“Men” who would be kings: celibacy, emasculation, and the re-production of hijras in contemporary Indian politics

“Men” who would be kings: celibacy, emasculation, and the re-production of hijras in contemporary Indian politics – gender identity, social stigma, and political corruption

Gayatri Reddy

IT was a hot summer afternoon in the south Indian city of Secunderabad, where I did my fieldwork among hijras, better known as India’s “third sex” (Nanda, 1999) or “eunuch-transvestites” (Vyas and Shingala, 1987). I was sitting near the railway station with Sujata, one of my hijra friends and talking about her future as well as the future of hijras more generally, when she said proudly, “Within this kaliyug [current cosmic period], hijras will become kings and rule the world. That is what [the Hindu god] Rama decreed thousands of years ago when he blessed us.”

“When is that time going to come?” I asked.

“That time will come very soon. You see, that time will come very soon,” Sujata replied.

Perhaps “that time” in Sujata’s reckoning is now. Although hijras have not become kings, they are rapidly gaining visibility in the South Asian political sphere. For the first time in Indian politics, hijras are standing for and winning election to local, state, and even national office, and are being actively courted by mainstream political parties for these positions. And they are entering the public imagination as hijras, explicitly highlighting their identity as gender-neutral, asexual figures. As one of their campaign slogans reiterated, “You don’t need genitals for politics; you need brains and integrity” (Karp, 1998). Apparently, as the newspapers declared, hijras are “the new emerging force in Indian politics” (Hindustan Times, 2000), heralding the “reign of the middle order” (Outlook, 2000) or, as my hijra friend Sujata noted, a new, divinely ordained era of the Hijra Rajya (kingdom).

How is this recent event of significance in analyzing marginalized minorities? The answer, as anyone familiar with these metonymic figures of Indian “sexual difference” would assert, is that hijras have long been social pariahs in India, stigmatized explicitly on the basis of their apparently transgressive gender identification and their location beyond the domain of procreative sexuality. (1) Their recent election to office is significant because it heralds a “new chapter of enfranchisement in the history of India’s eunuchs,” as one news columnist noted (Jacinto, 2000). In this article, I explore hijras’ emerging position as the “third wave” (Mishra, 2000)–their path from pariah to model minority as it were–in the Indian political landscape, and the potential for their electoral participation and subsequent victory to reformulate not only their place in society but also prevailing constructions of citizenship, sexuality, and politics in India.

While I am clearly not disputing the emancipatory potential of hijras’ political gains in recent elections, I am questioning the automatically presumed relationship between hijra marginalization and their social emancipation by virtue of electoral participation. To gain political status, hijras explicitly highlight their social marginality on the basis of sexuality, religion, and kinship. But as I argue in this paper, it is these very mobilizations of marginality that, far from remaking normative institutions, reinscribe their hegemonic importance, thereby undercutting hijras’ emancipatory and subversive potential and allowing for their incorporation within existing frameworks of political and moral authority. In other words, this paper is a cautionary note, arguing that hijras apparent increase in political visibility and social status could be illusory and could ultimately serve to remarginalize them within the new social order. In the end, if, as their campaign slogan contends, “you don’t need genitals for politics,” neither it would seem, does the permissible lack of genitals herald a radically new or liberal social and moral order in India.

Hijra (In)Visibility and the Space of Difference

In recent years hijras have emerged as the most commonly encountered figures in the juxtaposition of “India” and “sexual difference.” Most recent analyses locate hijras–as the so-called third sex of India–outside the binary gender framework; they are “neither men nor women” as the title of Serena Nanda’s popular ethnography proclaims. According to the predominant literature, hijras are phenotypically male individuals who wear female clothing and ideally, renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a complete physical genital excision in order to be “reborn” as hijras (Vyas and Shingala, 1987; Sharma, 1989; Nanda, 1999; Jaffrey, 1996; Hall, 1997; Reddy, 2000). (2) Because they are believed to be endowed with the power to confer fertility on newly weds or newborn children, many hijras see this as their “traditional” asexual role, and derive religious and social legitimacy from this basis. However, a significant proportion of the hijra community engages in sex in exchange for money or otherwise engages in sexual activity with men they refer to as their “husbands.” (3)

Stemming in part from this engagement, but perhaps more importantly from their ambiguous gender identification and their confrontational everyday practices, hijras are often constructed in the popular imagination as “dirty,” socially marginal outcasts who “do not have any sarm (shame).” (4) Because hijras explicitly reject the centrality of procreation, they are widely perceived to be outside the normative social order. Although this position locates them, in anthropologist Kira Hall’s words, as “a people freed from the constraints of decency that regulate the rest of society” (1997: 445), this “freedom” is accompanied by a corresponding social, moral, and until these recent elections, political marginalization in contemporary India. As one of the first hijra ethnographers, Satish Sharma contends, it is by virtue of their genital excision and subsequent gender liminality that hijras are considered outside the social mainstream and consequently, as “having no sarm” (Sharma, 1989; cf. Pimpley and Sharma, 1985; Vyas and Shingala, 1987). (5)

In addition, as these authors maintain, hijras contribute to this “shameful” construction of themselves by explicitly engaging in practices that subvert norms of middle-class morality, such as threatening to expose themselves if their demands are not adequately met. (6) In other words, hijras serve as potential repositories of shamelessness, and by exposing that by which they are construed as shameless, as purveyors of this stigma to the public. (7) Given their perception as besarm (without shame) and knowing their potential for conveying this state to others, people are intimidated by them and wary of engaging them publicly (cf. Carstairs, 1957; Nanda, 1999). Indeed, for many Indians–especially upper and middle-class individuals–hijras exist, and to some extent have always existed, only at the periphery of their imaginaries, inserting their visibility only within certain circumscribed ritual occasions. At other times, as some of my non-hijra neighbors in Hyderabad stated, “It is better to have nothing to do with them, baba!” In other words, in the popular imagination, hijras are inarguably housed in an “identifiable margin,” to borrow a phrase from Gayatri Spivak (1993: 155); by all accounts, they are indeed somewhat of a marginalized minority in India. (8)

Given this marginalized status, it is remarkable that in the past few years, at least six hijras have been elected to public office at the local and state level, defeating more prominent candidates from national political parties such as the Congress (I) Party and the Bharitya Janata Party (BJP), and thereby heralding the path to hijra emancipation as political citizens in their own right. As early as 1998, Shobha Nehru won the city council seat in Hissar, in the north Indian state of Haryana (Karp, 1998). More recently, in early 2000, one of the first hijra members of the legislative assembly, Shabnam, or Shabnam mausi–“Aunt Shabnam,” as she is affectionately known–won the state legislative assembly by-election from the town of Sohagpur in Madhya Pradesh’s Shahdol district. She not only won by a comfortable margin of 17,863 votes, but also polled more than the BJP and Congress candidates combined (Ramachandran, 2000).Just prior to Shabnam mausi’s election, another hijra, Kamla, was elected the mayor of Katni, a prosperous mining town in central Madhya Pradesh (Bearak, 2001). Soon after Kamla’s election, Meena was elected the president of the civic body of Sehora in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Both of these hijra candidates, like Shabnam, won more votes than those cast for the Congress and BJP candidates taken together (Bearak, 2001). Similarly, in the neighboring town of Bina, the independent hijra candidate, Gulshan, also won the municipal board elections with a comfortable majority. Two months later, Heera won the by-election in Jabalpur, the cultural capital of Madhya Pradesh (Mishra, 2000).

