900 million people are enrolled to vote in the Indian elections this April and May, but few transgender people may be among the voters. Since 2012, a third gender category, “other,” has been available on voter ID cards. For decades prior to 2012, Hijras (who are often termed “transgender”) had resisted their classification as “male” by the state. Hijras traditionally perform, give blessings and collect badhai—or congratulatory donations, an important form of income—on the occasion of births and marriages and in public spaces. They are generally male-born, sometimes castrated, people who have a feminine gender identity.
Today, Hijras and trans-identified people face multiple hurdles in obtaining voter ID cards—including the refusal of their landlords to provide proof of residency—and difficulties changing their electoral enrolment from the sex assigned to them at birth to “other”—such as the need for affidavits testifying to their name change and hostility from bureaucrats. In Bengal, 30,000 people stated they were “transgender” on the last census, but only 1426 are registered to vote in the “other” category. Hijras have received “male” voter ID cards, when they applied in the “other” classification. Some trans people have repeatedly applied for electoral registration—to no avail.
The Times of India recently interviewed a trans woman who asked, “Why should I take all the trouble to go from office to office, obtain an identity proof and vote when nothing is going to change for the community?” This view is understandable: the Indian parliament is currently considering legislation that requires approval from state officials and medical professionals for an individual to legally identify as “transgender.” This undermines the self-determination of gender, a principle endorsed by India’s Supreme Court in 2014.
In fact, Hijras’ struggles with the bureaucratic documentation of their lives date back to the nineteenth century. In the 1860s and 1870s, colonial police officials all over British-ruled northern India drew up “registers of eunuchs,” the British term for Hijras which present day Hijras find offensive. These registers were compiled on a district-by-district basis and recorded an individual’s name, age, place of residence, districts “frequented,” age of castration, castrator (if known), and “ostensible livelihood.” During the nineteenth century, all sorts of economic transactions and categories of people (especially criminalised and marginalised ones) were recorded on registers, as the British sought to know and control India.
However, the district “registers of eunuchs” had an additional purpose: to cause the “gradual extinction” of the Hijra community. The goal of elimination was explicit in official discussions of the “eunuch problem” in the North-Western Provinces (NWP)—located in the Gangetic basin—where the colonial Hijra panic was most acute. In 1865, the Lieutenant-Governor of the NWP wrote that his government’s aim was “to prevent an increase in the number of Eunuchs, and thus gradually lead to their extinction.”
In 1871, Hijra elimination was formalised through the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act (CTA), Part I of which designated certain communities as “criminal tribes” while Part II targeted “eunuchs,” primarily Hijras. The CTA mandated that “eunuchs” who were “reasonably suspected” of sodomy, kidnapping or castration should be registered by police. Evidence of convictions was not necessary; instead, if a “eunuch” performed publicly or wore feminine dress they were considered “suspect.” Registered people were then prohibited from the important Hijra cultural practices of dancing, singing, playing music and wearing women’s clothing, provisions that aimed to bring about the cultural elimination of Hijras. British colonial officials claimed that Hijras’ feminine dress indicated their “addiction” to sex with men—labelling them “habitual sodomites” and “unnatural prostitutes”—and described Hijras as “obscene” performers who contaminated public space.
Another aim of the CTA was the gradual physical elimination of Hijras, by stopping castration, which British officials erroneously considered essential to Hijra-hood, as well as preventing Hijra initiation and discipleship. Hijras generally lived in households structured by hierarchical relationships between gurus and chelas (disciples). The British claimed that Hijras found chelas by kidnapping and forcibly castrating male children. In fact, Hijras were initiated at a range of ages, including as adults. Some initiates were enslaved (as was common in discipleship-based communities), but certainly not all. Nonetheless, the 1871 law sought to prevent Hijra initiation and castration through registration and surveillance; the removal of all children from Hijra households; and provisions that interfered with inheritance from gurus.
The “eunuch” registers are thus artefacts of a colonial project of elimination. Registration was a key practice through which the colonial government attempted to bring about the “gradual extirpation” of the Hijra, not only by tracking the number of Hijra deaths, but also by monitoring—and officials hoped, preventing—castrations and initiations. This project was backed by some middle-class Indian men, who denounced Hijras as slavers, castrators and sexually immoral “men” and called for the community to be banished, quarantined or kept under surveillance.
