On January 10, 2020, queer support group Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, led by founder and trans rights activist Joyita Mondal, celebrated its 10th foundation day. The group, though based in Islampur (in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal), organized a rainbow pride walk in Gangarampur town (in neighbouring Dakshin Dinajpur district) as a mark of solidarity with the local queer communities. The event was the first of its kind in Gangarampur and was called ‘Dinajpur Pride Walk’.
Joyita was one happy picture at the pride walk. But only a little more than a year before (in late 2018), she was forced into changing her rental accommodation in Islampur. Her encounter with severe transphobia was in all likelihood the handiwork of her landlady in league with a neighbourhood politico-religious outfit. Joyita pursued the matter legally, though a resolution to the dispute is still awaited.
Pawan Dhall met Joyita in Islampur April 2019 as part of a meeting organized by the Varta Trust Legal Aid Support Group Project. The event was organized in Islampur on purpose, to lend visible support to Joyita and send a message to her detractors. Edited excerpts from an interview conducted with her on April 28, 2019 follow. The interview was in Bengali with a smattering of English. Key expressions have been retained in the original language during the translation process. The transcription has been done by English literature student Vaaswat Sarkar.
In the first and second parts of the interview, Joyita narrated how she rebelled at home, shifted base from Kolkata to Islampur many years ago, established support forums for trans persons in her new home city, and organized rainbow pride walks in Islampur with local government support, an approach that differed significantly from what queer support groups do to organize pride walks in the bigger cities of India. In this third and concluding part of the interview, Joyita shares the experience of threats of violence and transphobia that forced her to change her rental accommodation in 2018. She also speaks about work plans for the future. Long read alert!
Pawan: Joyita, you had mentioned that the district government bodies collaborated with you in organizing the rainbow pride walk in Islampur. But that does not mean that all wings of the government have suddenly mended their ways, which is illustrated by the fact that even now when you have to file an FIR, you face problems with the police. Late in 2018, you had faced a series of transphobic incidents . . . please share with us an account of the events that transpired.
Joyita: Till December 2018, I was residing in a rented house since five years. Before I became a tenant there, my office used to function from that house [Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society’s office and drop-in centre for trans community members]. The people in that house [the landlady’s family] included a retired gentleman and his wife, and their two daughters. The older daughter was married and the younger one had just completed her MSc degree abroad. I was fine there, they were also proud of the fact that someone like me was residing in their house at a time when my popularity had risen on social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube.
Party workers from certain political parties would want to involve me in some work of theirs but I would not want to go. However, because the West Bengal government extended its support to me to ensure that work related to trans community members proceeded smoothly and fruitfully, there were some events where I had to be present in my capacity as a social worker and NGO official. Because of this other political parties felt that I was working with the ruling party. But I was very clear that I was ready to work with any political party that was willing to extend support to trans communities. When it comes to my work, I see the post, not the political party. I interact with ministers, MLAs, MPs – irrespective of the political party they may be from.
In July 2018, my landlady’s younger daughter completed her MSc course and returned home after three years in search of a job. Till then everything was fine, people would come and go, trans people and Hijras would come, spend time in my house and leave, there were no problems regarding this. Sometime in August or September, when I visited my landlady to pay the monthly rent, she informed me that since her daughter had returned, she would need the room on the ground floor where I lived for her studies. I told her that I did not have a problem and that I would vacate the room. Since Durga Puja was round the corner, I said I needed time till after the festivities and I would vacate the room by October-November.
Then a second time she told me that she wanted to install mosaic tiles but she could not do so since I was often away from home. So I should look for rental accommodation somewhere close by, and after the tiles had been placed, I could return. I agreed and then she added that I would have to sign an agreement to continue living in her house. I said yes to this as well.
I assumed that because it had been five years that I had lived here, maybe there was a reason, perhaps the landlady wanted to increase the rent as she had not done so in all of the five years that I had lived there; or it could be that her girl indeed required the room for studies. I also wondered if they had a problem with my gender identity, and then the landlady and her husband were both getting on in years and had health problems. Out of these concerns, I spoke to the girl, but she assured me that the only reason they were asking me to move was to install the tiles.