All these successful candidates ran for office and won as hijras, explicitly highlighting this identity. In other words, it is apparently hijras’ sexual and gendered difference as “neutralists”–the term they previously adopted when representing themselves as people who rose above the fighting and nepotism typical of men and women (Hall, 1997)–that provides their transcendent morality in the political sphere. Explicitly constructing themselves as individuals without the encumbrances of a family, gender, and caste affiliation, and thereby freed of the impetus for nepotism, hijras are successfully declaring themselves as the perfect antidotes to the rampant corruption and immorality of Indian politics. It is the lack of genitals and any expression of gendered, sexed, and kinship-mediated ties that, apparently, makes hijras ideal political citizens of contemporary India. What do we make of this occurrence? What does it imply for the relationship between sexuality and citizenship? And what, if any, emancipatory value does the election of hijras hold for their social, moral, and political position as a marginalized minority in contemporary India?

The Fruits of Discontent: A Popular Revolt Against Corrupt Politicians

At the most obvious level, the election of hijras can be analyzed as a revolt against upper-caste privilege, nepotism, and rampant corruption. Initially, as several of the hijra candidates and their sponsors attest, putting a hijra on the ballot was merely a symbolic gesture to indicate popular disillusionment with local corrupt (nearly all male) politicians. As Lallu Singh, the defeated BJP candidate in Sohagpur–the constituency won by “Aunt Shabnam”–commented after the election, “The youth of the town were playing a practical joke, and we didn’t take it seriously in the beginning. But as days passed, Shabnam began gaining ground…. Even women voted for her. True, there is anger against politicians, but I can’t understand why … the electorate did this to me” (Ramachandran, 2000). The answer is hardly surprising, and seems apparent to everyone but Lallu Singh and Brajesh Singh, the Congress Party contender for this seat.

For the last three decades, the same Congress Party candidate, Krishen Pal Singh, had occupied the Sohagpur seat. It was only his death that occasioned the present by-election. Not surprisingly, his son, Brajesh Singh, was the subsequent Congress candidate, and Shabnam mausi’s opponent in this election. Shabnam’s other opponent was the BJP’s Lallu Singh. Both of these candidates, like most politicians standing for office in Madhya Pradesh, are Thakurs, or upper-caste (kshatriya) landed gentry. Except for a brief interlude when an (upper-caste) brahmin was elected, Sohagpur has always had a kshatriya member of the state legislature; this despite the fact that kshatriyas constitute less than a fifth of Sohagpur’s electorate (Mishra, 2000). As a frustrated district official stated, “Thakurs hold key posts at every level, and their nominees are elected to the reserved seats [ostensibly reserved by law for the lower, non-brahmin/kshatriya castes]. This only perpetuates Thakur Raj. They control the purse strings, and the illiterate tribals or Dalits put their thumbprints on documents wherever these people tell them to. All the mandatory panchayat [local government body] seats are packed with upper castes” (Mishra, 2000).

Indeed, with no hope of a Dalit ever being nominated by the mainstream parties, the lower castes have traditionally voted for the Congress. But when Shabnam stood for election, the fledgling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) (formed to protect lower-caste and Dalit interests) enthusiastically supported her candidacy, and her victory was hailed as that of the lower castes and Dalits over the corrupt and exploitative upper castes. (9) As one of the readers of a popular newspaper, the Hindustan Times, phrased it in a letter to the editor, Shabnam’s victory symbolized the “revenge of the people against indifferent, ineffective, and callous politicians. It was an angry message that said we’ve had enough” (Tiwary, 2000). Although Shabnam was the only candidate fielded by the BSP (the other candidates stood for election as independents), the popular message the electorate wanted to convey was clear: enough upper-caste privilege, enough corruption, and enough nepotism on the part of these politicians. (10)

In contrast to these politicians, hijras were viewed as attractive alternatives not only because as individuals who “have left behind all these divisions of caste and religion,” to quote a hijra in Hyderabad, they were supposedly beyond such caste politics, but also as individuals ostensibly without a (heterosexual) family, they were perceived as beyond the impetus for nepotism. As the city council secretary in Hissar stated, commenting on the choice of the electorate, “Hijras do not have any self-interests, any children or family. So they cannot appoint their families, like all politicians have been doing” (Karp, 1998). By emphasizing their lack of genitalia and subsequent reproductive capacity, hijras projected themselves as beyond family affiliations and obligations, campaigning as candidates who can “afford to be honest, not appoint our own families to important positions, and [thereby] do a better job of governing” (Ramachandran, 2000).

In addition, as one newspaper reporter phrased it, “the circumstances of [hijras’] lives make them more sensitive to issues of poverty and social stigma” (Indian Express, 2000). Whether or not this is true, the electorate appears to perceive hijras as far more approachable and effective than other politicians. Not only have some hijras refused the comforts of the “official” residence and car–like Kamla, the mayor of Katni, who prefers to live in her one-room apartment in the old neighborhood–but also many of them have taken their new responsibilities very seriously, and like Hissar city council member Shobha Nehru, have already improved the civic amenities in their area. According to a letter to the editor in the daily Hindustan Times newspaper, hijras appear to be “the new emerging force in Indian politics” (Mazumdar, 2000). In the words of one voter, “Hijras are Muslims who celebrate all Hindu festivals and can be considered more secular than Maulana Mulayam [the leader of the “secular” Samajwadi Party]. They can’t begin a family; so no dynastic fears either. And show me a clerk who has the courage not to do what [hijras] ask him to,” he added, only half-joking (Mishra, 2000).

Sexual Subalternity and “Diva Citizenship”

In one of his more recent books, Jeffrey Weeks (1995) has argued that at present, the conditions for the invention of new sexual identities and moralities are just right. With the contemporary “transformations of intimacy” (Giddens, 1992) and reconceptualizations of given understandings of family, issues of sexual citizenship have moved from margin to center, making it an ideal time for sexual dissidents to stake their claim for full citizenship. In a related argument, Lauren Berlant proposes the notion of “Diva Citizenship” to highlight these potential moments of subaltern possibility for sexual dissidents. As she states, “Diva Citizenship does not change the world. It is a moment of emergence that marks unrealized potentials for subaltern political activity. Diva Citizenship occurs when a person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege” (Berlant, 1997: 223). By “flashing up and startling the public,” moments of Diva Citizenship not only “trouble” the representational and political structures of the dominant culture–or “put the dominant story into suspended animation,” to use Berlant’s phrase–but also highlight the possibilities for remaking the “social and institutional practices of citizenship to which [people] currently consent” (223). Similarly, as Judith Butler pointed out almost a decade ago in a somewhat different context, it is “dis-identification … with the regulatory norms by which sexual difference is materialized … [that is] crucial to the rearticulation of democratic contestation” (1993: 4). Indeed, as Butler notes, “such collective disidentifications can facilitate a reconceptualization of which bodies matter, and which bodies are yet to emerge as critical matters of concern” (4).

