In December last, the hijra family of Bhavitha, who was found dead near a dustbin in Warangal, was not allowed to lay claims on her dead body by the Telangana Police because non-biological kinship networks are not related by blood and, therefore, not recognised by law. Bhavitha’s dead body was, therefore, denied dignity and respect due to state neglect.
To ensure that Bhavitha’s fate does not befall thousands of other hijras in the country, the entire community needs to be guaranteed basic human rights, especially in matters related to their chosen hijra families. It, therefore, becomes critical to understand the social stratification in these communities across India.
Legally recognised as the ‘third’ gender after the Supreme Court judgment in April 2014, the hijras can be understood very simply as subaltern forms of trans-queer identities that exist within their own self-made systems of socially constituted kinship networks. The hijras in India are not a homogeneous group and are systematically organised as hierarchical communities within themselves. The social stratification within the hijra communities is multi-layered and complex.
The community works on a discipleship lineage system. To be accepted into the community, a hijra guru initiates a person through adoption into the non-biological hijra kinship network. This network is affiliated to a symbolically organised housing system of hijra gharanas that function as an internal system of segregation within the communities. It may be possible that because hijras are traditionally associated with performing music and dance, the practice of segregating the communities into gharanas may have been conceptually borrowed from the traditional gharana system of musical lineages in India.
According to Daniel M. Neuman, in his book. The Life of Music in North India, gharanas are stylistic schools or family traditions in North Indian Hindustani music, functioning as a system of apprenticeship between gurus (teachers) and chelas (disciples). Similarly, hijra gharanas are apprenticeship systems, and the burden of its maintenance rests on the relationship between the hijra gurus and their chelas. Though the relationship is mostly symbiotic, there has been controversy surrounding the nature of such guru-chela relationship, where some hijras have called to end this culture in the community.
Acceptance into the gharana legitimises hijra identity and gharana membership then becomes an indicator for separating the ‘real’ hijras from the ‘fake’ ones. Scholars have found that there are seven hijra houses or gharanas in India, although the exact number and their names in different cities is debatable. However, based on my research, the hijra community in New Delhi alone is believed to originate from four hijra gharanas, namely, Sujani, Rai, Kalyani and Mandi.
Though the hijras I interacted with claim that there is no hierarchy as such between the gharanas, which share power among themselves, it is often difficult to assess how power is divided amongst these vulnerable and marginalised groups. The gharanas are further headed by a hijra chief called nayak. The nayaks are jointly responsible for maintaining social order within the community.
One of the ways in which social order is maintained in the hijra community by the nayaks is by the regulation of internal councils, called the hijra panchayats or jamaats. These councils are powerful, self-conceived regulatory bodies that have the authority to both initiate and expel hijras. Expulsion of hijras from the communities is called huqqa-pani band (to cast out or ostracise). During the expulsion, an outcast hijra finds it difficult to re-initiate him/herself in the hijra community in any city. Once expelled, financial security through certain idiosyncratic livelihood prerogatives for the outcast hijra becomes limited until the council takes up an appeal for re-admittance into the community. The hijra panchayats and jamaats are artibrary councils and it is difficult to assess their intersection with law.
There is no written constitution that the hijra gharanas have to abide to. There is, of course, an ideal ‘expected’ hijra behaviour and unwritten rules to meet those expectations. This ideal of a ‘good’ hijra, based on behavourial expectations and an unwritten code of conduct, is similar to how gender roles are imposed in any society – though always in the process of transition, but often based on a norm.
Forty two years ago, in 1976, Veena Talwar Oldenberg first observed a similar gharana system amidst the elite female courtesans or tawa’ifs of Lucknow. In her research, she concluded that the tawa’if lifestyle was a kind of resistance to patriarchal values because in the privacy of their own world, the tawa’ifs celeberated womanhood in a way that resisted and inverted gender roles set by a predominantly patriarchal society.
Similarly, the hijra gharana system embodies an institutionalised lifestyle based on various forms of resistance to the heteronormative idea of a family. The unique internal customs and culture legitimised by the gharanas are based on a system of informality that provides a space for identity-negotiation for many, and contributes towards producing a counter-culture in India.
Such negotiations enable the existence of a pluralistic idea of gender for a community, which might not have the means to do so otherwise. The hijra community has a natural system of social existence based on non-biological kinship networks, which need to be accorded formal recognition.
Ina Goel is an HKPFS awardee based at the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.