However, the registers also contain hints of Hijras’ challenges to colonial and middle-class Indian perceptions of Hijras as “men.” In a few district registers, English-language descriptions of individuals slipped from male to female pronouns, and then back again. The police’s north Indian informants (including Hijras themselves) had probably used feminine verbs and adjectival conjugations in Hindi/Urdu to describe the Hijras. This use of feminine language forms sometimes slipped through the cracks of the translation process because the police, the translator and the scribe had failed to make Hijra gender consistently male in the English-language register, in line with colonial and middle-class Indian definitions of Hijra-ness.
Meanwhile, diverse people were caught up in the anti-Hijra campaign and registered as “eunuchs,” including various men who cross-dressed in theatrical or ritual contexts, as well as Zenanas, “effeminate men” who contextually embodied femininity but did not form discipleship-based households like Hijras. Thus, the colonial “eunuch” category was highly porous. The slippage between Hijra and “eunuch” in colonial records mirrors the tendency of the present-day Indian government and judiciary to equate Hijra and “transgender,” though this excludes masculine trans people and many Hijras do not identify as trans (nor trans women as Hijra).
Historians have grappled with this question of how queer and transgender lives—for want of less anachronistic terms—were recorded in colonial texts, from travel literature to official documents like police registers.
We need to pay attention to the “form” of the colonial archive, as Ann Laura Stoler has put it: how documents such as registers were classified, circulated and filed away. Examination of these archival practices highlights the processes by which some forms of knowledge were invested with authority—and thus disseminated and preserved. But it also illuminates documents that didn’t quite fit colonial assumptions and were not widely circulated. Such documents contain valuable fragments of the lives of marginalised, gender non-conforming people. Indeed, “registers of eunuchs” were marginal documents: they were rarely sent to the NWP provincial headquarters, let alone to Calcutta or London, and the only surviving examples can be found in the Allahabad Regional Archives.
Registers were intended to be formulaic documents that could provide a uniform picture of the Hijra population, but this frequently failed. The number of “eunuchs” district authorities registered differed considerably between districts—from three people in Kumaon to close to 100 in Aligarh—depending on Indian and British officials’ perceptions and predilections. District officials often failed to follow instructions on how to record Hijra lives, dispensing with some mandated categories of information and instead inserting novel classifications, often because colonial categories did not fit local social groupings.
The register for Muzaffarnagar district, for instance, included biographies of one or two paragraphs for each registered person. British officials in Muzaffarnagar had argued that the local “eunuchs” were not criminal or sexually immoral and thus should not be registered under the 1871 CTA. To justify this position, an Indian police Inspector, Nurayan Singh, produced relatively detailed life histories of local “eunuchs.”
Singh’s biographies suggested that there were multiple pathways into the nineteenth century Hijra community and that Hijras were initiated at a range of ages. Ameer Bux was reportedly fourteen when she was initiated and her future chela (disciple), Pearee, was initiated in her late teens or early twenties. In contrast, another Muzaffarnagar “eunuch,” Kureemun, was apparently kidnapped at the age of seven and sold to a “eunuch” within the much wider trade in child slaves in India. Moreover, multiple Hijra embodiments are mentioned on the registers, including “Born Eunuch,” suggesting that being “born a Hijra” was an important identity, as it is for Hijras today. And yet the tension between the colonial categories of “eunuch” and “Hijra” remains, largely obscuring the actual self-identifications of these criminalised people.
The Hijra community fortunately survived this colonial project of elimination. And yet Hijras have continued to be criminalised by postcolonial South Asian states. If passed, the Indian government’s Transgender Person Protection of Rights bill will prohibit Hijras from “begging” for badhai, a key cultural practice and necessary source of income for impoverished Hijras. The legislation also perpetuates a long history of denying Hijras official acknowledgement of their self-defined gender identities, in this case, through the certification of transgender identity by bureaucrats, doctors and psychiatrists. As trans activist Abhina Aher stated, “Why do I need someone to affirm my gender?”
Jessica Hinchy is Assistant Professor in History at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research examines gender, sexuality and colonialism, particularly in northern India. Her 2019 book Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c. 1850-1900 (Cambridge University Press) examines the colonial criminalisation of the Hijra community. She has also examined themes of childhood and sexuality; the history of slavery; and the gender history of low-caste communities labelled ‘criminal tribes’ during colonial rule. This research has appeared in Gender & History, Asian Studies Review, and Culture, Theory and Critique, among other journals. She tweets @HinchyJessica.