Some would argue that the recent elections of hijras could be interpreted as an excellent case in point (Karp, 1998; Jacinto, 2000; Mishra, 2000). At first glance, these elections–as collective products of dis-identification–can perhaps be viewed as instances of Diva Citizenship par excellence. As the third sex of India, hijras have often been represented in the Western imagination as an ideal case in the “transnational system of subversive sexuality” (Morris, 1994: 14). The hijra (or Native American berdache or Omani xanith) in many of these analyses of “alternative sexuality” becomes either an interstitial gender occupying the liminal space between male and female–the quintessential third sex (Nanda, 1999; Herdt, 1994; Jaffrey, 1996)–or “a ‘drag queen’ who [is] a hero[ine] in a global sexual resistance,” as Morris (1994: 16) notes in her critical essay. With their recent claim to political citizenship, hijras can arguably be seen in this light–as the ultimate “Diva Citizens” of India, heralding the dramatic triumph of the sexual subaltern who disturbs the normative order.

But, as I argue in this article, quite apart from the problematics of situating hijras within an indigenous “diva” framework–a position that militates against the cultural complexity of hijras’ lives and the multiplicity of differences that construct the specificity of their lives (see Reddy, 2000)–their recent electoral victories do not necessarily encode significant emancipatory possibilities either for themselves or for prevailing notions of citizenship, politics, and sexuality in India. Rather than serving to “put the dominant story into suspended animation,” as Berlant notes with respect to the emancipatory possibilities of Diva Citizenship, I argue that perhaps hijras were elected precisely because they did not disrupt the status quo and in fact reinforced the majoritarian (Hindu) view of politics and society. By selectively emphasizing aspects of their (perceived) identity–namely sexuality and religion–I argue that hijras invoke and manipulate popular cultural symbols of (Hindu) “tradition” and mythology to legitimize their basis for (political) authority, and reinforce the very constructions of sexual, religious, and “moral good” that anchors them to their marginal position in contemporary India.

Further, quite apart from the reinforcement of hegemonic principles, hijras’ participation in the democratic process also raises questions regarding the particular relationship of civil society and what Partha Chatterjee calls “political society” in postcolonial India (Chatterjee, 2000). In developing a genealogy of the modern in “the non-Christian world,” Chatterjee proposes the reintroduction of the term “political society”–rather than an illiberal “traditional society” as colonial discourse would have it–against which the institutions and practices of civil society craft themselves. In his analysis Chatterjee invokes a classical Hegelian notion of civil society to imply “the institutions of modern associational life originating in Western societies [and] based on principles of equality, autonomy, contract … and recognized rights and duties of members” (Chatterjee, 2000: 42). Chatterjee notes that in the late colonial and current postcolonial period in India, the domain of such civil institutions is restricted to just a small section of “citizens.” To account for the rest of society outside of this domain, Chatterjee resorts to the notion of “political society,” rather than the traditional-modern dichotomy commonly put forward. As he rightly argues, this latter dichotomy runs the risk of “dehistoricizing and essentializing ‘tradition'” (Chatterjee, 2000: 4g) or alternatively, of presuming that Western, secularized Christian principles and institutions of civil society are the only form in which this “traditional” domain can express itself. Both cases are necessarily limiting, suggesting the need for a mediating zone of what he terms political society. This political society, composed of “mass political parties, social movements, and non-party political formations” (Mitchell, 2000: xv) and constructed by the nationalist elite in India expressly to mediate between the state and civil society, is a zone in which the rules and procedures of civil society are not necessarily followed.

Hence, if, as Chatterjee maintains, the postcolonial Indian case suggests a potential disjuncture between these two spheres of “political” and “civil” society, one would be hard-pressed to accept Berlant’s analysis of the relationship between citizenship and sexuality in this context. Following Partha Chatterjee’s reasoning, hijras’ recent political participation or “freedom” would not necessarily produce a parallel reconceptualization within civil society (in the realm of sexual freedom for instance), nor would it serve as the only means for hijras’ engagement with “modernity,” as Lauren Berlant and Judith Butler’s analyses potentially imply. At the very least, the election of hijras to political office raises questions with regard to the process of democratization and theorizations of social and political movements premised on sexual citizenship in contemporary India; questions that are extremely important to keep in mind, but that in the interests of space, I will not specifically address in this article. Instead, here I focus on the first point I raised: demonstrating that far from serving to emancipate hijras, their recent election to public office could be interpreted as reinforcing their marginalization in contemporary Indian society. (11)

Hijra Journeys From Margin to Center: “Model” Triumph or Pyrrhic Victory?

At the most basic level, the manner in which hijras were elected and their initial mandate emphasized not their radical potential, but the public’s denigration of their liminal position, thereby serving to instantiate them as symbols of politicians’ essential impotence, and the most effective vehicles to convey this message and the publics’ disillusionment with existing (male) politicians. They were placed on the ballot expressly because of their pariah status as objects of ridicule on the margins of society. Their election highlighted precisely their marginality–as a caricature of virile masculinity and the lack of political capability that this apparently symbolized. It was, as Lallu Singh, one of the defeated BJP candidates noted, “a practical joke” (Ramachandran, 2000); a practical joke that used hijras not for their emancipation, but merely as the vehicle of a message explicitly emphasizing the equation of virile masculinity with competence, thereby implicitly negating hijra agency and political value. Further, by selectively emphasizing specific images and aspects of their perceived identity–namely their religious and sexual renunciation–hijras, I argue, are ultimately complicit in this construction and subsequent (re)marginalization of themselves in the political (public) sphere, an issue I explore briefly in the next section.

Semen Anxiety and the Powers of Renunciation

Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous images that hijras invoked in representing themselves to me was that of the sannyasi or ascetic–someone who, as Amrita Basu defines the institution, “has taken religious vows, including vows of celibacy” (1995: 160). Amir nayak (head of the household/symbolic hijra house), one of the senior hijra leaders, stated the first time I met her that “Real hijras are those whose [sexual] bodies have no strength, and who should have no mental or physical desire for men whatsoever. We are like sannyasis. This is what is important….” (12) As she later elaborated on another occasion, the difference between “real” and “false” hijras was the degree to which they conformed to this ideal sannyasi mold; that is, “real” hijras were those who were celibate, proved by their undertaking a complete (male) genital excision; they also possessed izzat or honor, had renounced marriage and their natal families, and were chaste and selfless. In other words, according to hijras I spoke to in Hyderabad, “real” hijras were ideal asexual renunciates.

As several scholars have noted, renunciation–both material, and especially sexual–possesses tremendous moral force in India (Caplan, 1989; Kakar, 1989; Basu, 1995; John and Nair, 1998; Srivastava, 2001, among several others). In particular, with respect to issues of male sexuality, “semen anxiety” (where semen “loss” implies a loss of vital life energy and masculine strength) has been an important–and some would argue the most important–theme in discourses of Indian sexuality (cf. John and Nair, 1998; Srivastava, 2001). As Srivastava notes, “[this theme appears to have] taken on the appearance of an irrevocable truth of the Indian (male) milieu.” (13)

