Third Wave: A call to arms

Originally at http://www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/170601/indepth.shtml

Third Wave: A call to arms
by Kadambari Murali
Rath, Uttar Pradesh
July 3, 2001

EUNUCHS GO back to history to make history. They are set to launch a political party at a convention at Rath, which, as the myth goes, hosted the Pandavas in their year of disguise. Perhaps the most revered legend of the mukhannis, who are better known as hijras or kinnars, is the legend of Lord Ram.

They believe that when Ram left for his vanvaas, he was followed to the banks of the Sarayu river by the people of Ayodhya. He then turned back and asked all the men and women to return to the city. When he returned, triumphant after vanquishing Ravana, he found to his consternation, a group of people still waiting for his arrival. The mukhannis had patiently waited 14 years on the river-bank as they had never been told to return to Ayodhya. Ram blessed them and told them their time to rule would come in Kalyug. And, the mukhannis believe, Kalyug has arrived.

According to some estimates, there are close to 10 lakh eunuchs in India.

But only six people in public yet to account from them. But that's a start. And now a political party of some sort, to actually make the Kalyug official. "We are making preparations, you cannot deny the inevitable," says Naseem, spokesperson of a convention of mukhannis that is start on Wednesday to discuss, among others things, the political future of the Third Sex in India. Talk of a political party of the eunuchs has been doing the rounds for some time now, but if it actually happens now this convention would make history.

It is perhaps fitting then that the convention, which is held every year, should have come after 700 years to Rath, an other wise nondescript town in the Uttar Pradesh hinterland. Rath itself has a special story behind it. The lives and laws of the mukhannis (an Urdu word the kinnars prefer to use) are governed by rituals that have their origin in legend and have been passed on from generation to generation in the gupt (secret) language of only the initiated.

Rath, some 85 kilometres from Hamirpur district headquarters along a single lane dirt track with pretensions to being a road, is supposed to be the kingdom of Raja Virat, king of the Matsyas, the man who hosted the Pandavas during their year of concealment. It is also the place where Arjuna, cursed by the celestial nymph Urvashi after he spurned her advances, lived out his year as a eunuch, Brihannala, the dance teacher to Virat's daughter Uttara. (The convention is also referred to as the Bharatiya Vrahannala Samellan.)

Though there seems to be no archaelogical basis to verify that this was the capital of the kingdom of Virat, locals talk of frequent findings of gold coins under the main market place. They also speak of some kind of construction below the market and believe the town they live in rests on the remains of what was once a place of fabulous riches.

It speaks a lot for the dedication and discipline of the hijras, a much-derided community, that they made the trip to Rath -- the road is not easy. Hamirpur district is part of Bundelkhand, known both for its proud warriors and infamous dacoits. Most people in the area carry guns, a family who doesn't own a couple of firerms is unknown. But, says Lakshmi, who has made the trip from neighbouring Bandha, "This is like an annual pilgrimage and everyone tries to make the trip."

Though the rituals, begun with the chakpujan (paying respect to a potter's wheel) and followed by the traditional wedding- style baraat, will begin only on Wednesday, the guests have begun converging from different parts of the country from June 9. Pepsi vendors have claimed their place outside the college, streamers and garlands festoon the path, generators are in working order (Rath has a major electricity problem) and the excitement is palpable.

"This is our shaan," says Naseem. "The people of the basti help us, bring us lots of things, contribute money." Emissaries bearing gifts and traditional yellow rice were sent out with invitations in the four directions six months in advance. At the moment, there are between two and three hundred participants here, but people are expected from as far as Tamil Nadu and Assam and even perhaps Nepal and Pakistan. Till the 29th of this month, they will talk, meet, hug, observe their secret rasams (rites) and sing and dance the night away at a local college where they have based camp, till exhaustion lulls them to sleep.

This time though, there is a difference to this annual meeting of the mukhannis -- they also have a political agenda to review. Though Naseem, the guru of the gaddi of Rath and the person who brought the convention to this town, is quick to clarify that the convention is primarily the annual meeting where the mukhannis eat, drink and make merry, there is no denial when asked if it is also a meeting of the minds of their political heavy-weights.

The achievements of Shabnam mausi -- the first eunuch MLA, from Sohagpur in the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh; Kamala Jaan, the Mayor of Katni; Meena Bai, chairperson of the Sehora Nagar Palika; Heera Bai, a corporator from Jabalpur; and Gulshan, a corporator from Bina -- are an inspiration for the rest. They are called the paanch Pandavs of Madhya Pradesh. Add to this the mayor of Gorakhpur, Asha Devi, and you have a small but substantial beginning for a crack at political power.

According to Heera Bai, the mukhannis are trying to organise themselves into a political party, with or without the support of other political parties. She quickly says that she can speak only for her state, Madhya Pradesh, the other states must speak for themselves. In the next breath she adds that people from Gujarat and Maharashtra have come to her for advice on how to fight elections. Heera Bai has herself fought two elections -- and won one. She is ready for another battle.

