Court battles for ground level transformation

Insight, People, Dec '16
A conversation with primary school teacher Atri Kar who recently succeeded in getting the West Bengal Public Service Commission (WBPSC) to include ‘transgender’ as a gender option in its application forms.

On December 5, 2016, the West Bengal Administrative Tribunal (WBAT), in response to a petition filed by Atri Kar, directed the WBPSC to rectify the gender category option in all its application forms. Pawan Dhall met Atri Kar in Kolkata on December 18, 2016 for a chat. Excerpts follow:

Pawan: Atri will you tell us something about yourself – where do you stay and where do you work?

Atri: I’m from Tribeni in Hooghly district. I’m 27 years old and work in a government primary school.

Pawan: How long have you been working here? And is this your first job?

Atri: Since about January 2014, and yes, this is my first job.



Photo credit: Atri Kar

Pawan:
What did you study in college?

Atri: I’m an English Honours graduate from the University of Calcutta. Then I applied for the Masters course, but I quit after a year because of the discrimination I faced. Later I studied at Roy’s Institute of Competitive Exams (RICE) in Belghoria, and while undergoing training there I landed this job.

Pawan: Can you tell us what discrimination you faced?

Atri: What happens is one needs a platform and financial stability to express one’s gender identity. I did not have that. So I had to dress up myself as a male. But my dress sense did not match my behaviour. It would appear as quite effeminate, so people would joke with me and bully me. When I got admitted for the Masters course, I would have been 23 or 24. At that stage the bullying was excessive, and I had to quit. So to get a government job, I got admitted into RICE, which is a private institution that provides orientation for competitive exams. After that I tried getting a job in the banking sector. But wherever I went, I had to face discrimination. There’s no such space I think where transgender people are not discriminated against. Stigma and discrimination is part and parcel of our lives . . .  

Pawan: It’s a daily reality . . .

Atri: Indeed, and today, if on any day I don’t face stigma and discrimination, it seems the day has gone waste!

Pawan:
What about your situation in terms of family acceptance?

Atri: Well, acceptance usually isn’t there in the beginning. What happened in my case is that when I got my job in 2014, I told them about myself. Before that I would try to habituate them to the issue. I would point out [transgender public figures like] Manobi Bandopadhyay or Laxmi Narayan Tripathi on TV. First of all, family members are not familiar with words like transgender or Hijra, and they are not comfortable with them. So I would often talk about them and help them become familiar with the terms.

Also, when I decided to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, I told the family members. They were hesitant in the beginning. They didn’t know what it would lead to and so they were shaky about it. But eventually there were no major problems – I think this is because people in my family are educated, not just literate. Even till today there haven’t been any problems, and, in fact, my parents are very much happy with my life.

Pawan: Are they aware you are here for an interview today?

Atri: Of course, they know. They have seen me on ETV Bangla and other channels as well. They were quite supportive when I filed the case [against the WBPSC], and when I returned from the court, they asked me eagerly if I would be able to appear for the exams. So my gender identity is not a big concern now. What is more important is that now people of all genders, whether they are Hijra, gay or lesbian, everybody is welcome. There are occasional problems with relatives. It’s been many years since I broke off links with them. Now my parents have no hesitation in telling them about my gender identity – so some of them have welcomed it, others haven’t. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m okay with it.

Pawan: So you mentioned about the case, and we know that recently there was a landmark judgement in which you won and it was victory not just for you but also for the transgender community. And for everyone who’s fighting for human rights. So can you tell us something about the case?

Atri: Well, there was an earlier case as well. In 2011 or 2012, I appeared for a West Bengal Staff Selection Commission exam, and I qualified with 68 percent marks. But at that time there was no ‘other’ gender option and the [Supreme Court of India] NALSA judgement [on transgender identities and rights] was yet to happen. So I had to opt for the male gender option. But now after the NALSA judgement I’m very much okay with my real gender orientation, which is transgender. So their interview was this year in 2016, but their online application form did not have the ‘other’ option. As usual male and female were the only options.

I called Partha Chatterjee, the Education Minister of West Bengal, and told him the details. He suggested that since it would not be possible to take up legal proceedings at this stage and since earlier I was ‘male’, I should tick the male option. But I said I’m not male, and earlier the NALSA judgement was not there so I did not have a platform to make my case! So then he said I should opt for the female option. I said I’m not female either – if I were female I wouldn’t have had any problems in the first place. He replied that in that case I should appear for the interview, and he would see what he could do about it. But what would have been the guarantee that at the time of the interview I would have had access to him? He is after all a very busy person.