Historically, the moral valence accorded the (Hindu) ethic of brahmacharya (the early stage of life in the [Hindu] life cycle that emphasizes celibacy) and self-control, and the divine creative powers stemming from tapas or asceticism (14)–the power of which lies (for men) in sexual abstinence or semen-retention (15)–has been an important topic in religious studies, and one elaborated in Indian myths and folktales, including several cosmogonic origin myths (O’Flaherty, 1973, 1980, 1999; Ramanujam, 1973). In one Hindu creation myth noted by O’Flaherty (1973), Siva, the preeminent “creative ascetic,” is asked to create the world. He agrees and disappears for a thousand years in preparation for this task. Meanwhile, Vishnu and Brahma, worried and impatient, create all the gods and other beings during Siva’s period of tapas. When Siva reappears and is ready to begin the process of creation, he realizes that the act has already begun. He then breaks off his linga [phallus] in anger and throws it onto the earth. The linga then “becomes a source of universal fertility as soon as it has ceased to be a source of individual fertility” (O’Flaherty, 1973: 135). Likewise, hijras undergo their physical “rebirth” or nirvan operation and bury their severed organ in the ground, after which they are believed to have the power to confer fertility on others. (16) Sacrificing their “individual fertility,” they are then given “universal” (pro)creative power. They are, as one of my hijra friends stated, aadha-beech (half-in-the-middle) individuals–those who powerfully combine the (asexual) virtues of masculinity and femininity. As Lawrence Cohen notes in the context of hijras’ recent electoral victory, “Eunuchs are those who publicly bear the sign of the operation and in so doing secure the electorate’s trust and the possibility of authentic sovereignty, of being ma-baap, mother and father to the nation” (Cohen, 2002: 4). (17)

Hijras clearly articulate their affinity with such divine (Hindu) figures as the aforementioned Siva, especially in his ardhanarisvara (half man/half woman) form (cf. Nanda, 1999), and the Pandava brother Arjuna in his disguise as Brhannala, the dance teacher/eunuch in the court of King Virata, in the well-known epic Mahabharata (van Buitenen, 1984; cf. Hiltelbeitel, 1980). In the course of conversations with me, my hijra friends Shakuntala and Shanti reiterated these connections. Shakuntala said, “We are like Arjuna in his Brhannala incarnation. Some hijras may say ‘not the Brhannala incarnation because that was because of a curse.’ But our life is also a curse isn’t it?” she added, half-jokingly. (18)

Alf Hiltelbeitel argues that “Arjuna-Brhannala is inescapably the foremost representative of Siva” (1980: 153), revealing through his name, occupation, and his physical appearance unambiguous hints of identification with Siva. “As a dancer-musician and eunuch-transvestite [Arjuna/Brhannala] evokes Siva” (Hiltelbeitel, 1980: 167), who is the foremost “creative ascetic” or the “eunuch of the firm phallus” (155). Having established the symbolic connection between the figures of Arjuna/Brhannala and Siva, Hiltelbeitel then articulates the explicit resonance between these images and those of eunuchs both past and present. “The theme of eunuch-hood resonates throughout the Mahabharata,” Hiltelbeitel claims, “but it is Arjuna as eunuch-transvestite who brings this theme to central stage” (161). After surveying the historical literature regarding hijras/eunuchs, Hiltelbeitel states that like contemporary hijras, “Arjuna is a eunuch who presides over both a marriage and a birth” (166). Hiltelbeitel concludes by stating that “when eunuchs dance and sing at births and weddings, they mark by their presence the ambiguity of those moments where the non-differentiation of the male and the female is most filled with promise and uncertainty: in the mystery that surrounds the sexual identity of the still unborn child, and in that which anticipates the re-union of the male and the female in marital sex” (168). Indeed, it is this circulation of the signs/specter of sexuality that constructs hijra power and contributes, in the ultimate analysis, to their indelible marginalization in contemporary India.

“Political Sannyasis” and Indian Nationalism

Quite apart from their iconic value in mythology and (Hindu) religion, in the Indian political context the ideals of renunciation and celibacy–and the notion of a “political sannyasi” (cf. Chowdhury, 2001)–gained renewed vigor during the national independence struggle, ranging from Vivekananda’s revisioning of masculinity and his appeal to the image of the (exemplary Hindu) sannyasi as the basis for “building a nation of heroes” (John and Nair, 1998: 16; Swami Nikhilananda, 1953; Raychaudhary, 1989; Roy, 1998; Chowdhury, 2001) to Gandhi’s much discussed embrace of celibacy or brahmacharya and his role as a “eunuch for the nation” (Kakar, 1989; Parekh, 1989). (19)

As several scholars have noted in their discussions of the politics of colonial rule, sexual prescriptions along the lines of race, class, and gender have been the linchpin of colonial ideologies (Ballatchet, 1980; Stoler, 1995, 1997; cf. Jolly and Manderson, 1997). Specifically, with respect to the British imperial ideology in India, as John and Nair contend, the “concepts of ‘private’ and ‘public,’ moral and scandalous have hinged … decisively on questions of sexuality” (John and Nair, 1998: 12-13; cf. Engels, 1996; Sarkar, 1996). For the British colonizers in India, the homology they drew between sexual and political dominance was fundamental to their constructions of power and subjectivity; their virile masculinity legitimized their colonization, which in turn proved their superior masculine prowess and the dominance of (British) masculinity over (Indian) femininity (Nandy, 1983; Chatterjee, 1992). In such an imperial ideology, all Indians–women and men–were feminized. In fact, as Mrinalini Sinha (1995) and Indira Chowdhury (2001) suggest, the “hyper-masculinity” or “manliness” of the British colonialists was seemingly contingent on the “effeminacy” and contemptible weakness of the colonized Indian men (cf. Nandy, 1983).

Responding to this discourse of colonial masculinity, Indian nationalists at the turn of the century, drawing on figures such as Vivekananda, sought to construct a “new” masculinity. They did this not by denouncing the binary terms of the colonial debate as did later nationalists such as Gandhi, but by redefining masculinity in terms of the elevation of (“Indian”) spiritual as opposed to (“Western”) bodily or physical strength. For Vivekananda, the appropriate vehicle and expression of this alternative masculinity was spiritual strength, indelibly captured in the ultimate symbol and fulfillment of Indian spirituality: the celibate ascetic or sannyasi. True strength in this formulation derived not from the mere (Western) obsession with the body, but the cultivation of the spirit–that is, the disciplining of the body by actively engaging the “right to celibacy” in order to “train the spirit and make it truly manly” (Chowdhury, 2001: 130). As Chowdhury states, “Asceticism [for Vivekananda] was recharacterized as a technology for reclaiming lost manhood” (5). (20)

A somewhat more radical repudiation of colonial masculinity was Gandhi’s nationalist call to “dissident androgyny” (Gandhi, 1998: 100). As Ashis Nandy (1983) notes, Gandhi’s was a two-pronged strategy: first, he critiqued the elevation of male sexuality and its equation of hypermasculinity with authentic Indianness. Second, drawing on several of the ascetic traditions of India, he posited the ability to transcend the man-woman dichotomy through a self-conscious aspiration for androgyny–the desire to become “God’s eunuch,” as he put it (Mehta, 1977: 194)–considered superior to both, the essence of masculinity and femininity. Together, these principles not only questioned the colonial homology of sexual and political dominance, but also provided a nonviolent means for combining activism and courage–the courage to “rise above cowardice or kapurusatva [failure of masculinity] and become a ‘man,’ on the way to becoming the authentic man who admits his drive to become both sexes” (Nandy, 1983: 54). As Gandhi believed, the rules of politics were the rules laid down by men, but “only women were capable of humanizing this public sphere and rendering it more accountable to human conscience” (Lal, 1995: 29). Given this belief, both in his philosophy and through his own practices, Gandhi sought to “feminize politics and the public realm” (29) by encouraging men to “realize” their femininity, as it were. Brilliantly inverting the (colonial) terms of the nationalist debate by elevating “femaleness” to an equal footing with “maleness” in the crafting of anticolonial subjectivity, Gandhi thereby creatively disabled the logic of colonial sexual binaries. (21)

