Nisha, Neha and Zeena were born again in one of the oldest gharanas of Delhi 6, thousands of miles away from their homes in rural Assam. Assigned a different gender and name at birth, they ran off to New Delhi around puberty to escape the mocking, taunting and misgendering by family and neighbours.
The journey for Neha from Nalbari to New Delhi started from Kamakhya temple during the annual Ambubachi mela, where she met a friend who convinced her to join her in the big city. Until early 2000, there wasn’t much of a culture of Hijras or Kinnars in Assam and no gharana—a joint family system where transgender women live together in a household—for them to turn to. Like migrants who escaped the peak of militancy in the Nineties to study or work outside, they left hoping to find their identity and a haven where they would be accepted.
“We don’t have any ID proof from here. So when the police detains one of us in custody, we have to call someone else to bail us out,” said Zeena (37), visibly the oldest guru among five (apart from Neha, Nisha, Julie and Neetu) who run the gharana in Guwahati. They told Newslaundry that this, along with the threat of legal cases and harassment for bribes by cops and security forces, is an almost routine affair when they go to beg in trains.
Zeena, one of the gurus of the gharana in Guwahati, shows her All Assam Transgender Association membership card. It’s the only ID that establishes her native Assamese identity
Their workplace, Kamakhya Junction, is right across their rented quarters with only a defunct railway track and a sewer drain separating it. Trains became a means for them to earn a livelihood and set up gharanas in more places like Lamding, Bongaigaon, Dimapur, Guwahati, Kokrajahar, Alipur and New Jalpaiguri over the last 10 years. “Now people like us don’t go to Delhi. They directly come to us,” Zeena said, beaming with pride for pioneering the Hijra culture in Assam. They are called by various names in Assamese like “Baido” and “Bhanti” (didi) when regarded with respect; “Nipunsak” and “Maikimua” when spoken to with derision.
She told Newslaundry after leaving her home in Jorhat in the early 1990s, her guru, Chandni, in Kalapahar in Old Delhi took her under her wings and showed her the ropes of the Hijra culture. After serving the elder gurus of the gharana for years, she was excited to be a guru for the first time in Guwahati when she arrived four years ago. However, with their names missing from the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam released on 30 July, the anxiety of losing their homeland is building up.
For the uninitiated, a massive bureaucratic exercise to update the 1951 NRC list has been underway as per the directions of the Supreme Court since 2015, after a PIL was filed in 2009. The apex court upheld the petition and directed the state government to update the list using March 24, 1971 as a cut-off date, as laid down in the 1985 Assam accord signed between the All Assam Students Union and the Rajiv Gandhi government. The accord was signed after a six-year agitation where several indigenous groups in Assam protested against the illegal migration of communities from East Pakistan and subsequently, Bangladesh.
None of the trans women in this gharana personally submitted an application to the NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati, primarily because they are not aware of the process and do not possess the requisite legacy documents like father or grandfather’s name in the electoral roll, the 1951 list, passport or land title pre-1971, and lineage documents like birth certificate, school certificate, etc. With little to no contact left with their biological families, getting access to these documents or even proving linkages through a family tree is practically impossible.
Advocate Swati Bidhan Baruah filed a last-minute prayer to issue guidelines for the inclusion of transgender persons in the NRC within the ongoing writ petition at the Supreme Court a day after the final draft list came out. Recently appointed as the first transgender judge in Assam, Swati is also the founder of the All Assam Transgender Association which has been filing legal petitions against the state government to implement the 2013 NALSA judgement, which officially recognised the third gender.
While the NRC form has a transgender option provided, Swati said it has no relevance when all supporting documents need to establish the individual’s name prior to 1971 through legacy and lineage. “This is a violation of the NALSA guidelines because while they may have the option of choosing ‘third gender’, no special guidelines have been set up for them in the process, which is systemically biased against them,” she told Newslaundry.
Swati has a point. Zeena holds an Aadhaar card, PAN card and voter ID—but they’re all registered in New Delhi and has her guru’s name as her father’s name. In an exercise primarily driven by patriarchal lineage, where women and children are overwhelmingly at risk of exclusion, transgender women fear alienation as most of their fathers and brothers have disowned them. Swati is the only exception, in this case, whose adopted name has appeared in the list, since her parents accepted her despite being earlier opposed to her transformation.
