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 part of the interview, Joyita narrated how she rebelled at home and shifted base from Kolkata to Islampur. Here, she talks about the experience of establishing a self-help group for trans persons and organizing rainbow pride walks in Islampur. She explains at length how the approach of organizing the pride walks departed significantly from the way similar walks are organized in metropolitan India. Long read alert!
Pawan: You have crossed many individual milestones. But tell us about the effect of your work on the trans communities or the larger LGBT communities.
Joyita: I began work in Uttar Dinajpur, basically the Islampur sub-division of the district, and now I am a local here, having transferred all my belongings here. Many trans persons here were subjected to family atrocities. But now I am there as a role model for them. Now their families tell them, “If Joyita can do it, why can’t you?” If a member of my community gets into any trouble at night, people will bring them to me and I am at once, informed over a phone call. If any close-knit member of my community is catcalled or teased on the streets, people immediately warn the perpetrators not to do so because the person concerned is closely related to me.
Moreover, name change [as part of legal gender identity change of trans persons] is happening smoothly in my area as legal aid is proficient here. Though till now there are no toilets or hospital beds assigned for trans persons, if any trans person needs a [hospital] cabin, they are provided one. Maybe it does not spell out the words ‘trans cabin’ but it is provided free of cost. They are not admitted to either male or female [wards]. But if a trans woman says that she is comfortable in a female [ward], then she is admitted to one. For example, recently a trans woman was scared to be alone in a cabin and so she was given a bed in the female [ward].
Trans women here use toilets for [cis] women without any discrimination or objections. There are many women-led organizations here of which many trans women along with me are a part of. We often stay and eat together. They see us as fellow female friends and do not see us as an ‘other’ or a ‘trans person’ . . . They tell me “We women are also deprived of a lot of rights”. Be it any community programme or local function, I am always invited.
As an organizational initiative we have started gender sensitization in schools. We plan to start these sessions and LGBT rights awareness in colleges too, to the best of our abilities. A school headmaster told us that even if we do not conduct sessions in classrooms, speaking to individual teachers also creates an impact. In this locality, more than 50 trans persons have got a shilpi bhata (artisan stipend) card allotted by the [state] government. In December 2018, we created a trans self-help group called Icchepuron, which takes orders for food and makes jewellery.
Today, in Islampur, or in Uttar Dinajpur, trans persons do not have to deal with too many adversaries. However, because there is no reservation for trans people or separate funding for programmes for them in this district, financially they are still weak. If the central or state government does something about it, it will be helpful.
Pawan: Please tell us a little more about Icchepuron, about the group’s design and what it has achieved so far.
Joyita: The women’s self-help groups that we have are set up at the level of Gram Panchayats. However, for trans women, the District Magistrate passed a special order that the self-help group would work at the district level. This has been useful for us – both people from the villages and the municipal corporation areas have been able to come to Icchepuron. We have, for now, started a small-scale food catering business, supplying food to small events. Our members also take snack items around on wheel carts and sell them. There are talks that the government might sanction a bank loan, if for six months proper banking transactions and activities are carried out.
If the loan is sanctioned, we have plans to scale up our work on jewellery making as the trans community members love adorning themselves and others with jewellery and so they will have a knack for this work. The business will also succeed as people will always have a demand for both food and jewellery. So far, 10 of us, all trans women, are running this business. Our aim is to sensitize people as the villagers see us in a negative light as beggars, getting on trains and cursing. We want to show them that even trans people can make jewellery and food, and run a business. If we can clear the first loan with the help of low interest rates, larger loans may be forthcoming. That will allow us to employ more people and expand our business.
Pawan: I wish you the best of luck and hope to support you in your initiatives. Something you said previously brings a question to mind about the first pride walk that you organized in Islampur in 2017. You received a lot of help from the government, including the District Magistrate. Very often, such as in Kolkata or other cities, we see that when it comes to organizing pride walks, we use only community resources and do not accept any funding from corporate agencies, government bodies or NGOs. But you have collaborated with the government and organized pride walks, and I wonder in how many other places this happens. What would you say regarding this because isn’t half our fight against the government?
Joyita: When I organized the pride walk, my understanding was that the queer communities would participate in it to be visible. It is not always possible for people from North Bengal to attend pride marches in Kolkata and Chandannagar; there are financial constraints and other difficulties. Hence, after we thought of this, I took the help of the government because the local Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) and Deputy Magistrate had always supported me and had been very friendly to my community. I shared my thoughts with them.
Since we were organizing pride for the first time, there was concern about the number of people who would show up. The communication here is not like that of a big city where people can avail public transport, travel for one to two hours by bus, metro, taxi, or by local trains. Here we also need to make arrangements for their accommodation and meals. And to organize so much on such a large scale, we needed to think about resources. Our expenditure would be twice as much as the amount of money usually required to organize a rally because we also needed to take into account the meals and accommodation of outstation participants.
