Manabi Bandhopadhyay’s long road to acceptance

Bandhopadhyay’s appoinment as India’s first transgender principal is a big step forward


The past two years have seen the transgender community in India, colloquially referred to as hijras, take several strides in terms of legal recognition. Photo: Reuters
The past two years have seen the transgender community in India, colloquially referred to as hijras, take several strides in terms of legal recognition. Photo: Reuters

New Delhi: It is unusual for the appointment of a college principal to make news, but Manabi Bandopadhyay’s case is special. When she takes over the academic reins of Krishnagar Women’s College in West Bengal next month, she will be India’s first transgender principal.

“I understand my achievement is a big step forward for the transgender movement in the country,” Bandopadhyay said in an interview to The Indian Express.

She sees it as a vindication of the hard work and effort she has put in during her teaching career. “I have realized that if you are diligent in your work, people start respecting you no matter what kind of prejudices they harbour.”

The past two years have seen the transgender community in India, colloquially referred to as hijras, take several strides in terms of legal recognition. In a landmark judgement in 2014, the Supreme Court recognized them as the third gender and laid down strict guidelines for their acceptance in society. This ranged from asking states to construct special toilets and medical departments to recommending quotas in education and employment as OBCs, or other backward classes. They were also counted in the 2011 census for the first time as the third gender The icing on the cake was the passing of the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill 2014 in the Rajya Sabha in April this year that aims to secure the rights and welfare of the community in the country.

“Manabi’s appointment is a very positive sign. It signals greater acceptance for the community. There have been other symbolic faces also like Madhu Bai Kinnar who was elected the mayor of Raigarh in Chattisgarh in January this year. There will come a day when we will also become MPs and ministers,” says transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam.

Education is the tool needed to transform the fortunes of the community, according to Subramaniam. “Without education it will be very difficult. We will otherwise see another generation of exploited transgenders.”

In 2014, Delhi University introduced the third gender category in its post graduate application forms and while this has been a welcome move, a lot still needs to be done, according to Amitava Sarkar, training officer, India HIV/AIDS Alliance, New Delhi and a transgender activist.

“Legal rights are important but the biggest struggle is to change the mindsets of people, be it at the family level or the societal level. There is still wide spread discrimination. Even the diktats laid down by the Supreme Court haven’t been complied with. When I applied for passport renewal in Kolkata, I was told I had to opt for either the male or female category. The third gender category hadn’t been put in the forms.”

For Sarkar, the directives exists only on paper as social stigma and lack of awareness, especially in rural areas make life very difficult for transgenders, especially children who are confused about their sexuality. “It will help if there are classes on gender and sexuality at school level,” says Subramaniam.

Well begun is half done, as the saying goes, and the community is glad that the state has taken steps to recognize them.

Legal acceptance has proved more elusive for India’s gay community. In 2014 the Supreme Court set aside a previous Delhi high court judgement that de-criminalised gay sex. The effect of this was that it reinstated sodomy’s status as an offence punishable with life imprisonment.

Subramaniam offers one explanation why the third gender has found legitimacy easier to acquire. “The concept (of third gender) is very much there in history. This makes it easier for us to relate and accept the third gender. However homosexuality is seen as a Western construct,” Subramaniam said.

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