Despite their different nationalist stances, in both Vivekananda’s and Gandhi’s formulations it was celibacy–or explicit sexual renunciation–that acted as a central weapon in their protest against colonial constructions of masculinity-dominance. If, for Vivekanada, celibacy was what built “real” (spiritual) masculinity, for Gandhi, celibacy served as the ultimate means through which politics could be humanized, creating in the process an “authentic” masculinity that incorporated the civilizing imperative of femininity. In both of these elaborations, the embodied transformation of (male) sexual energy into a higher spiritual-feminine power–through the disciplining of the body and most important, the renunciation of sexual desire–was what constituted a nationalist protest of colonial masculinity. In other words, having repudiated virile masculinity as the means by which to protest colonial orderings of the (Indian) self, for these early nationalists, it was sexuality–or its active renunciation–that emerged as the transcendent solution to the “problem” of remasculinizing the nation.

This circulation of the signs of sexuality in the fully Foucauldian sense, although most profoundly elaborated in colonialist/early nationalist politics, are also a potent absence/presence in recent Hindu nationalist ideologies. In fact, as I elaborate in the next section, sexual anxieties–both in the form of allegations of “eunuchhood” and the threat of the perceived rapaciousness of the (Muslim) other–appear to undergird much of contemporary Hindu nationalist political discourse and are implicit in hijras’ representations of themselves in the public sphere.

Gender and the Play of Authenticity

Politicians in their speeches have frequently abused and labeled “enemies of the nation” or their political opponents as hijras or eunuchs. A recent newspaper account noted that “even George Fernandes,” the current defense minister and erstwhile labor union leader, had employed such rhetoric, excoriating all (opposition) Congress-I members as eunuchs (Indian Express, 2000). But this rhetoric is perhaps best exemplified by political figures associated with the Hindu right, such as Bal Thackeray, Sadhvi Rithambara, and Uma Bharathi, who frequently accuse other politicians–especially the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and leader of the opposition Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav–as being corrupt, impotent, and useless “napunsaks” (eunuchs) (Basu, 1995: 162; Kakar, 1996).

Rather than downplay this equivalence between the lack of masculinity and corruption, hijras appear to have creatively used and subverted it by playing with the authentic signifier of “realness” and “falseness.” A “real” hijra is believed to have undergone a physical genital “operation” (as they refer to it)–the ultimate and often demonstrated “proof” of their celibate identification. By revealing their postoperative status, hijras are not only “recreating through their gesture, the very violence of that moment of becoming” (Cohen, 1995: 298), but are also simultaneously indicating their authenticity as “real” hijras who have “paid the necessary price to transform gendered dominance into intergendered and auspicious thirdness” (298). At play then is the authentic e/masculine signifier.

Hijras seeking public office themselves reinforce this characterization. As Heerabai, a hijra who won the Jabalpur civic election, stated confidently after her victory, “we are going to take on the naqli [false] hijras now, even at the state and national levels,” referring explicitly to corrupt politicians (Mishra, 2000). The real hijras in this characterization describe themselves as “real … sannyasis” who also embody the (Gandhian) humanizing potential of femininity or womanhood; by contrast, the corrupt male politicians who are emasculated and impotent without either the humanizing virtues of femininity or the sacred powers deriving from celibacy–are by that very token “false” hijras or hypermasculine and corrupt figures that need to be taken on in the political sphere.

One of the hijra campaign slogans–naqli hijra bar bar, asli hijra ek bar (the false hijra time and again; the real hijra just once) explicitly invokes this play of authenticity whereby hypermasculinity and corruption are equated through a reference to the “civilizing” (in the Gandhian sense) imperative of “real” celibacy. The (male) politicians who lost the elections “failed” because of their incomplete possession of either virile masculinity, or “real” asceticism. The false hijras or corrupt politicians in the hijras’ view are therefore neither real men nor real hijras, thereby embodying the failure of virile masculinity without the corrective of either femininity or “ascetic masculinity” (Chowdhury, 2001). The solution to the corruptive potential of male politicians, in their view, is to elect real hijras who do not disrupt the gendered occupation of the public sphere, while at the same time embodying a powerful and feminizing potential. As another hijra election slogan reiterates, nikkame netaon ka ek hi elaaj; hijron ke sar par rakh do taaj (22) (there is only one remedy/cure for useless politicians; give the political mandate to hijras) (Hindustan Times, June 17, 2001)–seemingly the only “real” selfless and devout politicians willing and able to effectively serve the nation.

Celibacy in the Service of the Nation

In line with this reasoning, many Hindu nationalist politicians explicitly invoke their celibacy and renunciate status as proof of their sacrifice, martyrdom, and selflessness in the service of the nation. In her analysis of three of the foremost BJP female orators for instance, Amrita Basu notes, “There is, amidst their many differences, one striking similarity between Vijayaraje Scindia, Sadhvi Rithambara and Uma Bharati that is critical to the project of Hindu nationalism. All three women are celibate…. Their chastity heightens their iconic status for it is deeply associated in Hinduism with notions of spirituality, purity and otherworldliness; these qualities also make these women reliable spokespersons for the future Hindu rashtra [kingdom/state]” (1995: 161). (23) Sudhir Kakar, commenting on a speech made by Sadhvi Rithambara, notes that, “As a renouncer of worldly life, a sannyasin, Rithambara conjures up the image of selflessness. Associatively, she is not a politician stirred by narrow electoral considerations or identified with partisan interest groups but someone who is … concerned with the welfare of the whole country” (1996: 218). Similarly, in her militant speeches, Uma Bharati equates the selflessness of a celibate lifestyle with the spiritual superiority of the religious domain, thereby implicitly invoking a widespread Hindu belief in the inferiority of materiality and the worldly domain of political life in comparison to the otherworldly domain of religion.

Further, by associating this spiritual domain with the home and its keeper, as did early Indian nationalists (cf. Chatterjee, 1993), women emerge as the preeminent upholders and spokespersons for this domain. As Chatterjee writes, “The home and its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world–and woman is its representation” (1993: 120). As women–and celibate and thereby selfless women at that–Uma Bharati, Sadhvi Rithambara, and other female Hindu nationalists see themselves as ideally situated to make this critique of the material, corrupt, political world, and as the primary vehicles to bring the nation back to its “traditional” moral (Hindu) roots. As Basu notes, “one of the central themes that runs through Rithambara’s cassettes is the notion that India has lost its moral bearings…. [S]he implies that the political arena is synonymous with selfishness [and] the religious arena with selflessness. Ostensibly … locating herself outside of the domain of political power, she is well situated to make her critique” (Basu, 1995: 175).

