On November 26 and in the days before, police in Bangalore, India, rounded up more than 150 hijras and put them in a concentration camp. (Hijra is a traditional term, across much of South Asia, for people born males who who identify either as women or as a third gender.) At Orinam, an online resource for LGBT issues in India, human rights lawyer Gowthaman Ranganathan tells the story:
Approximately 167 members of the transgender community have been taken away by the police and kept at the Beggars’ colony. These detentions have been entirely arbitrary … Most detainees were not on the streets begging or doing any act that is prohibited under the Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act, 1975. Most of them were going about their daily chores when they were arbitrarily picked up by police officers and taken away to the Beggar’s colony in Hoysalas. The police even walked into the homes of the hijras and dragged them out. … Clearly the objective of the police was not merely to pick up those who were begging, but in effect all persons who answered to the description of being hijra.
The reason for this mass detention is unknown to us but there is information suggesting that this is retaliation for the misbehaviour of one of the members of the community. Even if this were true … [i]t is unconscionable that the entire transgender women community should be punished for the alleged wrongs of some members of the community.
Bangalore Mirror reports the crackdown began on November 24th, with “more than 200″ picked up. Transgender activist Akkai Padmashali told the Mirror that when she and her colleagues tried to investigate, “Officials at Beggars Colony did not even let us in and threatened that even we will also be locked inside the rehabilitation centre.”
Thanks to human rights activists’ quick intervention, officials freed the prisoners by the end of the 26th. Padmashali wrote on Facebook:
The day was hectic in fighting for our rights with Minister, Commissioner, Additional Commissioner. After long lobby [the victims] finally got released. Today protest against police brutality in front of town hall. Permission was granted and again cancelled. Finally we were on street claiming our fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution of India and were successful.
Congratulations to everyone who worked to get the victims free. India’s LGBT rights movement rocks, along with India’s progressive civil society in general. At the same time, the repression leaves questions about whether police perceive any limits on what they can do to people they despise. My friend Mario da Penha tweeted to Bangalore authorities:
The ugly case reveals even more hideous things. When I wrote “concentration camp,” I meant it. Police seized the hijras under the Prevention of Beggary Act, passed by Karnataka state in 1975, which mandates that beggars be sent to a “relief centre” for “rehabilitation” — for up to three years.
The law says a magistrate should decide these sentences; but in practice, as Ambrose Pinto wrote in an eloquent expose in 2011, many victims are held without any hearing.
Most of those who were picked up have not been informed of the reasons for their being placed in the colony. Migrants, labourers and people who come to the city in search of employment are randomly arrested and detained for indefinite periods. Instead of producing the inmates before the Magistrates, they are charge-sheeted by the administrative staff of the colony. People are treated worse than convicts with no access to any legal assistance.
The law defines a beggar as anyone “having no visible means of subsistence” who is caught “in any public place.” That makes looking poor a criminal act.
All is not well in Beggar’s Colony
In 2010, the Deccan Herald recounted “horror stories,” especially of migrants who had come to neoliberal Bangalore for the table scraps of its wealth:
Inmates of the [Bangalore Beggars] Colony were not necessarily beggars. Take the case of 25-year-old Rahman, a native of Davangere. The youth worked as a painter … About twenty days back, on his way to work, he was reportedly picked up by some people, bundled into a van and dumped at the Colony. “I was thrashed and not given an opportunity to contact my family members and inform them about my whereabouts,” he rued.
Another ailing inmate, Muninanjappa, a resident of Avalahalli said he was waiting for a bus near the Karnataka High Court when he was picked up by unknown men, on the pretext that he appeared too weak and required hospitalisation. He was later brought to the Beggars’ Colony.
At least these victims get some care, right? The Karnataka state government’s website describes the “relief centre” like a summer camp: It “extensivly [sic] works on rehabilitation of Beggars. It provides not only shelter and hygenic food but also gives training on various skills and strives for better living of Beggars.” The state also shows you pictures, perhaps less than encouraging:
Reality is darker. Over just eight months in 2010, at least 286 Beggars Colony inmates died, many from tainted or inadequate food and substandard medical care. An official report found “heartless conditions,” according to The Hindu:
Gross violations ranging from financial irregularities, inefficient administration, medical negligence and inhuman attitude of the staff … woeful lack of medical help with no more than one doctor available during day, and the flagrant manner in which all mandatory legal procedures and rules were thrown to the wind every step of the way. … Not only did several deaths occur under unexplained circumstances, but several bodies simply disappeared. … [A]s part of a large racket, vital organs could have been extracted and sold illegally.
Victorian laws used to round up transgenders
The laws related to transgenders are fascinating. The best-known legal instrument in India for persecuting LGBT people is Section 377 of the Criminal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” It’s a survival of British colonialism, direct descendant of a statute against the “detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery” enacted in England under King Henry VIII (he of the many wives).
In 2009 the Delhi High Court overturned the law, to rejoicing across the subcontinent. Then, in late 2013, India’s Supreme Court curtly reinstated it. The fact that it’s back has given an informal go-ahead to renewed repression. And there may be no police in India more eager for a crackdown than Bangalore’s. The Karnataka constabulary have a terrible record with transgender people: a history of harassing and jailing them, torturing them, evicting them from homes.
Yet, in this case, Bangalore’s finest didn’t use the revived 377 at all. Instead, they turned to a law that has equally venerable colonial roots: a law against not buggery, but beggary.
Why are these ancient laws still there? Because they’re useful. They put a good-streetkeeping seal of approval on social cleansing. In a place like Bangalore — South Asia’s Silicon Valley, model megalopolis of local neoliberalism — they prod the police to scrub thoroughfares into hygenic shopping malls, purify the sidewalks of the impudent and unclean, punish those who dare to be poor, set up a gated, rich, and renovated environment. Brilliant Bangalore, city and symbol, embodies “India shining” — the slogan coined by the right-wing BJP ten years ago and trumpeted by neoliberal icon Narendra Modi in his triumphant election campaign this year.
For the rich and tech-savvy, Bangalore will be paradise and Paris, Manhattan and Mahagonny. For the homeless, sex workers, migrants, hijras, it’s the Beggars Colony.
This analysis was published on Scott Long’s blog A Paper Bird. This is an edited excerpt of the analysis, published on Citizen Matters with permission from Scott Long. Scott Long has extensively worked in the field of Human Rights and equality for sexual minorities.