So I started hunting for other houses but initially I did not find any in Islampur. I was in talks with one or two potential landlords and finally I managed to find a new house. I informed my landlady that I would move to the new place on the 1st of November. We talked very normally about where I was going to stay. In three to four days when I went to sign the rental agreement with the new landlord, he informed me that his old tenants would be returning and therefore he would not be able to rent out the place to me. I informed my previous landlady about this development.
My landlady and her family would never explicitly ask me to leave but would keep reiterating that the tiles had arrived, that they were waiting to be fitted in, but this could not be done as I was still living in the room. They would say there was no rush but I should look for other places. However, in that area no one was willing to rent out their house to me despite there being vacant rooms. Some said that they were looking to lease out spaces only to families, others went so far as to question what would a single person do with such a huge space. Some said that just me, by myself, was alright but they were not okay with their space being turned into an office where people could come and go – for the reason that there might be a space crunch. Everyone had reasons of their own.
I approached the Ward Commissioner for help and through him the Chairman of the Islampur Municipality and then other government officials and public representatives as well. Finally I found a place. My new landlord assured me that there would be no problem and it was decided that I would shift to the new place on the 8th of December, 2018 and I informed my landlady about this. The incident in question occurred sometime after this.
I was approached by two strangers while I was out on an evening walk. They told me that I was a stain on the Hindu name, that I could not do what I was doing being a Hindu, and that it was condemnable. When I asked who they were, they said there was no point in me learning their identities, but what I was doing was bad. I responded that if being transgender was such a bad thing, then Lord Shiva in Ardhanarishvara form was also bad. I kept arguing with them on logical grounds and on being unable to argue back, they left.
I informed local residents about this incident. Since it was centred around Hinduism, I informed a local Hindu religious organization – their office was situated right beside my house.
I should also talk about an earlier incident when my documentary film I Am Joyita was being shot in Islampur. The director of this film was based in Kolkata. He happened to take a photograph of an organization’s nameplate where the address mentioned Ishwarpur Zilla instead of Islampur. He posted this photo on Facebook, tagged me, and captioned it: “When did Ishwarpur Zilla happen in West Bengal?” A lot of arguments sprung up around this. Several neighbours asked me about this, and a number of reasons were offered behind the name Ishwarpur. I feel that owing to these incidents there were people who were disgruntled with me.
Coming back to shifting of houses, I was supposed to move on the 8th of December. I finished packing my belongings by the 6th itself. I did not sleep well that night as I was sad that I would be leaving this house to go to a new one in a new neighbourhood. I woke up early on the 7th and found an envelope slipped under the door with my name Joyita Mondal on it. I immediately opened the door and found my landlady’s younger daughter standing there. Usually this girl would wake up every day around 9-10.30 am, but it was around 6.30 am then. She told me that she saw a letter with my name on it in the space around the staircase and so she slipped it into my room.
This house that I lived in, it had two outer gates which were locked at night. The space around the staircase was inside the second gate, and then there was the door to my living space. So it was not possible for an outsider to leave a letter for me in the staircase space, which would then find its way into my living space. I asked the girl to open the letter and read it. There were many things written in that unsigned letter [in Bengali] such as how I was a Hindu but a stain on the Hindu name, how after my arrival Islampur had worsened, how men had started dressing up and behaving like women, how the men in my neighbourhood got agitated when they saw me, how they could not allow my film to run in Islampur as it would further agitate the viewers, how such values were prevalent only in western countries and were unheard of in India and West Bengal.
The area of Islampur I lived in was called Thana Colony, and towards the end of the letter it was stated that I should leave Thana Colony. If I chose to not heed this advice, no police or administration would be able to save me as certain steps would be taken in future.
The girl on reading the letter appeared distraught, and wondered who wrote it and why. I approached the Islampur Police Station, and I called a few people asking for advice because I was worried for my safety as I lived alone. I filed a complaint at the police station. The Superintendent of Police (SP) offered me security which I received for one or two days. The police pointed out to me the slogan written at the end of the letter: ‘Jai Shri Ram, Bharat Mata ki Jai’. The contents of the letter were written in orange ink on plain white paper. The envelope the letter came in was also orange in colour. So I suspected that there might be an organization behind this. At the same time I considered the situation from the position of someone who was part of and managed an organization. I could not have claimed for sure that there was organizational involvement since no official letterhead had been used. Anyway, I did not pursue this further and left the matter to the authorities.
