Manjuri Singh (name changed for privacy) is a young transgender woman residing in a Garima Greh in Kolkata. Garima Grehs are shelter homes supported by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment (MSJE), Government of India, for transgender people in the age group of 18-60 years.
In an informal chat, Manjuri recounted how so many of the Garima Greh residents had applied for the transgender identity certification. But she was the only one to have received the certificate. This certification is the gateway for all the facilities that have been reserved by the State for transgender people.
Miraculously, Manjuri received her certificate within about a month and a half of applying for it. Sadly, this timeframe has not stood true for several other applicants from all over West Bengal. From around the time she received her certificate, several applications have remained unseen and pending.
Despite being enmeshed in the history and the culture of the Indian subcontinent, transgender people have been living on the margins of Indian society from the time of European colonization, particularly British colonization. The British empire criminalized transgender people under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, and it was not till the Act was repealed in 1949 that the ‘eunuchs’ (as transgender people were referred to at that time) were denotified. Further, it was only in 1994 that transgender people, particularly the Hijra community, still referred to as ‘eunuchs’, were given voting rights.
It was as late as 2014 that the Indian judiciary finally acknowledged the transgender population in all its variations. This judicial decision gave several guidelines for the Parliament to follow when creating legislations to include and affirm the presence of transgender people in mainstream society.
It was several years before the Parliament actually brought out any legislation. The year 2019 saw the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act being promulgated. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules followed in 2020. The Act is a highly watered-down version of the 2014 decision of the Supreme Court of India, and in parts, controversial.
Sections 6 and 7 of the Act specify how a District Magistrate may issue a transgender identity certificate to an applicant, and how, only on gender affirmative surgery, can the applicant have their gender marker changed to male or female. This pathologization of gender marker change and looking at gender through a medicalized lens is highly problematic.
The Rules for the Act are meant to specify the procedures for applying for a transgender identity certificate and gender marker change. However, as of March 2022, the Rules had not been notified in several states and Union Territories.
The National Portal for Transgender Persons was launched by the MSJE in November 2020. It is meant to be a seamless interface for getting a transgender identity certificate, and it allows online applications, listing of Garima Grehs, and other useful information pertaining to inclusive training and education.
However, as of December 2021, only a little over 5,000 applications had been received from different parts of India with a little under 4,000 certificates issued. West Bengal saw a meagre 53 applications made, with only one certificate issued. Till date (as of October 31, 2022), 222 applications have been made from West Bengal, with only 17 applicants being granted the certificate, the rest pending.
To be sure, bureaucracy and red tape have acted as massive barriers. While it is mandatory for a transgender identity certificate to be issued within 30 days by the district authorities, there is a certain arbitrariness involved in the way a District Magistrate may handle these certifications. The lack of transparency in why several cases have remained pending for so long is shocking and inhumane, given that many transgender people lack basic amenities. Having the certificate could give them some respite, as well as allow them to change other crucial identity documents.
Nationally too, till date, only 11,513 applications for transgender identity certificates have been received by the National Portal for Transgender Persons. Yet, even the 2011 Census had nearly 4.9 million people registering their gender as ‘other’, thus making the authorities assume that they must be transgender (in the process invisibilizing several other gender identities, but that is a discussion for another time). Even going by such a conservative estimate of the transgender population, it is shocking to see such a small number of applications for the certificates. One can safely assume that this is a matter of access – and the lack thereof.
First, the portal is available in only five languages in a country which officially recognizes 23 languages. Some media reports in 2021 said that the portal was available in 11 languages (including English), but a visit to the website will prove otherwise. Second, given the lack of literacy in many of the transgender communities, gaining access to an online platform without external support is quite a far cry.
The portal also asks for existing identity documents, which, unfortunately, till date, many transgender people do not have. Moreover, asking for both an address for correspondence and a permanent address can be an issue, and an unkind cut at that, as many transgender people have been cast out by their natal families.
Yes, the portal has given some sort of reprieve to a few transgender people. Yes, it has information that can be pivotal in creating a new future for some. However, the fact that it prevents almost the entire transgender population from being able to access it (merely going by numbers) says a lot about its efficacy.
The right to be recognized in one’s own name, the right to one’s bodily autonomy, the right to be a citizen in one’s own gender identity are basic rights in any functioning democracy. Despite the rich, albeit mired, history of transgender identities, and their inclusion and exclusion, in the Indian subcontinent, today, we are dealing with an issue that can make or break people. It can give transgender people the freedom to fly and claim each and every right possible in their own identity, or else it can entwine their lives into a bureaucratic nightmare.
The slow progress on the rights of a minority population that has faced discrimination on multiple levels showcases an apathy both on the part of the Centre as well as the states. With the faulty laws, and an identity change process out of the reach of most people, irrespective of gender, the framework is designed to be a slow behemoth.
It is up to us to challenge why particular states like West Bengal have been so slow in processing something that is pivotal to the psychosocial wellbeing of individuals for whom every day is a battle. Despite everything, we live in hope.