The International Human Rights Day comes and goes every year. Human Rights activists talk of torture of under trials in police custody. They talk about human beings being subjected to medical experimentation without their conscious knowledge. They discuss socially relevant subjects like violence against women, child abuse, trafficking or exploitation of child labour in TW countries. But the lot of the community of eunuchs is largely ignored even by their own. It is also true that at every stage of their existence, their rights to live and work like normal human beings are violated with impunity.

The term eunuch – hijra – that we commonly use to mean a ‘sexless’ person has been defined in the dictionary as a castrated man. A hermaphrodite is a creature possessing both the male and female organs. A transvestite is a person who chooses a sex other than the one he/she is born as. Facts tell us that neutralized neutral-sex persons are a rarity. The hijra population in India has a well-defined group structure and regional affiliations with a group head. Though Balucharaji is their Goddess and they revere Ambe Mata, there are religious demarcations. Most of them identify with the female sex. Within the eunuch community, incest is absent. Most of them have worked as prostitutes at one time or another. Serena Nanda’s research shows that some persons labeled hijra in India are both prostitutes and celebrants of rites of passage.


Hindu epics, puranas and mythology are replete with the courageous feats of true hermaphrodites who, within these scriptures, have always been referred to as the ‘third sex.’ “But after the Arab attack in the eighth century, castration of males in order to put them on specific jobs began on a large scale” writes S. N. Ranade [1]. Centuries ago, guards to king’s harems were castrated to ensure that no co-habitation between royal wives and guards took place. This led to the creation of the ‘third sex’ – the castrated eunuchs. But it was not the end of the story. These sexless wonders realized that perversions did exist in society. Many males found them distractingly attractive. And the potential ‘femme fatale’ was born.

Hijras have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, hijras face severe harassment and discrimination from mainstream people in society, are not allowed to have any organized source of income, and from the police that arrests them for begging, one of the few sources they have of eking out a livelihood.

Are Hijras born or made?
The term hijra is often translated as “eunuch” and the archetypal hijra is raised as a man and undergoes ritual removal of the genitals to become a hijra. However, anthropologist Serena Nanda [2] explains that many hijras come from other sexually ambiguous backgrounds: they may be born intersexed, be born male or female and fail to develop fully at puberty, or be males who choose to live as hijras without ever undergoing the castration procedure. The cultural category “hijra” appears to be a magnet for a variety of sexual and gender conditions: ambiguous sexual anatomy, impotence, infertility, homosexuality, and others, which may not have an analogue in Western cultures. Nanda writes that the crude surgery is done by dais (country nurses) whose ‘training’ is based solely on experience. The eunuchs call this ‘operation’ nirbaan meaning ‘mukti’ because the act suggests a ‘transition’ of the person from one ‘life’ to another. Indian legal statutes do not permit such forced castration of males and therefore, there is absolute secrecy around the act of ‘nirbaan.’ The operation is always conducted between three and four before the crack of dawn, while it is still dark, and no one else but the dai-maa and her assistant is present for this ‘ceremonial’ ritual. The whole act is given the colour of a religious ritual like the acceptance of deeksha for a better life in the next birth purely in order to veil the essential barbarity and brutality of the custom and make it seem both acceptable and ‘natural.’

In 1990, Dr. B.V. Subramaniam [3] of the Surat Medical College wrote a paper based on his research on the making of a eunuch. The study reported that most eunuchs in India were the result of forced castration. The method adopted for the surgery is crude, unscientific, threatening to the health of the patient and done in the most unhygienic conditions. The genitals of a normally born male baby are slashed off with a knife dipped in boiling oil. After dressing the wound, a nail with a string attached is tied to the waist and drilled into the stump, which would, with medication and time, begin to look somewhat like a female crotch.
In cases of castration, Subramaniam’s paper says that breasts develop because the seat of the male hormones – testicles – has been removed. When the female hormones take over, the growth of secondary sexual characteristics, such as growth of facial hair, is restricted. So, also the regular change in voice. Castrated or not, eunuchs are sexually active. As they cannot form intimate relations within the parameters of either acceptable or aberrant behaviour due to lack of takers, they take to prostitution. Because of their indiscriminate sexual lives, Subramaniam warns that they are possible carriers of the HIV virus. Gully No. 1 of Shuklaji Street, a notorious red light area of Mumbai, is an almost exclusively eunuch preserve.