After this, on the 8th of December, I shifted to the new house and the police called me and offered me support. Around 20 days later, I started receiving threat calls at night around 10.30-11 pm. Initially I disconnected them because they were from unknown numbers. When I responded to one of the calls, the person on the other end remained silent. I asked them repeatedly to identify themselves and to provide a reason for calling so late in the night. The caller finally said, “I’m Don”. I said, “You be Don outside, don’t come to me and be Don,” and I disconnected the call. There was another call asking me to apologize to Don! I retorted, “Why should I apologize to Don, because I’m not the person who’s harassing anyone by calling them this late at night”. Then this person told me who Don was, that he had murdered and raped people around here, and so on. He said, “You tell me where you are and he’ll come to set you straight”. I told him that my Google locations were on, and they could track me through my mobile phone and come find me.
This person then started saying that they knew I was educated and smart, that nothing could be done to me, but I could not be allowed to move about as Islampur was being ruined. I disconnected the call and informed the police. They asked me to record these phone calls and send them the recordings over WhatsApp. They asked me not to switch off my phone or to disconnect the calls. In certain situations where I might not wish to accept a call, I should keep the phone on so that I could keep track of the phone number; in other instances I could accept the calls to see what the callers were saying, and then hand over the phone numbers to the police.
Pawan: So the people who called you from these two phone numbers, their voices were different?
Joyita: It was not just two calls. That night there were around five or six phone calls and all the callers asked me to apologize to Don. I steadfastly refused to do so because I had done nothing wrong. I was abused for this, threatened with murder, that they would come to me at night and shoot me. I responded saying that my phone location was on, I was in Islampur, I dared them to come find me. This ordeal lasted till 12.30-1.00 am which is when I switched off the phone. The next morning I left for work as usual and the phone calls started again. One of the callers said, “Listen, what’s happened has happened. I’ve told them that these people are chhakkas and there’s no point picking a fight with them.” I said, “What’s this word chhakka and to not pick up a fight with these people? If you want a fight you come. I’m ready to fight and I’ll fight harder than you.” I reached my workplace, the calls kept coming some of which I received and disconnected the others.
Some callers also threatened to have my NGO blacklisted and shut down. I stood my ground and informed the police and local administration. The police suggested filing an FIR. I had already filed a complaint and no headway had been made. My concern was that I lived alone and I often had to travel to a number of places every now and then. In case I was attacked, would the police be there to protect me at that moment? I shared this concern with the police and insisted that they should look for the perpetrators and bring them to justice. I said I could not name anyone as I did not know who the culprits were. They asked me to name people I had an enmity with. I refused to do so as I may have disagreements with people at my workplace but that did not necessarily amount to them doing such a thing. Someone I was close to could also have done this. There was no way of knowing.
I informed a few local NGOs and residents about these developments. Eventually members of the Hindu religious organization in my neighbourhood approached me and said, “Didi, we’ve never had any personal problems with you. We’ve always had a friendly interaction with you, give us the name of the person who said all this to you, we’ll see to it.”
Pawan: So the people who approached you from this organization, did they approach you of their own accord or . . .
Joyita: No, when the word spread and local media covered the incident, starting from when I was not finding a place to rent, to me receiving threat calls and letters, I was approached by a lot of people. This included members of the religious organization. I told them that since I did not know who was responsible for these incidents I had not taken anybody’s name, only the police could tell who the culprits were. I said I had to approach the administration for security. I would take what help the administration could provide me with, following which I would see what action I could take at an organizational or personal level. The calls stopped after this.
The investigating police officer called me to ask if I suspected anyone, or else they would have to match fingerprints to see how they could build a case and so on and so forth. At that point I thought I should close the case and see if anything happened again. This was in January 2019. In March, I heard that my previous house had been rented out again but no tiles had been fitted in!
I called the younger daughter of my ex-landlady and she said, “If we’d told you the truth would you have left?” So then I asked her, “How did you presume to know my course of action had I been told the truth? It was your room, you had rented it out to me, and I was paying you the rent. Now, after all that has happened, I suspect you’re behind all this. I’d been staying there for five years but all the troubles started after you returned in July 2018. You ensured that I didn’t find a place for rent in the neighbourhood. I’d asked for time till the 8th of December to move out. To ensure that I left, there was a threatening letter on the morning of the 7th. You don’t usually wake up before 10 or 11 in the morning, why were you up so early on that morning at 6.30 am in front of my door? How did you know I’d wake up then and open the door? The mosaic tiles haven’t even been put. You could’ve just increased the rent or told me that there was a problem with the number of people from my community who visited me in the house, or that you were concerned about your security.”