As individuals ostensibly situated beyond all normative social divisions and therefore indelibly located outside the political domain, hijras emerge through this reasoning as perhaps the preeminent vehicles by which to redress the moral decay of the nation. They are, for the most part, men who physically emasculate themselves, ridding the body of their masculinity and subsequently becoming ideal asexual renunciates. They do not, as I have noted, disrupt the male-gendered occupation of the public sphere. In addition, by following Gandhi’s call, and repudiating the nationalist appeal to maleness and becoming “God’s eunuchs,” hijras also embody the humanizing potential (and in contemporary Hindu nationalist analyses, the ultimate moral potential) of femininity. If, as Basu notes, “women–as liminal beings–are ideally suited to the nationalist project of reconciling the interests of diverse classes, castes and organizations” (1995: 177), hijras, one could argue, are especially well situated in this respect. Thus, as Cohen remarks with reference to hijras’ recent electoral success, “far from being the weak and corrupt villains of political critique, [hijras] emerge in both their own and many popular accounts … [as] the only bodies truly able to materialize a democratic polity (Cohen, 2002: 17; emphasis added).

Sexual Anxiety of the Virile (Muslim) Other

Quite apart from the creative and generative potential of celibacy and sannyasa lies its symbolism as a foil for the perceived virility of the (Muslim) other. As John and Nair state, “If Gandhian nationalism deployed the metaphors of celibacy as a (male) ideal, the contemporary phase of the movement of the Hindu Right is marked by complex negotiations of the powers of masculine virility, drawing as much from Vivekananda as from Gandhi, and expressing both envy and fear of the imagined sexual abilities of the (demonized) Indian Muslim” (1998: 18).

In (re)constructing a golden age of Hinduism and valorizing certain essentialized practices as authentic “Hindu” culture, colonial accounts and Orientalist scholarship set up a dichotomy between the “gentle” Hindu and the “savage” Muslim–a dichotomy that is repeatedly resurrected in the rhetoric of contemporary Hindu right-wing orators and politicians (cf. Basu, 1995). As noted in the previous section, in analyzing the discourse of the three most prominent BJP female orators, Basu shows that it is their celibacy and chastity that makes these three otherwise different women similar, and provides an important moral and religious foundation for their popularity. More important, as Basu notes, they actively use this identification to highlight not only their selflessness in their service to the nation, but also their implicit opposition to the rapacious and thereby debilitating sexual appetites of Muslims. Several scholars have pointed out that Hindu nationalist rhetoric shows a “preoccupation … with the supposed strength, virility and aggression of Muslim men” (Basu, 1995: 165; cf. Kishwar, 1993; Pandey, 1993; Sarkar, 1995). It is this incessant reiteration of Muslim (men’s) excess–which Basu (1995: 165), drawing on Slavoj Zizek (1990), interprets as displaced envy–that consumes the Hindu imagination and manifests itself during Hindu-Muslim riots through grotesque acts that focus explicit attention on sexual practices, whether it is through the slitting of women’s wombs or the slicing of their breasts (cf. Das, 1990; Menon and Bhasin, 1998).

Against this hypersexualized, demonized image–and working as a perpetual foil–is the image of the apparently gentle, spiritual, and celibate Hindu (Chatterjee, 1990; Chowdhury, 2001; Das, 1990; Davis, 1996; Raychaudhary, 1996; Sinha, 1995). In her speeches, Sadhvi Rithambara repeatedly emphasizes the “fact” that, as Basu notes, “Hindus have been exploited because of their selflessness, passivity and generosity” (1995: 166); this is set in explicit opposition to the selfish, sexually, and violently aggressive Muslim “invaders.” Significantly, although associated in the popular imagination with the advent of Muslim rule in the region–specifically as “eunuch” guardians of the zenana or female quarters–hijras never explicitly invoked these roots in their election campaigns nor did they ever allude to their current identification as Muslims. Instead, the most commonly recounted myth hijras narrate in dating their historicity–one I reproduce in the conclusion below–explicitly invokes the Hindu god Rama, who “occupies the highest watchtower on the border between Hindu and non-Hindu” (Kakar, 1996: 219).

While there is some controversy about whether or not all hijras see themselves and are seen in the public imagination as Muslims (Crooke, 1896; Enthoven, 1922; Preston, 1987; Hall, 1997; Nanda, 1999), there is no doubt that at least some of them–including at least one, if not more, of the hijras who were recently elected–identify and practice as such. In Hyderabad, for instance, as one hijra friend categorically reiterated to me with respect to hijras in her lineage, “Once you become a hijra, then you become a Mussalman. [You] say salam alaikum when you meet other hijras, wear a green sari for special occasions, do not wear a bindi, eat halal meat, have the khatna [circumcision], you say namaaz, older people go on the Haj…. Now we are all Mussalmans here.” Given this religious identification, the deafening silence from hijras on this issue during their campaigns or subsequent to their being elected is extremely significant for their representation in the public imagination. While I am not arguing that this was necessarily a willful effort at masking their identity, I am suggesting that in the current climate of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) politics, this omission is noteworthy and perhaps contributes in some measure to hijras favorable reception by political parties and the electorate in the Hindi/Hindu heartland of India. Indeed, as one newspaper columnist stated, “The reason for the rise of eunuch power in the state [is] the huge Rama wave that has been sweeping the north [of India] over the last decade. And it is not only eunuchs, but also many others who believe that the rise of eunuch power is a fulfillment of Rama’s prophecy” (Rastogi, 2001).

Negotiating the Masculinities of Celibacy, Licentiousness, and Emasculation

My argument in the article thus far rests on the assumption that, while hijras’ election could possibly herald a new understanding of citizenship and sexual representation, it could also very easily slip into an alignment with far-right agendas of moral cleansing such as those undertaken by the BJP government and its parivar (Hindu [political] family) compatriots, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and Shiv Sena. As symbols of the “truth” of Rama’s divine prophesy, hijras and the imagery invoked by their electoral campaigns to rid the public of corruption and immorality could easily be read through the (Hindu) right-wing rhetoric of moral cleansing–in the cause of the apparently heightened importance in recent times of “preserving our moral order … for the public’s good,” as a prominent BJP minister, Sushma Swaraj declared in an interview, quoting the party manifesto (quoted in Saksena, Thomas, and Abraham, 1998). It is. apparently in the interests of the people that the “moral order” needs to be preserved against the depredations of the “West” as well as it would seem, inscriptions of other, apparently “inauthentic” differences, such as (Muslim) religion, and (homo) sexuality.

For example, it was under the auspices of the Bajrang Dal, a BJP ally, that right-wing activists in 1998 stormed the renowned Indian (Muslim) painter M. F. Hussain’s house and destroyed his painting “Sita Rescued,” which depicted a nude Sita riding on Hanuman’s tail. It was ostensibly the nudity of an idealized female figure that incensed the Hindu activists, although, as another well-known Indian painter, Anjolie Ela Menon, pointed out, religion was indelibly caught up in these significations in yet another way. Referring to her painting “Shakti,” which had three goddesses in the nude, Menon stated, “But nobody dared to attack me because I had a Hindu name” (Saksena, Thomas, and Abraham, 1998). Lending credence to this argument are statements such as that reportedly made by Bal Thackeray, the Bajrang Dal leader, in response to this attack. Shrugging off the incident, Thackeray apparently said, “We have let Hussain enter Hindustan; why can’t we enter his house?” (Saksena, Thomas, and Abraham, 1998).

Similar instances of state intervention, apparently in the interests of protecting the public’s “moral good,” led to the banning of an art show by an openly gay artist, Bhupen Kakkar, and, for a limited time, the banning of all condom advertisements as well as some AIDS campaign messages on television (Saksena, Thomas, and Abraham, 1998). More recently, the police raided two sexual health agencies working on AIDS prevention in the north Indian city of Lucknow and confiscated all of their educational material, claiming it was “unnatural” and “pornographic” and therefore inimical to the public’s moral good; they also arrested volunteers working at the agencies under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which “prohibits carnal intercourse against the order of nature”).

