India's transgendered - the Hijras

With more than 4,000 years of recorded history Hijras have a supposedly sanctioned place in Indian l

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something … transgendered? If you are an Indian in need of some luck on your wedding day you could do no better than seek the blessing of one of the country’s estimated 200,000 male to female transsexuals or "hijras".

Hijras have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Yet despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, hijras face severe harassment and discrimination from every direction. Deepa is a 72 year old hijra living in Mumbai: “Nobody says, “I’d love to be a hijra!” Not if they know what happens to us. But what else can we do? A hijra has a man’s body, but the soul is a woman.”

Something, however, is beginning to alter in the traditional Indian mindset as right now there seems to be both subtle and appreciable changes taking place in terms of how this group are being treated and recognised by mainstream society. Over the last few months India has seen its first transgender fashion model, a transgender television presenter and in the recent Bollywood epic Jodhaa Akbar a hijra, instead of hamming up the usual comic role, was portrayed as a trusted lieutenant of the female lead.

Yet these developments come after years of crushing social stigmatisation, abuse and general derision from the wider community. Pooja, 27, realises there is still a long way to go: “They make documentaries about us and say all these interesting things, but when we walk out on the street we still get the calling and the whistles.”

The uphill struggle for the hijras first begins with finding acceptance within the family. “My family didn’t know I was castrated,” tells Chandini, 28. “My hijra friends teased me because I still went home in men's clothes, so I decided to go home as I am. When I got there some people in the street spotted me and told my mother, “Here’s your son!” She saw me and fainted. My father came, he said, “I don’t have a son, go away!” I lifted my saree and showed him. I said, "I'm not your son, I’m your daughter now."”

Once the truth is out, hijras are usually forced to leave the family home. Yet the society they must take refuge in is equally as unwelcoming. Hijras have few rights and are not recognised by Indian law. This denies them the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to marry and the right to claim formal identity through any official documents such as a passport or driving licence. Accessing healthcare, employment or education becomes almost impossible. In the face of such odds they are forced to earn money any way they can. “In the day we go around the shops and beg," says Deepa. "They give us a rupee each and we go away. Sometimes we dance at weddings and festivals, we can get good money from this."

Since 2006, hijras in the state of Bihar have been employed by the government as tax collectors, singing loudly about the debt outside the defaulter's premises until they are shamed into paying up − one of the most effective tax recovery methods ever used in India. Yet for many hijras the method of making ends is prostitution. “At night I go with the men,” Pooja says. “I am looking good so I can get a room. Many who don’t look so good must use the vehicles or somewhere else outside. Yes, it can be bad at times but I'm happy with this work.”

As is the case for all gay, lesbian and bisexual people living in India, simply by being sexually active hijras are breaking the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) outlaws any “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” − in other words, any sex that is not between a man and a woman with the aim of reproduction. Brought in by the British in 1860 to try and curb the “heathen customs” of the local population, it carries with it a potential life sentence.

Whilst attitudes in the UK have matured considerably and such legislation has long since been removed from the British statute books, it still remains very much part of the Indian system. Although convictions are rare, it is in the name of such a law that the police are able to carry out their worst abuses against the hijra community. It seems that every hijra in India has her own story to tell of police brutality: "Once a policewoman attacked me," remembers Chandini. "She said, "Why are you standing here?" and continued hitting me so I grabbed her hand and she ran away. She came back with two policemen and they took me to the station. There they beat me, stripped me and made me dance."

As well as the police aggression, gangs of local thugs known as “goondas” frequently rob and sexually assault hijras on the street. These attacks are rarely prevented or reported by the locals. The local people I spoke with whilst reporting this story were all apprehensive, amused or downright hostile. “They are a nuisance!” says Akram, a jeweller from Mysore. “They come to your shop and when you don’t give them money they lift up their sarees.” Later he adds, “I’ve heard they even steal babies from hospitals.”

Until very recently these attitudes were mirrored and strengthened by the Indian media which itself seemed to suffer from a certain amount of gender vertigo. Hijras were routinely portrayed as wily tricksters who led unsuspecting men astray or half-man half-woman freak shows, almost devilish in their customs and practices. In 2003, an HIV/AIDS and human rights research centre in Lucknow was raided and the coordinator jailed under IPC 377 for "conspiracy to promote homosexual activities". An English language newspaper ran the headline: Gay Racket Busted- 2 NGOs Caught in the Act

But attitudes are gradually beginning to change.

Thanks to a large number of internationally funded support groups that are gaining considerable momentum in many big Indian cities, hijras, as well as other sexuality minority groups, are slowly starting to get a better deal. Rex Watts, coordinator of the Bangalore support group “Sangama,” let me know how this is being achieved: “We had to take direct action. For instance, every time a trashy story was published we would ring up the journalist and give them a hard time about it. It has taken time but now they usually go through us before they print something.”

Sangama was set up in 1999 and is funded by the Bill Gates Foundation and the Fund for Global Human Rights among others. As well as organising protests and rallies, groups like Sangama have been instrumental in establishing community networks with monthly meetings and safe spaces such as drop-in centres for all sexuality minority groups. Two thirds of their spending goes towards fighting against the spread of HIV infection through awareness programmes and condom distribution. According to Sangama, approximately 18-20 per cent of hijras are HIV positive. “Four years ago,” Rex says, “there were three to four AIDS deaths every month [in Bangalore], now there are three to four deaths every year.”

Just as successful has been the 24/7 crisis intervention. I met Mohammed, a lawyer involved with the project: “As soon as someone calls the crisis number nine people immediately rush to the spot. We aim to get all nine people there within 30 minutes.” In the areas where they have been implemented, the crisis intervention teams have reduced the cases of police violence against hijras to practically zero. “When we are called, to a police station for example, we are straight there, 'Why have you arrested this person? We’ve been told you beat her?' like this. They still hassle them and take money from them at cruise points, but the violence has stopped.”

Vivek Diwan from the Lawyers' Collective argues that attitudes are also changing higher up the legal ladder: "Off the record comments are often made by judges [regarding IPC 377] questioning how this kind of archaic thinking can continue, I overheard one saying only recently, "Get with the times man - there's even a pride parade now in Calcutta!""

Even the Indian government seems to be finally recognising that hijras exist. In March 2000 Shabnam Mausi, or “Aunt Shabnam” as she is affectionately known, became the first hijra to be elected into Indian parliament and since then many others have taken her lead by successfully entering the political arena.

In March this year hijras were factored into the government's policy making for the first time when they were named as a target group for a breakthrough de-addiction programme. In the same month the state of Tamil Nadu allowed hijras, if they wish, to be recognised as “T” rather than just “M” or “F” on ration cards with the same being planned soon for passports and driving licences.

Deepa, at 72, may be too old to really benefit from these new developments but she knows the baton will be carried forward for many generations to come: “If you need joy in your heart, we will come and dance for you.” Deepa lives with other hijras in a house and still dances at weddings and funerals. “We can’t just stop doing this. This is what we feel. And we can’t let it go. This is what we learnt from those before us. And this is what we will teach others. And we can’t let it go.”

Nick Harvey, 31, from Northampton is currently knee-deep into an overland round the world tour. India is his 17th country so far. He hopes to come full circle and re-enter his street from the opposite end when he finally returns home

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle