The usually rebellious Rose’s* disposition visibly shifted as we entered Kajal* guru’s one-room Mumbai home. Kajal guru and her 70-odd chelas, or disciples, live separately, visiting every now and then. Rose sat on the floor until her guru hoisted her up.
This dance – to instinctively make oneself smaller in the presence of family elders – is an Indian idiosyncrasy that has been coded into women’s genes. The customs might seem different, but the urgency with which 26-year-old Rose and her 50-year-old guru’s conversations leapt from neighbours to the news was unmistakably like that of mother and daughter.
It is in this duality that lies the fundamental existential dilemma of nearly half a million members of the Indian hijra community living within the guru-chela system.
For centuries, trans women and intersex and genderqueer individuals who have been abandoned have been initiated into the hijra community by the gurus within the system: senior members of the hijra community with social and financial clout, who typically assume the role upon the insistence of junior members of the community.
Acting as den mothers, gurus share parental relationships with their “chelas”. But they maintain a tight grip on their chelas’ lives – dictating how they work, earn, and even who they see, to the extent that many activists consider it a systemic form of bonded labour.
There’s the chicken and egg question here: was the institution created to profit off the labour of the vulnerable? Or was it intended as an alternative family structure, with exploitation being a fallout?
Like other joint and nuclear families, some chelas live with their gurus but a majority live separately, giving rise to a diverse range of families and living situations. “Like parents, gurus can be both nurturing and smothering,” Rose explained.
Within the community, only the senior-most chelas can sing and dance. Next in the hierarchy is those who beg and collect shaguns, or alms in exchange for blessings at events, and finally, the sex workers. In exchange for a roof and food, chelas take on household chores including some with shades of servitude, like cleaning the guru’s “thukdaan”, or spittoon. They must also contribute either a portion or the whole of their savings to their gurus.
Those who have moved out also continue making these monetary contributions.
But the newer generations are increasingly resentful of these doctrines. The power dynamic is steeped in obligations, often pressuring chelas into silent submission. Among Mumbai’s seven major “gharanas” (in this context, clans) which are helmed by the senior-most gurus called “nayaks”, Rose was first accepted into the gharana that some say runs an especially tight ship.
And while seeking a new guru is extremely controversial, she dared to walk away.
“My first guru was an alcoholic and would always create a scene,” she said. “She wouldn’t show up to important events and I was hurt and depressed. She harassed me for money and levelled allegations that I stole money, gold, etc.”
When Rose decided to run away, she said, her guru and a few of her chelas “kidnapped me, dragged me home, hit me with brooms and slippers, and even chopped my hair to brand me an offender”.
It was a guru in Mumbai who ultimately united Rose with her next guru. “Gurus don’t just make anyone a chela,” Rose explained, “one must be good-looking, adept at mangti [seeking alms], and have people skills with no history of offences.”
While Rose still engages in “hijarpan”, that is the community’s traditional activities - begging and attending functions to offer blessings for alms - to make ends meet, she has managed to make inroads into more mainstream professions too. Her guru is proud of her, she said, but she was still slut-shamed by the community for wearing “western clothes and going out to network”.
“The elders hold us back from joining mainstream professions, partly out of selfishness and partly out of protectiveness,” she said.
The rules that govern the community are not arbitrary. A jamaat or committee, constituting the nayaks from every city or town, is instated to enforce the rules and collect fines ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 1 lakh. These rules are likely not recorded; they are passed down traditionally to successive jamaats. Many gurus compel chelas to sever ties with their families, as they feel the latter can never truly accept trans children. Gurus often forbid chelas from getting involved with cisgender men, since they believe that men fetishise trans women’s bodies.
The rules are varied and strictly defined. “Entering a police station, for any purpose, invokes a fine,” said Kajal guru. “All disputes must be resolved internally, through the jamaat. Begging or collecting badhai (alms at events) outside one’s territory attracts severe penalties.”
These rules might seem excessive but they are necessary, according to Zara Siddiqui*, another Mumbai-based guru who lives with her own guru and two of her chelas.
“Disciplinary beatings are sometimes required,” said Zara, who is around 45 years old. “The new generation is greedy: they want to keep everything they earn. For us, everything is our guru’s and will eventually be passed down to us.”
While Rose says she would leave the system at the first real opportunity she gets, it’s almost unheard of to do so. “You usually get captured and punished. You cannot work in any of the community’s occupations without the affiliation of a guru and gharana” she said. “One can distance themselves gradually.”
There are important functions performed by gurus for their chelas. For instance, in 2011, a court and awarded them compensation when 14 Gurus were killed in a fire. Gurus are central to every important milestone in a trans woman’s life, from transitioning to death.
“There will be a hundred opinions based on a hundred people’s experiences, and they are all valid,” said Sowmya Gupta, deputy program manager at Humsafar Trust, an organisation working to advance health, advocacy, capacity building & research for the LGBTQIA+ community. “But as the only structure resembling a family, it needs reform, not abolishment.”
But Neysara, the founder of Transgender India, an online transgender community, said the hijra community is “not a child-friendly place equipped to handle trauma”. “What is vulnerable is traffickable,” she said, “and most that join are disenfranchised.”
She recalled being young and scared and turning to the hijra community, only to be met with its most “brutal side”. “When my family was trying to honour-kill me, I sought the hijra jamaat for help,” she said. “They outright told me that I can’t have a call centre job and could only stay with them if I do sex work and earn for them. The capital for the entire operation comes from traditional occupations, making everyone manpower.”
Sowmya argued that even within families, collective earnings are handed to one person to budget for the entire household. But both she and Neysara agreed that regulation is not advisable because without trans representation, laws made by cis people for the “other” can be damaging. For instance, Section 12(3) of the the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 compels trans folks to either continue living with their birth family or in rehabilitation centres, denying them the agency to choose to live in the hijra community.
Besides, the need for “rehabilitation” also pathologises gender dysphoria. Sowmya said: “The standing committee that drafted the Trans Bill knew nothing about trans issues. The commission created to monitor the progress of the policy meets once in three months.”
Neysara has a three-step solution to mitigate the damage: empower, equip and employ. “Reform can only come through civil society,” Neysara said. “Firstly, trans people must get full citizenship rights. Child helplines and child welfare committees must be sensitised about identity-related issues. Chelas should be educated about human trafficking, debt bondage, bodily autonomy, etc. Trans women should be trained for jobs like security guards, call centre executives, etc, and be enabled to leave the community if they like or stay with more agency.”
All the stakeholders in this system are advocating for policy-led interventions to have a bottom-up approach, without losing sight of the larger mission: the integration of trans folks into mainstream society to reduce and ultimately end their dependency on this system, if not the system itself.
As Kajal guru said: “If we enjoyed the same access, why would we ever come clapping at your doors for money? Trans people need more affirmative action: in education, healthcare, housing, transport, sanitation and even cremation.”
*Some names changed to protect identity.
This story was produced by Newslaundry. It was written as part of a media skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation supported by the Swedish Postcode Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.