Kolkata: When Hridaan, 19, a gender-fluid person who was born female came out to their parents in West Bengal in August 2021, they were abused and beaten. Eventually, they decided to move in with their partner Siddhartha, 24, a binary trans man.
(The term ‘gender-fluid’ refers to persons whose gender expression or gender identity changes over time, whose preferred pronouns may be ‘they/them’. )
Hridaan immediately began to receive threats from their family. A police officer from the local police station in Haringhata in Nadia district, on the border with Bangladesh, also called and asked them to return home.
“The officer threatened to frame Siddhartha for kidnapping if I didn’t go back home,” said Hridaan, who in January 2022 came out as a binary trans man with the preferred pronouns ‘he/him’.
Frightened, Hridaan decided to seek help from a different police station and approached the Bidhannagar police in Kolkata, seeking protection. Instead, police personnel there allegedly advised them to return to their parents.
The next day, Hridaan was taken back home by their parents, by force.
Fearing that they might be subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and unable to get support from the police, Siddhartha contacted Sappho for Equality, a Kolkata-based organisation working for the rights of lesbians, bisexual women, and trans men.
“When Siddhartha called Sappho for help, I immediately got in touch with the chairperson of the West Bengal Transgender Persons Development Board, Shashi Panja,” said Kolika Mitra, a member of the board and at that time an employee at Sappho.
Mitra informed Panja of the situation and asked what kind of police intervention they could seek. The latter then spoke to the deputy superintendent of police (DySP) of Haringhata and sought help for a smooth rescue.
“Whenever the police refused to co-operate and delayed (action) unnecessarily, Shashi Panja called the superintendent of police,” said Mitra, “and things were done immediately.”
Indrajeet Ghorpade, founder of the digital LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) awareness platform Yes, We Exist, helped Siddhartha and Hridaan by drawing attention to their case online to build pressure on the families and the police. He said, “The police not only failed to recognise and protect Hridaan’s fundamental right to choose where and with whom they live, but they also threatened their partner Siddhartha with false charges of human trafficking and theft when they tried to seek police help.”
When Siddhartha and Hridaan tried to file a first information report (FIR) against the latter’s parents with the help of lawyers and non-governmental organisations, the police were reluctant to register the complaint.
Eventually, an FIR was registered against Hridaan’s family at the Haringhata police station on August 2021, under sections 351, 319, 354, 359 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 (pertaining to assault, grievous hurt, kidnapping and criminal intimidation).
Failure To Comply With Directions
Despite India’s Supreme Court affirming the rights of LGBTQIA+ people, members of the community and activists said police often, like in Hridaan’s case, counsel queer persons to return to their parents instead of helping them escape an abusive household.
The fundamental problem, said Chennai-based LGBTQIA+ activist Shiva Kumar, is that the police lack a basic understanding of sex, gender, sexuality and identity.
“Although they are in law enforcement, they look at these (cases) as a personal issue,” he said. “They operate with their own biases and that of society. The police need to be aware of this issue and confine their work to law enforcement.”
In 2021, Kumar was arrested by the Madurai police for sheltering a lesbian couple. One set of parents had filed a case of kidnapping, and plainclothes policemen arrested Kumar and a colleague from Chennai and threatened and abused them. They threatened to book him for human trafficking. It was after senior police officials including the commissioner of police were informed that officers were directed to free him.
Kumar cited a case of a trans man who wanted to live with his partner, a woman, in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu. The police intervened and advised the woman to return to her parents.
“Police say that parents are the best custodians of their children, especially women,” he said. “They believe that women should be under the protection of their parents.” He said he wondered whether parents had any awareness of the issues queer people face within their families, including threats of violence and honour killings.
The police also counselled the woman to seek therapy, added Kumar, asking what gave a policeman the right to comment on the mental health of a woman.
Civil Society Fills The Training Gap
NGOs have reached out to police departments in states and cities across India offering to train and sensitise their personnel about the LGBTQIA+ community.
In its September 2018 judgment that read down section 377 of the IPC, and decriminalised consensual sexual relations between adults of any gender, the SC directed that all government officials, especially the police, be given sensitisation and awareness training. “However, this part of the judgement has not been complied with,” said Jayna Kothari, senior advocate and executive director, Centre for Law & Policy Research (CLPR).
She said that there were some cases where women’s rights groups and trans rights groups collaborated with the police for training. “That’s just ad hoc. It’s not institutionalised,” she said. “It all depends on whether the police of the states and districts are open and willing to collaborate.” According to Kothari, such sensitisation should be part of the training curriculum as it is a Supreme Court direction.
The National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) Core Group on LGBTQI+ communities has given various recommendations to the government on sensitising law enforcement agencies. Most states, however, have not taken any action to that effect.
According to Ghorpade of Yes, We Exist, many districts in India have conducted sensitisation workshops for select groups of senior officers.
Tinesh Chopade, advocacy manager, Humsafar Trust, said they conduct training sessions to sensitise different stakeholders, including law enforcement authorities.