Our conversation ended in an argument. I informed the police what I had come to know. The next day they visited my ex-landlady’s house and removed the new tenants. Recently, the landlady’s husband passed away, and she and her family members seem to think that I have cursed them.
I have faced other instances of social exclusion as well. But I have also received support. On the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, a number of civil society organizations like the Nagarik Suraksha Mancha organized a programme in my honour. They were proud of me as a resident of Islampur because I had received an award from Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. This programme was live streamed on Facebook and it highlighted how on one hand I had received a prestigious award and on the other I was being shunned. Some government officials and political leaders were present and it was announced that my film I Am Joyita, after its release, would be screened in every ward of Islampur to sensitize the public about the concerns of trans persons.
Things are a lot more settled now. Our allies are of the opinion that people will watch and learn. I could have pursued legal action against my ex-landlady’s daughter and the senders of the threat letter. But instead I informed NGOs and the local residents about these happenings. They are saying that Joyita is not alone. If anyone pushes her, they need to understand that there will be consequences.
Pawan: The point that comes to mind is this girl who had completed her MSc – even after so much education she had such an attitude. At the same time, have you wondered how a single person dared to do all this?
Joyita: Exactly, I have wondered about this, how the girl could not have worked alone on hounding me out. It is possible that she had some outside help. Perhaps that is why the Ward Commissioner had to help me look for a house. It could also be that the girl exaggerated things about me and talked to people about it. But at one time my community’s relationship with that girl was very different. She would come home during the Durga Puja holidays and people from my community would do her facials. She would show me the kurtis she had bought, and she would often ask me to cook for her because she liked my cooking. When I was shifting she even gave me a miniature Ganesha as a farewell gift. I believe she did not act alone; there were other people from the neighbourhood who were involved.
Pawan: So what about the legal action? You do not want to pursue it further?
Joyita: I do not see this as a case. The police have not taken any steps.
Pawan: They left it to you to record the phone numbers from where you were receiving calls, the number of times they were calling you and so on?
Joyita: I even went and gave them the requisite information. Yes, they had asked me to file an FIR but I asked them to track the numbers I provided them and give the callers a warning. One cannot always pursue a legal case and put the perpetrators in jail – that is not always a solution.
Pawan: The police did not do anything about your request for warning the callers?
Joyita: The SP said they would provide me with security but there were no steps taken.
Pawan: So, nothing related to these incidents has happened later?
Joyita: No, but people are urging me to carry on with the fight. There have been a lot of changes such as this year we celebrated our first Basanta Utsab and then the Nababarsha Utsab. I was present for all of these events. A cultural forum has been established in Islampur and I am a member of the forum. There is a group called Islampur Saharnama where all kinds of problems such as someone needing blood, someone who has been involved in an accident, donation camps, eye check-up camps, issues related to donation, medical issues, all kinds of issues are reported. I am part of this group as well. I have links also with journalists.
Pawan: What are your plans regarding future community leadership? Are there other people stepping forward with you? Do they also want to work this way?
Joyita: There are a few people from my community who work closely with me. I depend on two of them who can work in my absence. Our next aim is to build a shelter home, as there are a lot of homeless trans people. I am currently in talks with government authorities in this regard because getting space for a shelter home is a concern. With regard to trans health issues, there has been no work in the rural areas beyond Islampur town. If I go to a hospital today, how I will be treated by a certain doctor will be different from how another trans person will be treated. On these fronts, we need to move forward in an organized manner.
Pawan: Thank you Joyita for taking the time out and sharing your story in such great detail.
In late 2019, the police informed Joyita that if she still wanted to pursue legal action against the persons who harassed and threatened her, she should approach a local court where the police would file their investigation report. But Joyita is not sure if such a course of action will lead to meaningful closure – Editor.
About the main photo: Threat letter received by Joyita on December 7, 2018 apparently from a Hindu politico-religious body (left) and her complaint filed with Islampur Police Station on the same day. All photographs courtesy Joyita Mondal