I wasn’t at all satisfied with the situation. I wrote to Manobi Bandopadhyay, Vice Chairperson of the West Bengal Transgender Development Board (WBTDB), but did not receive any response. Next, I sought help from Aparna Banerjee, a member of the WBTDB, who then put me in touch with Dr. Shashi Panja, [Women and Child Development and Social Welfare Minister of West Bengal and Chairperson of the WBTDB]. She heard me out but nothing happened even after that. I was taken aback at the way the WBTDB leadership responded to my request – they should have been the first to do something about it!

Ultimately, I had to tick on the male option because the last date for the application was near and I had no time to go to the court. After that, I wanted to apply for the West Bengal Civil Service (Exe) Etc. Examination, and there again the form had only the male and female options. At this stage I filed a case in the Calcutta High Court. But even after that I had to make several rounds. My legal representatives were Aindreela Chakraborty and Kaushik Gupta. Finally when the case came up for hearing, Justice Dipankar Datta said the jurisdiction for this case would be with the WBAT and I would have to approach them. A few days later the case was filed with the WBAT, and they directed the WBPSC to ensure that I could fill up the form offline in my desired gender option.

The WBPSC was also asked to modify the online form to include an option for ‘other’. But they have not done so as yet. They said that I was the only [transgender] candidate, and that changing the form online would take up a lot of time. So for now I had to fill up the form offline. The examination is on January 29, 2017.

Pawan: Can you explain about the change that has happened – what will be the benefit for other transgender persons?

Atri: In real terms, there will be little benefit. The government has not given any platform on which to move forward with a transgender identity. Voter identity cards have the option for transgender or ‘other’. In the school in which I teach, in the application form for students from classes one to four, the transgender option has been included. But the question is will children as young as that realize that they are transgender? . . . Where one really needs the option, it is missing. Just to be able to appear for an examination, I had to make the rounds of the court for nearly a month and a half, call up ministers, face so much tension that I could not prepare for the examination. Who will compensate me for the loss of time?

I keep saying that giving an ‘other’ option to transgender people in voter identity cards is not enough. I think this is a government ploy to get more and more transgender people’s votes. If they were really interested in the welfare of transgender people, they would have focussed on providing education to them. Education is the best way to ensure the development of a community. Government officials keep saying why transgender people should beg for money at traffic signals, why should they do badhai . . . but what else will they do? Where I live, from there to come to Kolkata is difficult but I can still make it. But those who stay in Katwa or Malda, how are they to fight? Till the day transgender persons unite and fight together, the NALSA judgement will remain just a judgement on paper. More and more transgender persons will have to come forward and put pressure, otherwise it will benefit just a few individuals like me.

Another issue is that I think the Supreme Court judgements on Section 377 and NALSA are contradictory. The NALSA judgement will not be fruitful till Section 377 goes . . . this law affects transgender people too, perhaps not transsexual people, but then even married couples are covered by Section 377. And yet there is a stigma that Section 377 is meant for only gay and transgender people. Even in HIV awareness campaigns, why should only transgender people be shown to participate? Isn’t that a form of stigmatization?  

Pawan: In the school where you work now, what is the atmosphere like there?

Atri: Actually, in the last two and a half years, I’ve had three transfers. The school where I teach now, the people there are very supportive and good human beings. There has been no issue with regard to my gender. I receive the same respect from my male colleagues as the women do, and they help me in every aspect. I wish the government would pay attention to these factors. I am after all from a minority community, and minorities do need help in the beginning to come up. Till these issues are in place, a transgender person may soon quit their job even if they get one.

Pawan: That means it’s not enough to help a person make an entry, it’s equally important to create a supportive atmosphere once a person is in an institution.

Atri: Assisting with entry is just about tolerance, but if afterwards I’m not accepted, there will be no forward movement. In my current school I don’t feel as if I’m stigmatized at all. Our discussions happen in quite a positive manner. In fact, I feel that if any transgender person is looking for a job in a primary school, they should first come here! There may be other schools as well, but I don’t know about them.

Pawan: So the final question I have is, what after this? What have you thought about?

Atri: I feel if I don’t gain financial stability, I won’t be able to do much else. Because what I have in mind is that if I find another job, then first what I will do is to make a shelter home for transgender people. But this can’t be possible with a small amount of money, because I will have to employ people and organize accommodation. Perhaps I can start with providing shelter to 10 people, and then it may grow gradually over time. Before that I have two other objectives – to ensure that examination application forms for all posts from Group D level to the officer level provide the ‘other’ gender option and that there are reservations [for transgender people] at all these levels. And what I feel is that if I can achieve these objectives, and if there is greater social acceptance, then a shelter home may not even be needed.

