised communities because of the natural intersectionalities, like Dalits, women and Adivasis.

In other words, you consider women, Dalits and Adivasis your allies.

RM: Yes. We will support them and we would want them to support us because we are a minority and we are highly stigmatised. As you say, people see us through a moral lens. So we need a louder and stronger voice.

You could make a case for trans activists with caste and class privileges to use them positively, could you not?

VVM: Yes, absolutely. We believe that there is nothing wrong in co-opting the rich. You need multi-pronged strategies. You need people in the system as well, have an engagement with it, or be part of it, to be able to make micro changes from within, so that you can enable others to get in. We don’t take money from them, but we can direct their resources to the beneficiaries.

How long has this sort of a mobilisation been going on in Hyderabad?

RM: THITS began with addressing issues of trans sex workers in 2012. There were about 10-12 incidents across the city every day—instances of police harassment, incidents of physical violence, cases of acid being thrown on transgenders. While we were against NGOs, we were also examining their strategies and trying to find ways to call their bluff and hold them responsible for their actions when they take money in the name of the community. We also tried to engage the community in a thinking process. For instance, a gang rape of a transwoman is never taken seriously. For every 10 transwomen, nine are gang-raped.

That is an alarming statistic.

RM: Yes, it is! And these are not isolated incidents. Several people go through repeated rapes. Trans people are habituated to violence, and they have become silent in order to cope with it. But we question the community on this silence. We ask, how does it help? Look at what happened in the Nirbhaya case, when men and women came together to address the gang rape of a woman. We are also capable of raising our voices! That is how people are motivated to fight for their rights. There is also a lot of colonisation of the LGBT community’s spaces and voices.

Was Nirbhaya a turning point for the trans community as well?

RM: Mainly for transwomen, yes. We feel connected to the issue, but had never been able to negotiate these incidents legally or as a rights-based approach. But now we feel Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which defines rape needs to be amended to include transgenders. We had given suggestions to the Justice J.S. Verma Committee to this end.

VVM: We had submitted a petition to the Verma panel to include transgender people, highlighting the fact that rape is not limited to men and women, and can happen between men; and between men and transgender women as well. We were just a fledgling organisation then, but we sent emails to the Verma panel, and other groups like People’s Union for Civil Liberties [PUCL] and the Bengaluru-based Alternative Law Forum. Justice Verma did recognise and include the transgender community in his report, but ultimately the Government of India did not take it into consideration while framing the laws.

Tell us about your alliances with partners in other States.

VVM: There are many dynamic and highly collectivised de-NGOised groups in Tamil Nadu, led by Grace Banu, Arunamma, Subhiksha from Karaikal, and Mohiniamma from Tiruchi. We met the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment along with them. We work in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, while Akkai [Akkai Padmashali, founder-member of Ondede] works in Karnataka. She does not run an NGO but handles a lot of cases, and so decided to register her collective in order to be recognised as an entity to sue and be sued.

So is this kind of politicisation happening across the country?

VVM: It is happening in the southern States, primarily in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and to some extent in Assam. Not in Maharashtra or in the north, unfortunately.

Often, there are complaints from within the LGBTQI community that the most visible faces of the community are gay men or transwomen, and that the voices and concerns of lesbians and transmen and other intersectional communities get marginalised. Are you trying to address this?

VVM: Yes, we have ourselves resented the domination of cisgender, gay and bisexual men inhabiting almost all spaces of power in NGOs and beyond. And at least in THITS, we have some transmen, like Karthik Bittu (a faculty member at the University of Hyderabad). We have other people who are not as open but are key decision-makers nevertheless as voting members of the group. They are equal stakeholders, and we try hard to check instances of hate crime against transmen. For instance, in November 2016, the anchor of a television talk show called Bathuku Jataka Bandi on Zee Telugu channel threatened a couple [a transman and a queer woman]: “I will thrash you and break your legs for doing this.” We organised a press conference to condemn this kind of hatred, but we did not want to appropriate the couple’s space. We supported them with their decisions and we made things happen. We try and get the stakeholders to lead struggles, unless they are uncomfortable with that and insist on us taking up their fight. We do not want to claim to be rescuers or messiahs, because we are not.

RM: I want to add to that. I agree with what Vyjayanti says about gay men and transwomen. But the two have occupied that space for very different reasons. Gay men have dominated the whole queer movement in general because, for one, the gay movement precedes most other movements led by the LGBTQI community. The trans movement is still in its nascent stage. On the other hand, the visibility of transwomen is because of their gender. It is hard for us to hide who we are. So while I agree with you, I think we are beginning to learn about movements and struggles led by other trans people. I am not saying we are perfect. Also, transmen—women transitioning into men—face a lot more stigma at home and outside. It is doubly hard for them. Once they get thrown out of their homes, or walk out, they get assaulted on the streets. Where will they go? Security is a bigger concern for transmen, another reason why they are not visible in the movement. Whenever there are such situations, we try to help in articulating their concerns.

In other words, the biological gender that transmen are born into becomes a double-edged challenge to overcome?

RM: Yes, and along with it so many things, like the roles women are expected to play in families and communities. Transmen attempt to break those gender norms.

VVM: I don’t think the discrimination faced by transmen is greater, or higher, but when you have a combination of misogyny and transphobia, then things get very scary. That said, as a community, there are only two livelihoods that have existed for transwomen universally—begging and sex work. At a structural level, neither of these livelihoods is what gay men, or transmen for that matter, or several others within the LGBTQI community would opt for in general. There is a different level of violence that we are exposed to, which does not make it easier. We are not competing in the “discrimination Olympics” here to compare who is beaten down more. What I am trying to say is, each individual within the queer community faces a different kind of discrimination, which tends to define their role or the degree of their involvement in the movement. It does not mean that they participate only to the extent of the kind of discrimination they face, either. In fact, I would argue that there is much greater solidarity within the queer community than in several other movements, but often the reasons why a particular community seems under-represented within this movement are not looked at holistically.