Chopade said they have two models for sensitising the police, through police training academies where it is possible to target senior-level police officers, or through rank-wise batches of officials from different districts.
The NGO has conducted this training at the Maharashtra Police Academy in Nashik and with the Haryana police. “We have a module where we focus on clearing misconceptions about the LGBTQIA+ community. We also touch upon the current laws in favour of the community,” he said. Each training session lasts up to four hours, said Chopade.
In the second model, Humsafar Trust visits local police stations and conducts a smaller version of the sensitisation. In addition, the organisation reaches out to academies and regional police officials.
The government of India has not issued any order to the states to sensitise the police towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Instead, activists said, the ministry of social justice and empowerment has trained its focus on the transgender community.
‘Why Are You Dressed Like A Woman?’
Reyansh Naarang, 22, identifies as a non-binary queer person and is a law student in Delhi. Late one night in November 2021, they were returning from a party with a friend when they were stopped at a police picket in the Safdarjung area, where policemen were checking for passengers not wearing a face mask.
Naarang’s friend, who also identifies as queer, wasn't.
“One of them (police) jumped into the car, sat beside my friend, and started checking his belongings,” they said.
Naarang and their friend were asked to step out of the vehicle. Both were wearing eye make-up. Naarang was wearing a long skirt, and their shoulder-length hair was dyed blonde at the time. “The police started asking intrusive questions like ‘Why are you wearing makeup?’ ‘Why are you dressed like a woman?’ ‘Why have you coloured your hair?’,” recalled Naarang.
They said it was unnerving. “It felt so intrusive, the way they touched us.”
Faced with the threat of their families being told about how they were dressed, Naarang’s friend, who was not out of the closet, had to pay Rs 8,000 to be let off. “They capitalised on our fear,” said Naarang.
It was not Naarang’s first or only encounter with the police. Over time, they have learned to stay calm, remove their earrings, hair-clips and make-up on spotting police cars approaching. “If you tell them that you are aware of your rights and the law, they harass you even more,” they said. “They accuse you of being sex workers and smoking marijuana.”
Tamil Nadu Amends Police Conduct Rules
In November 2020, the ministry of social justice and empowerment launched Garima Greh, a shelter home for transgender persons, to provide them with safe and secure shelter. Members of civil society welcomed the move but said the government must also consider other queer people (lesbian, gay, bisexual) and take note of their challenges.
In an August 2021 order, Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madras high court directed the Tamil Nadu state police to add a clause in the police’s conduct rules banning any harassment of people from the LGBTQIA+ community. On 18 February 2022, Tamil Nadu became the first state in India to amend its service rules, the Tamil Nadu Subordinate Police Officers’ Conduct Rules to include a specific legal provision against violence and harassment of LGBTQIA+ people by police.
In December 2021, Justice Venkatesh said transgender persons were only a fraction of the entire LGBTQIA+ community, and that the benefit of the Garima Greh scheme must be extended to the whole LGBTQIA+ community. “The ministry shall consider this and enlarge the scope of the scheme,” he said.
Kamanasish Sen, superintendent of police in West Bengal’s East Burdwan district, said he hasn’t come across any cases of police discrimination against LGBTQ people over the past year, possibly because East Burdwan is a predominantly rural area.
In July 2020, policemen of Narayanpur police station under Bidhannagar city police were accused of harassing a gay man for his gender identity. Sen was then deputy commissioner of police (DCP) New Town at the time, and Narayanpur police station was under his jurisdiction.
On learning about the incident, he spoke to the then Bidhannagar city police commissioner and organised a sensitisation workshop for senior police officials and all officials at Narayanpur police station.
Asked if police at all levels are aware of the new laws and the SC’s verdict on LGBTQ issues, Sen said, “Yes, they know the new laws as they are being circulated, but awareness levels need to be heightened.”
In January 2022, an incident concerning four trans women in Tripura shone a light on the need to sensitise all police officials in tier two and three cities, where NGOs with limited resources find it difficult to establish a base. The women were arrested and allegedly forced to strip to prove their gender. They were also threatened with arrest if they dared to crossdress ever again.
Sen said senior police officials tend to be more aware of laws, amendments and how to implement them in letter and spirit. Many policemen do need sensitisation and training on not discriminating against people due to their gender or sexual identity, he said.
His department has weekly classes scheduled for subordinate officers, and the subject of LGBTQ rights could be introduced in these sessions, he said.
Following the ordeal, Siddhartha and Hridaan went to live at a shelter run by Sappho for Equality for some time. They later returned to the home they share but said the fear persists.
Though family members seemed to have accepted Hridaan’s gender identity, the couple did not want to take any chances. Siddhartha said they would not withdraw the cases against the police who harassed them or Hridaan’s family to keep the pressure on them. He said, “Hridaan steps out of the house alone. We want to make sure nobody attempts to kidnap them again.”
(Puja Bhattacharjee is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. She writes on social justice, LGBTQ issues, health, science, and the environment.)