Legal Hassles and Police Torture
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party, states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. Law shall protect this right. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life”. Article 4 of the ICCPR states that this right cannot be waived “even in times of public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. Unlawful and extra judicial killings clearly contravene the right to life. The Indian government ratified the ICCPR in 1979. By ratifying an international treaty which enshrines the right to life, India is obliged not only to respect that right in principle, but also to ensure it is not violated in practice. The ICCPR imposes a clear duty on states to investigate alleged violations of the right to life “promptly, thoroughly and effectively through independent and impartial bodies.”

What kind of life are these Articles talking about? Isn’t the quality of life more important than its quantity even for people marginalised by the mainstream as the lowest of society where the word ‘human’ is under question? Is it a life of dignity where a person can stand tall with his/head in the skies? Or is it a life of humiliation, insult, oppression and neglect by the family, media and establishment given legitimacy by the legal system? The violence a hijra faces from the police is traced to the 1897 Amendment to the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, subtitled: “An Act for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs,” equating at one stroke, all criminal tribes with eunuchs who are not criminals either by birth or by vocation. Under this law, the local government was required to keep a register of the names and residences of all eunuchs who were “reasonably suspected of kidnappings or castrating children or committing offences under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.” This section is mostly used, or misused, to ‘deal’ with the hijra community as well as homosexuals in India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal,” even if it is voluntary. The law, which is traced back to colonial ideas of morality, in effect, presumes that a hijra or a homosexual is engaging in “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” this making this entire class of one of the most marginalised communities vulnerable to police harassment, arrest and torture by the police at any given time and place under any excuse.

In a sudden police raid on a Bhandup (a Mumbai suburb) brothel more than 15 years ago, many of the prostitutes were eunuchs. When rounded up and taken to the local police station, they were found to have deep gashes, cigarettes stubbed on their arms, scars of regular beatings and lashings. The police too, are no less. All eunuchs must pay hafta to the police or risk being beaten up. They are rarely employed in regular jobs, though many would like to lead normal lives. They fight among themselves for clothes and money when the time to share the booty comes. They have no grudge against normal human beings because they accept their sexual identity as ‘destiny’, which, as we all know, is not quite true. How can castration be destiny?

After a long struggle, the eunuch community has succeeded in a small measure by convincing the bureaucracy to allow them to enter “E” in forms, data-base sheets and other official documents like passport application forms on the NET in the place where they have to enter their ‘sex’ instead of the routine “M” or “F” which does not apply to them.

The Hijra Identity
Ranade [4] interviewed hijras thrown out of their own eunuch groups in Delhi because the Delhi eunuchs refused to be interviewed by him. Since they were already ostracised by their own groups, these eunuchs were more forthcoming in their statements than group members generally are. Among 100 such ostracized eunuchs Ranade interviewed, 76 said they were castrated, 13 said they had genitals of either sex, that is, genetically born hermaphrodites and 11 were transvestites – woman’s mind trapped in a male body. Or, vice versa – a male trapped in a female body. Of the 100, 51 said they were males and 49 said they were female. Not one of them said they were neither male nor female. True hermaphrodites of either ‘sex’ that is, people born with one testicle and one ovary are a rarity in real life. The Report mentions the existence of what is known as pseudo-hermaphrodite.

Medical science states that hermaphrodite ‘males’ are those born with testicles only and some sexual characteristics of a genetically born female, but no ovaries. Hermaphrodite ‘females’ on the other hand, are born with ovaries and with some sexual characteristics of the male sex but no testicles. Ranade insists that most eunuchs in India are castrated males. Pseudo hermaphrodites, both ‘male’ and ‘female’ are not very many while true hermaphrodites can be counted on one’s fingertips. Because of their ‘unique’ biological feature and their sparse number, true and natural eunuchs command a lot of respect among the eunuch community. Parents of such groups almost voluntarily hand over their offspring to eunuch communes or to institutional care. Ironically, these institutions themselves are discovered to have handed these children back to the eunuch community all over again.