You have spoken about how NALSA was a progressive movement, but the current Bill in Parliament is a regressive move. Speaking about employment, how do you propose to fight for jobs in the government or the private sector? Is affirmative action something that should be incorporated in this Bill?

VVM: Since liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, the share of government jobs has been steadily declining. We have been consulting with lawyers on how to articulate our demand to include us on the reservation list. Lawyers have advised us to collect the number of rejections of job applications that could be traced to transphobia, because Article 16 [of the Indian Constitution] is about non-discrimination in public employment. For that, we will have to apply [for jobs] and get rejected so we can take the matter to court. Such a test case could be useful for others who wish to gain government employment.

Secondly, the bulk of employment is in the private sector now. In the U.S., for example, almost all private corporations call themselves LGBTQI-friendly, but they barely had any gender-nonconforming employees we could meet. In India, the majority of the multinational corporations are American and British, but they hardly have any transgender people either. It is very disappointing when an employer says, “We are women-friendly, but we don’t have a single woman employee, but believe us, we are women-friendly.” So we are trying to exhort and push them to hire transgender people, but that’s an uphill task. Because people in power do not feel obliged to do anything.

As you said, the bulk of the employment now is in the private sector, but the multinational corporations are really a tiny fraction of them. Your fight will still have to be largely with domestic companies. How are you going to address that? Unlike in the U.S., we do not have laws to impose affirmative action in the private sector.

VVM: Not by a long shot! [Laughs]. Tiruchi Siva’s Bill attempts to address this. In so many areas, we do not know how to make headway, frankly. Tiruchi Siva’s Bill, which is a Private Member’s Bill pending in the Rajya Sabha from 2014, incentivises the private sector. We want such incentives to remain [in the Act] so that it is not seen as reservation, because unless we are very confident of including reservation in the private sector, even talking about it is only going to open a can of worms and corporate giants will destroy this Bill. Incentivisation means that you don’t have to hire, but if you do, you will be rewarded. So it is like rewarding good behaviour through subsidies and tax incentives.

Among the political parties the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Republican Party of India and the Left have been asking for reservation in the private sector, pointing out that post-1991 jobs and education in the public sector have shrunk drastically. But that has been along caste lines. Would you not want to push that to include the LGBTQI community?

RM: Yes. We have supported these moves as well. Tiruchi Siva’s Bill to incentivise the private sector is a not a vertical line, it is a horizontal line. That is to say, apart from the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Backward Caste communities, transgender people—especially the really poor among them—need to be considered as a base for incentivisation for the private sector. Tiruchi Siva’s Bill is the only hope we have to secure at least some employment and education.

Apart from this, we have the NALSA judgment. Before and after the NALSA judgment, several consultations took place with the LGBTQI community, where we suggested the formulation of policies that co-opt the existing structure of reservation for mainstream communities and gender-conforming men and women below the poverty line, and to extend it to the LGBTQI community as well. Plus a few other policy-level changes, which would enable the trans community to access education and employment on an equal footing. So we need to see our movement for equality not only from the time of the NALSA judgment, but the many incidents that led to the judgment.

A personal question. How have your families reacted to your politics?

VVM: My parents are ailing and not in any state of mind to understand all this. To put it bluntly, they have just been waiting to die. They are in palliative care. [Vyjayanti’s mother died shortly after this interview.] Not that they had been too supportive earlier either. They have loved me as parents do, but they did not respect me.

Has it been a fight for you?

VVM: I have never fought them. That is something I have not done. There are people who have invested a lot in their parents, engaged with them constantly, and tried to make them understand. I have done that to some extent, but... I have not been living with my parents since 2000. I have only been providing for them financially, between 2000 and 2013, and after that they have been terminally ill.

So getting support from my parents has not been a priority for me. I don’t think everybody needs to convince their parents, and I don’t think parents need to support everything that their children do or decide either.

RM: About my family, wherever there is patriarchal thinking, there will always be resistance to accept us. My family chose to disown me, and that’s the norm in the trans community. Every trans person comes to the understanding that this is not a one-day battle, or even one person’s battle, but a long battle that we are fighting, maybe not for ourselves, but for future generations of trans people. I feel we have witnessed so much discrimination that we have become numb to it. It feels monotonous, like the same music I hear all over again every time I hear it from a new trans person. But I have never given up because of this. We have to focus on the larger battles.

VVM: We want to be good parents, if and when we become parents. Perhaps that’s a way by which we can give our children what we ourselves didn’t experience. It’s a long story, but to cut it short, my father sent me to a psychiatric home when I was 20. I had to undergo electric shocks and I had to go through conversion therapy. I filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court during the review petition in the Koushal judgment stating that re-criminalisation of Section 377 (consensual same sex between adults) would open the floodgates to unethical and criminal medical and mental health practices.

My father gave me a pill that was supposed to transform me into a well-adjusted cisgender heterosexual man, “raging for women like a horse”, to use his own words. I don’t entirely blame him, but I do hold him responsible because he thought it was good for me. It led to a severe allergic reaction called toxic epidermal necrolysis, because of which I lost patches of my skin. I had to be treated like a burns patient. So when I hear some people who have made leeway and have made breakthroughs with their parents, more power to them! But I do think that those who don’t want to, should not beat themselves up about it. It is okay that your parents don’t fully accept you, because they have their biases.

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