As I have noted elsewhere (Reddy, forthcoming), these state-sponsored resignifications in the meanings and “legitimate” expressions of identity, especially with regard to sexuality, seem to be intricately bound up with the institution of marriage. It is through the marital signifier that legitimate and illegitimate markers of modernity, culture, and Indianness are “invented” and its representations regulated by the state. For example, a controversial full-page advertisement for Tuffs shoes depicting a nude man and a woman wearing only shoes while embracing each other was forced to be withdrawn from circulation, and the models were arrested by the Bajrang Dal government in Maharashtra (Spaeth and Pratap, 1995). Rather than merely pointing to the impropriety of representing nudity on public television, the ostensible reason for such censorship centered on the institution of marriage; according to a government representative, it was because the two models used in the advertisement were about to get married in real life that the nudity was particularly problematic. In responding to this advertisement, he is reported to have said: “How can we allow anyone to pose in the nude with his wife?” (Sharma, 1995; emphasis in original).

In addition to my argument that it is not practices of dis-identification but identification with regulatory norms that forms the bases of hijras’ electoral victories, I would conclude by noting that while the potential to identify particular “bodies that matter” (cf. Butler, 1993) provides the grounds for the emancipatory reconceptualizations noted by Butler, it also provides grounds for the legitimization of moral agendas that promote censorship, discrimination, and extremist violence. It is precisely in the Hindutva project of identifying “which bodies matter and which bodies are yet to emerge as critical matters of concern” (Butler, 1993) that the danger of disenfranchisement lies. In the end, subaltern possibilities of citizenship and political activism in shaping visions of the common good can, it seems, be subverted by the moral agendas of particular institutional and discursive regimes working for the “public good” of its citizens. Indeed, as Chatterjee warns, it is important not to “underestimate nationalism’s capacity to appropriate, with varying degrees of risk and varying degrees of success, dissenting and marginal voices” (Chatterjee, 1993: 156). Ultimately, I argue, in representing themselves as authentic (Hindu) icons who can rid the nation of inauthentic, emasculated, and corrupt men, hijras inadvertently play into the Hindutva project of remasculinizing the nation; it is in the image of the celibate, saffron hero/ine, rather than the licentious Muslim or the emasculated and selfish politician, that hijras (and Hindutva ideology) derive their popular legitimacy and project an authentically “Indian” nationalism.

Sacred Legitimization, Profane (Hindu) Practice: A Cautionary Conclusion

I want to end this paper by relating one of the most ubiquitous myths hijras tell with respect to their historicity, invoking the figure of Rama, the hero of the eponymous pan-Indian epic, Ramayana. According to this myth/history, when Rama left the city of Ayodhya to go into exile, all the city’s inhabitants followed him to the banks of the river on the edge of town to bid him a tearful goodbye. On reaching the river, Rama addressed the people, saying, “All you men and women, please wipe your tears and go back to your homes.” Hijras, being neither men nor women, did not return to their homes; instead they waited on the banks of the river for 14 years, until Rama returned to Ayodhya after his period of exile. Touched by their devotion, Rama blessed the hijras and told them that they would rule the land in Kaliyuga or the current cosmic period–a point Sujata alluded to in the opening vignette of this paper.

As Richard Davis notes, “In the vision of the Sangh Parivar–the “brotherhood” of Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with the RSS, including the ruling BJP and the VHP among others–Rama is advanced as the primary metonym of Hindu India” (1996: 35). In fact, for members of this parivar, worship of this god apparently serves as proof of one’s authenticity not just as a Hindu, but also as an Indian. As Sadhvi Rithambara stated in one of her speeches, “Ram is the representation of mass consciousness … [and] India’s national consciousness…. If anyone is not a devotee of such a god, he does not have Hindu blood running in his veins” (quoted in Kakar, 1996: 222). As real “Indian” (Hindu) sexual renunciates with the explicit legitimacy of Rama’s blessings, hijras are by this token the perfect embodiments of Hindu nationalism and the ideal political leaders of this cosmic age. The current Hijra Rajya therefore potentially designates the final triumph of a (heteronormative and patriarchal) Ram Rajya. In the current political context, celibate masculinity, “authentic” religious ideology, and nationalism unite–in the body of hijra “political sannyasis”–for the ultimate glory of the Hindu-rashtra (nation).

* Research for parts of this paper were made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Association for Women in Science. Earlier versions of the article were presented at the University of Illinois, Chicago; University of Iowa; American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington, D.C.; and the Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings in Cleveland, Ohio. Comments and questions from those audiences were helpful in developing the article. Comments are also gratefully acknowledged from Sita Reddy, Bruce Knauft, Vijayendra Rao, and Serena Nanda, as well as from the journal editors and reviewers of this article at Social Research.


(1) While it is clear that hijras are stigmatized in Indian society, their subject-position is complicated and highly ambivalent and is not necessarily captured by the term pariah. As referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “pariah” derives its primary significance from the caste system; it originally referred to a member of a specific low caste in southern India (Pariar), later becoming generalized to signify a member of any low Hindu caste, before extending its reference to one of no caste or a social outcast (Oxford English Dictionary, 2002). Given its particular historical referents, I believe that this term needs to be deployed with caution, particularly in the South Asian context. Moreover, given the complex articulation of hijras with the caste system, I use the phrase “pariah minorities” with some reservation in this article.

(2) The hijra term for this operation is nirvan, meaning rebirth. An important caveat with regard to this “operation” is that while it serves as an important ideal referent of hijra identity, it is not undertaken by everyone in the community. However, on most occasions a failure to undergo this act is accompanied by a devaluation of the individual’s izzat [honor/respect], and therefore some degree of marginalization within the hijra community. Another important caveat relating to hijra identity is that the phrase “phenotypic men,” while convenient, is not always the most appropriate descriptive label, given hijras’ variable positioning as men, not-men, women, not-women, kothi, ada-bic, and “born this way,” among other self-identified descriptions. However, these descriptions are almost always shifts from male-to-third (as opposed to female-to-third), contributing in some measure to the naturalization of femaleness as reproductive capacity (cf. Cohen, 1995).

(3) Partly as a result of census limitations, both in terms of the binary gender categories of classification, as well as the very inclusion of an often transient hijra population, the estimation of hijra numbers is a fraught exercise. Existing estimates in India range from 10,000 to 2 million (Bobb and Patel, 1982; Jaffrey, 1996), with the numbers of how many hijras engage in sex work being even more variable.

(4) In the public imagination, this perception is coupled with a guarded respect for hijras’ powers to bless (and curse)–although this respect is admittedly neither universally given nor does it always extend outside the ritual contexts where hijras perform their song-dance sequences to confer fertility.

(5) It should perhaps come as no surprise that it was this issue more than any other–their shame or their lack of izzat (honor)–that constituted a central trope in hijras’ construction of identity. As I note elsewhere, izzat appeared to be one of the most important criteria that motivated their actions and by which hijras evaluated their own and others’ behavior (Reddy, 2000). Undeniably, they had a complicated and ambivalent relationship with this moral value, often playing precisely on the perception of their shameful, bina izzat (without honor) status in society to gain their ultimate ends.

