Hijra Sex Worker Activists Secure Release of 200 Hijras Detained by Indian Government

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Photo: Protest in front of Bangalore Town Hall, 26 November, 2014. Speaking, lower left, Akkai Padmashali.

 

Following a protest on 23 November, 2014, advocating for the rights of India’s sex workers and sexual minorities, police in the state of Karnataka undertook a “clean-up campaign” in the state’s capital city, Bangalore, which resulted in the arbitrary detention of up to 200 Hijras. Hijras- trans* women who are commonly referred to as “India’s 3rd sex”- often work as dancers, singers and sex workers. Ironically, despite facing discrimination from certain sections of Indian society, including state actors and some religious leaders, hijras are often commissioned to perform traditional songs and dance at celebrations for newly born children, and many Indian believe that a blessing from a hijra bestows good luck.

However, on 24 November, 2014, local police began a mass “crackdown” on the hijra community on the spurious pretext that the community was violating the Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act (1975). According to local advocates, approximately 167 hijras were arrested and transported to the city’s Hoysalas Beggar Colony, despite many of the hijra community claiming that they were simply going about their daily tasks and were not violating any local laws at the time of their arrests. According to local news reports, police raided the homes of a number of hijras, who claim that they were nowhere near any public space and were ensconced within their private residences at the time of their arrests, despite being charged with offences under the Beggary Act.

Local trans* advocates strongly condemned the arrests, which, to many within the community seemed arbitrary and highly discriminatory. Bangalore-based hijra, sex worker and trans* activist, Akkai Padmasali, attempted to investigate the arrests and in collaboration with other community members, visited the Hoysalas Beggar’s Colony on 25 November, 2014, to attempt to negotiate the release of the incarcerated hijras. However, upon arrival at the Beggar’s Colony, Padasali recalled that she and her and accompanying advocates were subject to attempted intimidation by staff. Padasali said, “Officials at Beggars Colony did not even let us in and threatened that even we will also be locked inside the rehabilitation centre.”

Undeterred by Colony staff, on 26 November, 2014, Padasali subsequently undertook meetings with the local police “Minister, Commissioner and Additional Commissioner” in a day she described as “hectic in fighting for our rights”.  Eventually, later that day, the incarcerated hijras were released and a protest against police brutality was organised in front of the Town Hall. According to Padasali, “Permission (for the protest) was granted and again cancelled. Finally we were on (the) street claiming our fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution of India and were successful.” Up to 2000 hijras and their allies rallied with placards reading: "My Identity, My Right, My Profession, My Right," "Respect My Identity," and "Arrest Me, Because I Am Begging Now."

Since the election of India’s current Prime Minister, neoliberal, Narendra Modi, Bangalore city has been promoted as an example of a “Shining Indian City” — a technologically savvy, Western-style city free from socially undesirable communities. In late October 2014, the Karnataka High Court demanded that the government make Bangalore a “beggar-free city.” Justice Ram Mohan Reddy complained that, “Every day, I have to pay a beggar on the street. Remove them from all public places. You should have removed every beggar from the street by now. I am fed up.”

Subsequently, Bangalore’s Beggar Colonies have become de-facto concentration camps for society’s most marginalised members. Sex workers, hijras, unemployed people, migrants, labourers, homeless people and anyone else police deem as having “no visible means of support in a public place”, are commonly detained and sent to a “relief centre” (the Beggar’s Colony) for “rehabilitation”. Despite the law stipulating that a person charged with a vagrancy offence should have access to a court, and that a magistrate should be responsible for dispensing sentences, the majority of people are simply charge-sheeted by Colony staff, without access to legal advocacy or appearing before a court. In addition to the plethora of human rights violations and miscarriages of justices associated with this process, those detained in the Colony are often refused a release date, meaning that many are subject to indefinite detention.

 The Karnataka Government website promotes the Colony as a “relief centre” which “extensively works on the rehabilitation of beggars by providing not only shelter and hygienic food but also gives training on various skills and strives for better living of Beggars”; however, residents of the Colony have reported being subject to gross human rights violations.

According to inmates - many of whom suffer from malnutrition - conditions range from financial irregularities, inefficient administration, medical negligence, regular food poisoning, and inhuman attitudes of the staff. One resident reported a “woeful lack of medical help with no more than one doctor available during day, and the flagrant manner in which all mandatory legal procedures and rules were thrown to the wind every step of the way.” In an interview with local media, the resident also claimed that “Not only did several deaths occur under unexplained circumstances, but several bodies simply disappeared. As part of a large racket, vital organs could have been extracted and sold illegally. Every day, a few inmates fall ill after having food and are shifted out of the Colony on the pretext of being hospitalised. But they never return. Only later we come to know that they have died. Even the place of their cremation will not be known to us.” Despite the 2010 deaths of almost 300 people incarcerated in the Centre, arbitrary investigations into the deaths did not result in any meaningful institutional changes to the centre.

Fortunately, due to the quick response of community advocates, the hijras recently incarcerated within the Beggar’s Centre managed to avoid the worst conditions of the Centre. However, given the positioning of Bangalore as an international city by India’s current spate of politicians, who aim to promote the city as being “on par with European cities”, political expediency looks to ensure that the arbitrary incarceration of Bangalore’s most visibly marginalised communities looks to continue unabated.

 

Regional Correspondent: Asia Pacific