Living in a society intolerant of deviant behaviour, hijras, mostly poor and illiterate, look upon themselves as cursed for the sins of their past life. There is no definite count of the hijra population in India. Estimates range between 100,000 to over one million. Though mostly gay or transvestite, hijras believe they are sexless persons, neither male nor female. Most of them lead a life of penitence and austerity, though not necessarily of abstinence, and practice bizarre rituals to win from God their one great wish: to be born as man or woman in their next life. The story goes that after a eunuch dies, the others of the group give the dead body 27 beatings with their slippers so that the person is never again born a eunuch. Once employed by sultans to guard their harems, the hijras, literally hermaphrodites, but mostly eunuchs or castrated males, live today on the fringes of society, ostracized yet accommodated, occasionally venerated for their supposedly magical powers.

The hijra community is very similar in function to the Hindu Caste System. It is a community unto itself, a sect within themselves, united like the family system. There are seven nation-wide communal households known as gharanas for the most part in cities throughout Northern India.  Each has its own history and rules of behaviour. Each household is headed by a nayak who appoints a guru or a preacher trained to protect the community members, whose disciples are referred to as chelas or students and traditionally amount to about five per guru. Before entering the community, the hijra has to live in satla (female attire) and observe the community for at least a year [5].

Eunuchs and the Media
The media, instead of helping their cause, has hampered it almost irreversibly by projecting them either as a dark and sinister group of people with criminal instincts, to be avoided at all costs, or as the laughing stock in films, and rarely with empathy and humanity. The hijra community is a close-knit one, their ways and habitat kept secret from even the closest of neighbours who nurse more hatred than fear for them but prefer not to show it. Only the odd beggar who sleeps on the pavement across the road from a hijra colony seems to envy their deviant existence. They appear to care little for social acceptance but have enough sensitivity (though their manner does not reveal this) to hate being ridiculed by ‘straight’ people. Many of them have turned to crime and prostitution. “But once they reach a certain financial status, I have observed that they leave such work” said Dr. Uday Sheth of Mumbai who treats five eunuch patients a month on an average. Yet, none of these elements have been used as plot, theme or subject in Hindi cinema. Only in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay did one get to see the secularity and the tenderness of a hijra and the empathy she reveals towards little children. In a touching scene in Bombay, a hijra offers shelter to the two little twins of Arvind and Monisha Koirala. In effect, she saves their lives. She is not bothered about the communal identity of the kids as she lets them know. And then, we know that Mani Ratnam has made his point: a hijra can be a good human being only if we let her show this goodness. Kalpana Lajmi empathised with a hijra forced to live within the mainstream through her film Darmiyaan. In Jodhaa Akbar a hijra, instead of hamming up the usual comic role, was portrayed as a trusted lieutenant of the female lead.

But that is where the empathy begins and ends, with the film. Once the film has lived out its life in the theatres, the ‘dedicated’ filmmaker turns his/her creative back on this much ignored, abundantly humiliated group of humanity. When the original eunuch on whose life Pooja Bhatt’s Tamanna was based, died a tragic death in Mumbai, the filmmaker hardly turned a hair. Her work was done. He was the subject of an unusual mainstream film, which bagged for its producer, a National Award. What more did the filmmaker want?

Organizational Efforts at Prioritizing their Needs
Susan Hema, an associate of the All-India Eunuchs’ Welfare Association formed in 1993-94, said that the organisation aims at raising the lot of the hijras in the country. Ruth Lor Malloy, a Chinese Canadian who was in Mumbai some years ago, helped publish a 32-page booklet on hijras authored by “Meena Balaji and Other Eunuchs of India.” The book is called Hijras: Who we Are. Around the mid-Eighties, the then vice-president of the Hijra Kalyan Samiti, a then-28-year-old Shama, said “we are sick of our traditional means of livelihood – singing, dancing for baksheesh or being reduced to sheer beggary in trains and on streets. I am not pleading for sympathy. I want a change in social attitudes. I want it as a matter of right, rights which other members of society normally have access to.”