I communicated my problems to the government officials and they said that from their position they would consider organizing the accommodation and meals, and from our side we were already raising donations. So they put their staff together – the staff in charge of driving, treasury, and the SDO staff. The Deputy Magistrate took me to meet all of them, informed them that I was organizing a march and they all agreed to donate. They called me in 3-4 days time and made monetary donations for the event. I had not thought that people from the government would be of such help.
On the day of the pride walk, there was a local administrative programme due to which they were unable to attend. The Deputy Magistrate and the District Magistrate (DM) Madam, they were disappointed that they were unable to attend the pride march. I had planned out the walk with them in great detail – such as we would go like this, we would carry the Indian flag this way, the rainbow flag would be placed in such and such manner, they would be at the back, either in cars or they would walk with me.
The government officials wanted me to show a new initiative in Islampur, which they would all support. If a West Bengal Civil Service officer or an Indian Administrative Service officer were to be part of the pride walk, then 8-10 other people would also think about joining us. I had considered all of these possibilities and proposed this plan. They were unable to take part in the pride march because there was a meeting and they had no time.
The march was inaugurated by the District Judge who gave a 10-minute speech and then had to leave because of court work. The DM was in a conference room in a meeting with the SDO, Block Development Officer and others, but she was in constant touch with me over the phone. She told me that they would join us at the end of the walk. We were dancing and singing when we reached the end point of the walk, because our plan was to end the walk with the DM and other government officials. We gathered in a field and they gave speeches.
The speeches that the government officials gave were such that a lot of participants from Kolkata and other places remarked later that they had never seen such a thing in a pride walk before. They appreciated the work we were doing in Uttar Dinajpur.
The DM has been transferred now – she used to say that she wanted to make Uttar Dinajpur a model for the LGBT community so that the rest of West Bengal would take inspiration and recognize that this was something possible . . . Now none of those government officials are there, the Deputy Magistrate, District Judge, or the DM, and I am yet to build a rapport with the people who are there now. I feel now that if at that point of time I had made the necessary effort, then today a lot of changes would have been possible for my community.
When I organized the pride march the second time [in 2018], I again received a lot of help. But I took a different approach the second time round, taking into account the change in staff and officers, as one could not have been sure what their attitude would be towards us. We raised money through donations and fund raising and we have planned to approach the organizing of the 2019 pride march in a similar fashion. [Eventually Islampur did not have a pride walk in 2019, and the 2020 walk was the one organized in Gangarampur].
Pawan: My main question is do you feel any conflict in your principles about working with the government for the purpose of organizing pride walks? What are your opinions concerning this?
Joyita: I may be wrong, but the pride walk means an occasion for our community to hold up our demands to the government, demands which have not been fulfilled. But on the other side, the things that we have received, we also need to hold those up. So, for that reason I have worked with the government. There are demands that have not been fulfilled such as despite receiving help in certain avenues we still have to protest in front of a police station regarding why our FIRs are not accepted. Collaborating with the government would also ensure that the police officials would have to think that if the local government was meeting our demands but they were not – did it mean that they were not taking into account the law and working outside it? These are things they would have to consider in the future.
I have raised concerns of the trans communities with the government. The last time I had asked, “Why aren’t there toilets for us? Where is my toilet? I’m given so much respect and honour and made a Lok Adalat Member Judge, and yet where will I go if I have to use a washroom?”
Joyita: So I do all of this. I feel that if a person is flawed in 10 ways and if I highlight one good quality in them, they will wonder about this and in the future desire to be better. This is why I collaborate with the government. I do not use any governmental tags or logos. When I raise donations and a government employee donates, there is no official documentation of this process. The fact that the Deputy Magistrate and the DM helped me raise funds – they did so in an unofficial capacity, in their capacity as individuals, and I did not have to sign any documents regarding this. I also did not advertise the government’s schemes or anything to that effect. Through the pride walk we communicated what we had received in a year and what demands there were for the following year from the trans and queer communities in Islampur . . .
Last year, the government supported me to such a great extent. But we protested against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018 outside the SDO’s office. We were clapping and shouting slogans. The officials could hear our sloganeering, and the next day I was called and they told me that we were not wrong in protesting. They said they could not do much from the position they were in, but they were trying and the system had to undergo change.
Pawan: The most important fact is, speaking from personal experience, I have worked in NGOs, and working with the government does not mean we cannot criticize them. We will praise them where it is due as well as criticize them where necessary . . .
In February 2020, Joyita and Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society’s advocacy efforts paid off when the Balurghat District Hospital in Dakshin Dinajpur district allocated a four-bed ward for trans persons. This was a rare development in the West Bengal context – Editor.
To be continued.
About the main photo: A scene from the first rainbow pride walk organized in Islampur on June 29, 2017. The walk was called ‘Sathiya Uttorer Gourab Jatra’. All photographs courtesy Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society