Pawan: So are you talking about a personal, long-term campaign?



Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Atri:
No, I don’t think campaigns really help. Whether we talk about pride walks or other campaigns, they have a limited impact. Pride walks only bring some visibility, people come to know that such people also exist, but once the walk is over, everyone goes back to their daily lives. Our biggest problem is we don’t think deep about anything, we have short attention spans. I also differ with regard to another issue. There are transgender persons who don’t talk about their gender identity at home. In the pride walks they are open about their identity, but when they go back, they mock other transgender persons in their community! In a way they want to deny that they too belong to the transgender community; they want to hide themselves.

Pawan: So is that like an internalized phobia . . .

Atri: Yes, I think we need to come out of this. In fact, my fight seems to be more with members of my own community, and I received more help from other people . . . Another issue that surprised me is that after my case received media exposure, one of the government officials has said that they don’t have enough funds for the WBTDB, but this agency was established nearly two years ago, so why couldn’t they raise funds till now? And she has mentioned that she spoke to the Finance Minister recently, but why after so long?

Pawan: Also, how did they estimate how much funds are needed?

Atri: Yes, and the second issue is what are the activities of WBTDB? I have spoken to many people whom we call chhallawali or badhaiwali – they don’t even know they have rights like us and that they can have voter identity cards. So at the ground level nothing seems to be happening. This word ‘transgender’ is an elite term – in practical terms. In fact, even things like going to court and demanding one’s rights fall within elitism. How many ground level transgender persons manage to access these? We can’t say the community has gained much on the basis of the success of one or two people. Only when we are able to do things at the ground level that things will improve. I don’t think anything has been achieved so far. Giving some transgender people jobs as civic volunteers – on what basis is this being done?

Pawan: Yes, do they even want those jobs?

Atri: Indeed, and how transparent is the selection process? There is also a bias in favour of urban transgender persons, but what about those living in rural areas? It is possible that they are more educated. But the harassment they face is far more than what their counterparts face in the cities. I live in a mofussil area, and I know at what level the harassment can be. Then there may be a question that if I could achieve success, why other transgender people from rural areas can’t do the same. Well, my family members and neighbours are educated people, but not everyone has the same level of tolerance. I too did face some problems. But the main thing is I was not thrown out by my family members. Moreover, I now have some financial stability. So these are the issues we have to focus on.

If we limit ourselves to the cities – our seminars and campaigns, where do they all happen? We are confining ourselves to Presidency University, National University of Juridical Sciences, Jadavpur University or St. Xavier’s College. But they are already quite aware about these issues. Presidency University has an LGBT group called Ardhek Aakash; in St. Xavier’s College it doesn’t matter what gender identity you have. So nothing will change if we limit ourselves to these institutions. There may be harassment in urban areas, but in villages transgender people are not allowed to survive. Nobody is thinking about them.

When I was in my second school, I had said that I would come out with my gender identity and sensitize people in the school, and I had asked for some time. I felt that sensitizing the school was my responsibility, that I shouldn’t approach an NGO. But the school authorities did not listen to me. So an opportunity was missed. But now where I work, no transgender person will face any problem. The environment has become friendly.

Also, I don’t understand this – the government keeps saying that transgender people should give up begging at traffic signals and their traditional occupations, but what will they do after that! How will they fulfill their basic needs? Personally, I have decided that I will not give up my battle and keep approaching the courts for directing change, which the government was supposed to undertake based on the NALSA judgement. Of course, the government can say that we could not carry out planned activities because of shortage of funds. But then why create a board for transgender development?

Pawan: So you are not very hopeful about the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016?

Atri: Absolutely not! I feel every transgender person has to fight for themselves, the government will not provide any support. If the government says today that they have provided jobs to transgender persons, then that is not true. We have had to fight for the jobs we have. And then what is this thing about the government giving jobs? There should be a transparent and unbiased system through which transgender people whether from cities or from villages should get jobs just like other socially marginalized communities do – on the basis of fair selection. Why should only urban transgender persons get some easy opportunities?

I think the WBTDB needs to be reconstituted. There are individuals in it who are really helpful and want to do a lot of things, but how far can they do anything as individuals?

Pawan: I agree that a lot of change is needed, but I feel it is individual efforts like yours that do bring about change and play an important role in shaking up the system. So I would say all the best for your plans, and we will always be with you.

Atri: Thank you, and indeed I will need all of you with me in moving forward!

Main photo credit:
Atri Kar

Bengali summary: Click here - courtesy Ebong Alap webzine.

Author Photo

Pawan Dhall

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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