If they have decided on a name for the party they have in mind, no one's letting on what it is, but Heera Bai says it is a decision that will be taken jointly by the major mukhannis. Probably once the convention gets underway.

Naseem, who is talked of indulgently by the people of Rath, speaks like a seasoned politician already. She says that if the people of Rath want her to, she is willing to contest the forthcoming UP Assembly elections. Bhopal's Suraiya wants to contest the next elections, as does Sarika.

Make no mistake, the mukhannis are not entirely strangers to politics, the in-house kind. Even if it isn't evident to outsiders, there is a strict regimentation in their ranks. Suraiya has the distinction of being voted Kinnar Ms India. Though no one's telling, she was probably voted on the basis of having the best looking group. Firdaus, one of her seven chelas, is quite extraordinary looking. First runner up in the February contest, she blushes when asked why she didn't win. "Obviously my guru comes first, she is much greater than I am and very loving," she says.

The guru-chela relationship is the highlight of the family life of the mukhannis. Firdaus explains. "The guru is our mother-father everything. She feeds us, clothes us, takes care of us at all times. We tell her everything." She points to Sarika. "She is my cousin as her guru and mine are Guru-bhais. They were chelas of the same Guru, who is our dadi." In the same way as ordinary familes, the chelas also take care of the Gurus when they are old and infirm.

"We have responsibilities to the old and ill," says Naseem, pointing to Bunty Mai, her guru. "Responsibility passes from Guru to one hand-picked chela, who is like the elder son." She has picked Afsana to head the gaddi when her time to pass on responsibility comes.

Meanwhile, the mukhannis from Muskara, the neighbouring gaddi in Hamirpur zila, have reportedly refused to come as they wanted to host the affair. Locals believe that those from Muskara believe, probably rightly so, that the influence of Naseem will increase tremendously if the convention goes off without a hitch.

At the moment, things are on schedule. The big stage for the holding of the cultural programmes is nearing completion, the cold drinks are on the house and water is being served in pre- prepared plastic packets. The classrooms of the college have been turned into community type halls, with sparkling floors and comfortable mattresses. Lunch and dinner are sit-down feasts in the traditional manner of marriage households.

For a group shunned by the ordinary world of men and women, and prevented from observing the normal rituals of Indian society, this type of event holds major importance.

Naseem is at first reluctant to talk of anything political, but opens in a while. "We are talking about forming ourselves into a political organisation, with or without the support of other political parties. The success of one person in becoming a member of the Vidhan Sabha has inspired a lot of us."

She is, of course, referring to Shabnam mausi. What has happened in Madhya Pradesh is a motivating factor. The mukhannis believe they are the best for the job because they are generally incorruptible. "What do we need money for?" asks one. "We have no families to pass it on to, we have no use of opulence, no needs outside of food and shelter. We just use it to help others."

"If the public likes us, then obviously we will stand for public responsibility with their support. We have realised that wherever we have elected representatives, the public is happy," says Naseem.

"We can follow any religion and have no differences on the issue, we have no system of caste. Even those from as far as Madras, speak the same language." She is savvy. "Kinnar quam, ek quam. I am Muslim, I do namaaz and go to a temple. We all revere our kulguru, Shikhandi." One thing might be discriminatory though: The political party they plan to form will have only mukhannis. Sex is still a divide.

Eunuchs may be cremated or buried, but each gaddi builds its deceased member a samadhi, in the manner of a saint. "There's been a lot of attitudinal change in people towards us. We have not had any problem here with pandits or maulvis, forget the local people. They are tired of leaders they have, so I may stand. We also do not forget where we come from. Even if someone is a politican or studies medicine, they will still take out a dholak and dance and sing at events."

All this might be true, but whether the mukhannis manage to organise themselves and gain social acceptance will have to be seen in the coming months. When Asha Devi became mayor of Gorakhpur, some UP politicians protested.

As for the basically conservative people of the area, they might not mind a couple of mayors here or corporators there. They are a novelty and looked at with indulgence. A whole lot of mukhannis talking of a kalyug and a full-fledged political party might be quite another matter.

For now, the mukhannis live in their parallel world. They are different. People drop their children at their hamlets or are taken away by force (by their own admission) by the mukhannis if they find out about the existence of a eunuch child who is living in the normal world. They have their own customs no one knows about and locals say they don't want to know about too. If they try and bring themselves into the material world, they will no longer be different.

It is a unique paradox.

At the moment though, it looks like the UP elections might be quite fascinating. The mukhannis have a saying that goes something like this: "Nikkamme netaon ka ek ilaj, hijron ke sar par rakh do taaj. (There is one solution to useless politicians, give the mandate to eunuchs)."

And they are not begging for it, they are preparing to fight for it.

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