West Bengal

Transgender at the top

Print edition : June 26, 2015

Manabi Bandyopadhyay. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

For the first time in India, a transgender academic has been made the head of an advanced educational institute. Manabi Bandyopadhyay created history when she recently became the first transgender principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College in Nadia district. An associate professor of Bengali at the Vivekananda Satobarshiki Mahavidyalay in Pashchim Medinipur district, Manabi took charge of her new office on June 9.

Born Somnath Bandopadhyay in 1966, Manabi grew up in Naihati in North 24 Parganas district. She has a Ph.D in Bengali and has been in academics for more than 20 years. She is an author and has penned a bestseller novel, “Endless Bondage” (English translation), which was published in 2002, and an academic book, “Third gender in Bengali Society and Literature” (2012). She is also the editor and publisher of Sub-human, the only magazine in the country that deals with transgender issues. “I have been bringing out this magazine for the last 20 years entirely from my own funds. I have received absolutely no financial help from anybody,” said Manabi. In 2003, she underwent a well-publicised sex-change operation, and has been a symbol for the cause of the rights of the transgender community. Manabi has an adopted son, Debashish Manabiputra.

“I never wanted the job of a principal. I wanted to continue teaching; but I also needed to be closer to my 92-year-old-father, and Krishnanagar is closer to Naihati than Jhargram where I have been teaching for the last two decades. I must also say that I have suffered a lot in my whole career, particularly at the hands of those who resented the fact that I was actually very good at my job,” Manabi told Frontline.

When she applied for the post online and had to state her gender, there were only two categories to choose from—“Male” and “Female”, and she applied under the “Female” category. “At the interview, the form I had to fill up had “Others” as a category against gender. There I wrote “Transgender,” she said. As news of her appointment broke, she admitted she was flooded with phone calls and messages and media attention. “Frankly, the situation is driving me crazy,” she said.

Witty, and often scathing with her words, one can feel an underlying resentment at being categorised. “Why should people consider my being made a principal of a college such a big achievement? I believe my achievement of being a professor and teacher is as big an accomplishment.” She maintained that whatever prejudice she faced, it was never from her students.

Not one to mince her words, Manabi told Frontline that she does not have any “motto” regarding her newly assumed position. “This is a profession for me; and I will perform my duties to the best of my abilities, as I have always done. I have suffered for my commitment, but that has not made me shy away from my duties,” she said.

In a society where prejudices are hard to overcome and anything that is perceived as “not normal” is treated with ridicule and mistrust, transgenders have been among the most marginalised and misunderstood. Manabi’s appointment has been hailed as a progressive and socially important step. Rattan Lal Hangloo, eminent historian and Vice-Chancellor of Kalyani University (to which Krishnanagar Women’s College is affiliated), said, “Kalyani University welcomes this decision. She (Manabi) is a fine human being, a good academic, and an able administrator. The government step deserves appreciation. We are hopeful it will empower other members of the transgender community.”

Even those who have been often critical of the State government have voiced their appreciation for this move. Sampa Sen, associate professor of Bengali in Hooghly Mohsin College told Frontline, “I do not support many things that the State government has done, but I fully endorse this appointment. Manabi Bandopadhyay has had to struggle very hard and she has achieved a lot. But there will be more challenges ahead for her,” said Sen.

Manabi herself feels that the Trinamool Congress government has been sympathetic to her situation. “It was only after this government came to power that I got proper recognition, and I was officially and legally allowed to be Manabi and not Somnath,” she said.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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