(6) As a recent article in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s online network notes and the recent film Bombay Eunuch shows, by employing hijras to collect their debts from payment defaulters, credit card companies are exploiting the public’s fear of being shamed by hijras, apparently with incredible success (BBC, 1999).

(7) See Valentine Daniel’s (1984) ethnography, Fluid Signs, for an excellent understanding of substance-based transactional beliefs in India.

(8) A detailed historical analysis of hijra identity and changing perceptions of their role in society is beyond the scope of this article. For one of the few articles that address the history of this institution in colonial India–drawing extensively on archival materials for this purpose–see Preston (1987).

(9) Most of the other hijra candidates stood for election as independents and were not supported or endorsed by any of the political parties until after their election. Since their election, however, almost all these hijra officials have been approached by national political parties–including the Congress and BJP–to run for office on their party ticket. Even Uma Bharati, the outspoken (Hindu) right-wing demagogue and BJP member of Parliament, apparently publicly indicated that her party would be open to the idea of fielding eunuchs as candidates in future elections See Indian Express (2000).

(10) In his book Democracy and Discontent (1990), Atul Kohli notes that the declining legitimacy of the Congress leaders/power-brokers, the breakdown of the patronage/vote system between the national capital and the local polity, and the disarray of the organization and leadership of party in the mid-1980’s sounded the death-knell of the Congress Party. This collapsing Congress order, he argues, created a crisis of governability and a disorderly politics in the mid-1980’s. (See also Frankel and Rao [1990] for corroborating accounts.) Indeed, as Ludden (1996) notes, “the greatest turmoil attending the collapse of the Congress has occurred in states where Congress was strongest in 1980: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and the Union Territory of Delhi” (1996: 19). This facilitated the mobilization of new groups and local political constituencies and the growth of xenophobic militance (cf. Bannerjee, 1995). In the context of this paper, this list of states in which the Congress held sway until recently includes those in which hijras have made their greatest electoral gains.

(11) I am grateful to Sita Reddy for pointing me toward this line of reasoning.

(12) I use female pronouns to refer to hijras because that is how they referred to themselves in most instances and because they also indicated to me that that is how they prefer to be referenced.

(13) In his article Srivastava critiques this overemphasis on celibacy in analyses of (male) sexuality in India, arguing for the inclusion of narratives of “non-reproductive sexual activity … [in the] topography of the sexual landscape of India (2001: 1).

(14) “Of the variegated connotations of tapas, the most significant is that of asceticism,” Olivelle states (1993: 3). This is the process of transmuting sexual energy into cosmic energy. “Although in human terms asceticism is opposed to sexuality and fertility, in mythological terms tapas is itself a powerful creative force, a generative power of ascetic heat,” O’Flaherty writes (1973: 41). The key to this power, however, lies in celibacy: an ascetic must remain celibate to generate tapas.

(15) For women, of course, the ultimate ideal is pativrata–being a chaste wife and serving one’s husband–through which process one could potentially attain liberation. But see also Khandelwal (1996, 1997) for excellent analyses of the complex gendered ideologies mediating (female) sannyasinis accounts of themselves and the renunciant tradition, as well as Basu (1995) for a trenchant analysis of celibate women leaders in the (right-wing Hindu) political sphere.

(16) The significance of this act having originated as an act of anger–and hijras’ subsequent appropriation of this particular myth/act to legitimize their powers–highlights not only the implicit violence in hijras’ lives (cf. Cohen, 1995) but also the ambivalence associated with sexual (pro) creation in Hindu myth and religion. I am grateful to Yasmin Nair for pointing out the emotional significance of this act.

(17) Admittedly, the complex symbolism of being both mother and father to the nation is elided by this statement and the easy identification it assumes. This is especially so when Gandhi, the “father of the nation,” himself had a complex relationship to sexuality and masculinity–his own as well as that of the nation’s, evident through his strategic manipulation and ultimate repudiation of virile masculinity as a tool for anticolonial self-fashioning (cf. Mehta, 1977; Nandy, 1983; Kakar, 1989).

(18) The story of Brhnnala is outlined in the fourth book of the pan-Indian epic Mahabharata. By the terms of their exile, the Pandava brothers are required to spend the last year in disguise, undetected, if their period of exile is not to recommence. One of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna (partly by virtue of a curse incurred for earlier spurning the advances of a celestial apsara), spends this year as Brhnnala, a “eunuch” dance instructor in the court of King Virata. Ironically, the name Brhnnala translates as “having a large reed” (van Buitenen, 1984).

(19) Swami Vivekanada (1863-1902) was one of the foremost disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, a (Hindu) philosopher of Advaita Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda is perhaps best known for his address at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, which introduced the largely American audience to Vedantic Hinduism, and for his establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission, or monastic order, in India.

(20) There has been a resurgence of interest or a reinvention of this (nationalist) form of tradition in the recent past, whereby the “golden heritage” of Indian (Hindu) masculinity is reclaimed through renunciate celibacy. Evocative of such a narrative is the recent and extremely popular nationally broadcast television show, Chanakya, which chronicles the attempts of the hero (Chanakya) to negotiate the opposing masculinities of celibacy and emasculation in his bid to prevent the dissolution of the nation. As Uma Chakravarti points out in her incisive analysis of this cultural product, “In Chanakya, the opposition between the protagonist and villain is strongly laid out as a sexual opposition–the controlled, transcended sexuality of the celibate [Hindu hero, Chanakya] making for masculine vigor, and the over indulgent sexuality of the licentious [Muslim] male whose masculinity has been crippled” (1998: 260). Clearly, in this state-sponsored program, it is celibacy or the transformation of sexual into spiritual energy/power that wins out over a debilitating hypersexual (e)masculinity.

(21) Despite Gandhi’s avowed brilliance in subverting colonial conceptualizations of masculinity and bringing women, both ideologically and physically, into the forefront of colonial resistance, his obsessive preoccupation with the “problem” of (male) sexual desire and the violence intrinsic to such desire and its repudiation (often upholding patriarchal privileges at the cost of women, who serve merely as either the vehicles of incitement or “proof” of success) are clearly problematic for the analysis of women’s sexual freedom.

(22) Perhaps not coincidentally, the term for penis in hijra/kothi vocabulary is nikkam.

(23) All three of these women are in some sense the exceptions rather than the norm: all have transgressed gender roles in both private and public domains and “make a striking departure from women, both in positions of leadership and in fundamentalist movements in South Asia” (Basu, 1995: 161). But, as Amrita Basu goes on to comment, the emergence of these women as the most powerful orators of Hindu nationalism is not entirely a fortuitous occurrence. She notes that, “while the BJP is in important respects deeply patriarchal, it has sometimes advanced women’s rights in order to fulfill its more critical objective of isolating and vilifying the Muslim community” (1995: 170). In this sense, the emergence of these three women as orators/leaders is perhaps attributable in part to the diversity of familial images that the BJP and the party’s compatriots use, not necessarily because they are intrinsically committed to women’s liberation, but because they are interested in maintaining their electoral popularity with women voters. It is also not coincidental in this context that all three of these women are celibate, or more to the point, do not have male partners whose standing in society could be adversely affected by their prominence.


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Gayatri Reddy is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her paper, “Crossing ‘Lines’ of Subjectivity: The Negotiation of Sexual Identity in Hyderabad, India,” appeared in South Asia in 2001.

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