Her chela, 26-year-old Rinki, says her birth (or dead) name has likely appeared in the list, as informed by her sister living in her native village in Harmati, Tezpur district. “But what’s the point of a name appearing on the list that I have no connection to?” she asked. Despite being regarded as, perhaps, one of the lucky ones, she said, “I feel suicidal sometimes. I’m neither here nor there.”
Zeena’s Aadhaar, Pan and Voter ID cards were made in New Delhi, in which her guru, Chandni, is named as her Father. However, none of these IDs will be helpful in verifying her as a citizen in the NRC
Disappointed with Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s remark that the community has “missed the bus”, Swati said the petition was filed at the last minute only because they were relying on the NRC State Coordinator Prateek Hajela’s verbal assurances. In January, just after the release of the first draft, he told BBC Hindi that there were issues with regard to legacy and lineage documents with the transgender community and that they would find a solution to their problems.
“Moreover, it took us time to collect information from the community in 33 districts and finding an advocate to represent our case in the higher court,” she said. Several calls and messages to Hajela for comments went unanswered. According to her, at least 2,000 transgender women applied but it is yet unknown how many have made it to the list and in what form.
A transgender man from Assam, who is now settled in the United States, said his birth-assigned name and gender had appeared in both the lists. Requesting anonymity, he told Newslaundry over the phone that he was worried this would pose hurdles in his plans to start an educational non-profit in Assam. “I’m a hardcore Assamese, who has raised funds here for various causes for the state in the last 11 years. I don’t want to be deprived of my Assamese identity,” he said.
In the years following the historical NALSA judgement, the transgender community has seen no visible systemic change in Assam, barring the inflation of their population and more awareness among the public. The 2011 census recorded 11,374 individuals, although a survey conducted by the association estimates this has sizeably increased to 20,000. However, neither affidavits notifying change in gender nor AATU identity cards have helped ease the daily discrimination they face.
“The police don’t even recognize the transgender association identity card that Bidhan (Swati) gave us,” Zeena said. According to her, the Hijra culture is still not popular among the native indigenous Assamese, who neither fear their curses nor seek their blessings. “Most of our income comes from the naach gaana that we do for the Marwari and Punjabi families on special occasions.” Apart from the traditional badhai work, some of them also dance in illegal bars in the city and are engaged in sex work.
Even after the state government constituted a core committee on the directions of the High Court, there has been little progress in drafting a transgender welfare policy. Sanjib Chakraborty, who works with the National AIDS Control Organisation in Dispur, and was brought on the committee as an “expert”, said the committee has only met three times in the last year.
“The expertise and recommendations collated in the meetings were sent to all the departments for their suggestions. But before anything could happen, the Director of the Social Welfare department got transferred,” he told Newslaundry. The NRC was not discussed in any of the meetings conducted with experts and government officials, he added. The Social Welfare department is yet to respond to questions sent over email.
The only “outsiders” among them, Zeena said, are from Bihar and Bengal. Ask her how the authorities could possibly detect foreigners among the trans community, she said the one who speak pure Assamese must obviously be from here. “I’m not sure of the ones who partly speak Assamese, partly Bengali,” she added.
When asked if she has given the North Indian Hijra culture an Assamese touch or two, Zeena sentimentally rued over the lack of Assamese songs in her badhai. “I usually start with songs to awaken the Murgali mata followed by bhet, then celebratory hymns if it’s a boy, and finally, Bollywood songs upon request.”
Unlike Swati, trans women in this household aren’t too alarmed by the possibility of being picked up by authorities or put in detention centres. “If they come to pick us up, we will lift our skirts,” Seema, a young chela, defiantly said. Zeena admonished her, saying the chela had spent too much time in Uttar Pradesh, where even the Hijra clap is enough to convey their message.
If worst comes to worst, in case their names do not appear in the final list, they will pack up and move to greener pastures like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, or back in New Delhi. “Of course, I don’t want to leave my homeland. It’s nice to be among your people, speak in your own language, even if they haven’t accepted you fully,” Zeena said.
The hopes of the community are now pinned on the Supreme Court Bench that will take a decision on their plea on August 16.
Picture credit: Devraj Chaliha