Since 2006, the government has employed hijras in the state of Bihar 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 meet is prostitution [6].

B.R. Shetty of Mumbai, a former banker, when he was 45 in 2001, employed a group of eunuchs to help him recover the dues of his credit society. Shetty’s Unique Recovery Services housed in Matunga in Mumbai, played a significant role in recovering bank loans and other such lending from reputed financial institutions in an unabashedly different manner. Shetty’s eunuch employees go about their task diligently, at times creating an ambience of light humour and fun. This has been more effective than other threatening tactics. Afraid of being ridiculed by these thoroughly uninhibited groups, people who shy away from payment decide to pay back their loans within a reasonable time span. Shetty devised this unique plan with the help of suspended former Mumbai deputy municipal commissioner G.R. Khairnar. Shetty firmly believes that eunuchs are better equipped with the power of persuasion than traditional debt collectors. Thanks to Shetty’s enterprise, at least some of the three-lakh eunuchs of Mumbai now have a chance to earn a decent livelihood. The firm today has redefined the lives of Meena, Venkatesh, Francis, Priya, Karishma, Shabnam, Dilnaz, Neetu and many more. These ‘agents’ were also a part of Khairnar’s rescue team for minor girls, active in Kamathipura, the city’s prime red-light area.

A eunuch from Cheeta Camp near Mankhurd in Mumbai said that there should be a separate education provision for eunuchs so that they are not forced to beg for a living. “Trained eunuchs like us enjoy the fruits of labour rather than take to begging. But there are many among us who choose the easy way out. It is time to shake them out of their old habits. Education is the first step,” she said. The DAI Welfare Society of Mumbai caters exclusively to eunuchs across the city. DAI has provided a plot of land to eunuchs for a housing society of their own. It also has a planned programme to provide employment to some 60,000 and odd eunuchs in the city. It is also has a project on paper to set up an ashram for aged eunuchs who are too feeble to earn their livelihood.

Yet, It is difficult to warm up to this strange creature we meet in the train or on the streets, with exaggerated gestures, a low-cut blouse sans breasts, a voice so raucous and manly and a manner so obscenely revolting that our immediate response is to shy away in disgust. We silently fume at this person’s gumption in demanding – not asking – not requesting – not begging, mind you – some money in exchange for a package deal in blessings – sukh, paisa and beta. But for this strange species of humanity, who happen to be eunuchs more by design than by birth or accident and rarely by choice, nothing is what seems to be. When a section of human beings becomes a cliché of our making, never mind the pressures of our social conditioning, it is time we questioned their claim to be treated only as normal human beings who can love and hate, construct and destroy, as strongly and as powerfully as ordinary mortals can.

[1] Ranade, S.N.:  Social Welfare Report, Ministry of Social Welfare, Government of India.

[2] Nanda, Serena: Neither Man Nor Woman: the Hijras of India, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing 1990.

[3] Interview with Dr. Subramaniam in Mumbai in 2001 by author

[4] Ibid. Cited above.

[5] Reddy, Gayatri: A descriptive analysis of the role of Hijras in pre-colonial India with respect to the religions of Islam and Hinduism versus their current role in present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Paper, 2005.

[6] Harvey, Nick: India’s Transgendered – The Hijras, article in New Statesman, May 13, 2008.

[Photo] Photo taken by the V C Ajilal at Varthamaanam Malayalam daily.



Shoma A. Chatteri won the second prize in Human Rights Defence Essay competition 2008 for this essay. She is a freelance journalist and author based in Kolkata, India. She holds a Ph.D. in History and writes prolifically on ciinema, gender issues, human rights and child rights for around ten Indian print media and electronic publications. She has authored 16 published books till date and has been writing for 30 years.


Join HRD