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    South Asia
     Jan 3, 2008
Identity crisis for India's eunuchs
By Shuriah Niazi

BHOPAL, India - Local authorities in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh face a perplexing problem. The authenticity of some of the area's eunuchs is in question, and officials claim they're powerless to resolve increasingly violent disputes between the rival - real and fake - factions. Authorities say problems started more than a year ago, but in recent months the situation has deteriorated into street clashes and murder.

In India eunuchs are commonly called hijras and estimates of their numbers range from 50,000 to 5 million. Most earn their

livelihood by the age-old tradition of performing at weddings, baby showers and housewarmings. They are believed to possess supernatural powers and are called on to make blessings in exchange for cash. Today, however, unemployment and poverty have prompted many Indians to dress and act like eunuchs to earn a living. This has resulted in heated controversy between the authentic and the imposters.

The violence in Madhya Pradesh was sparked when fake eunuchs were seen begging on city streets. Shortly thereafter, the group was attacked by real eunuchs. Now and for the past months, fights between the real and fake eunuchs frequently require police intervention. The events culminated when a eunuch named "Rambai" was murdered in broad daylight by three fake eunuchs in Madhya Pradesh's Jabalpur town.

The issue hasn't gone unnoticed. Khairatilal Bhola, president of the All-India Hijra Kalyan Sabha, said, "I know that most of the eunuchs are fake. But neither the government nor the police are doing anything. Due to this the number of fake eunuchs is increasing."

Bhola wants police to take action against outlaw eunuchs so that the real eunuchs are not denied their rights. But even he concedes the job won't be easy. Overwhelmed officials in Madhya Pradesh are considering issuing licenses to distinguish between the real and the fake eunuchs, but progress is proving difficult.

"I think there is no harm in issuing license to the real eunuchs. For this the [municipality] must formulate some rules," said Makrand Deuskar, police superintendent of Jabalpur.

Surgeon Hitesh Agrawal of Jabalpur's Victoria Hospital says that his staff cannot give out identity cards and any medical tests would need to be done with consent. The district administration and the doctors are of the same view: How can anyone be pressured to have his or her sex organs examined?

Still, Jabalpur Municipal Commissioner O P Shrivastava said that the issuance of eunuch licenses is being considering for the "near future".

Former city official and eunuch advocate Heera Bai says the administrations should move now, as already one life has been lost. She claims that many genuine eunuchs are living in constant fear and unwilling to leave their homes.

But city administrators have another headache: How will the police be able to stop the fake eunuchs even after the issuance of licenses, and what action could they take against them? Police superintendent Deuskar said whether fake or genuine, no one will be allowed to extort money and such cases will be registered.

The role of some genuine eunuchs is also being questioned. Eunuchs divide themselves into colonies and wards. Some dissatisfied eunuchs have joined with fake eunuchs giving rise to quarrels. Eunuch Ashrafi Bai said that the emergence of fake eunuchs has caused many problems. Another eunuch, Khilona Bai, said if the administration does not take action quickly it will be difficult for the local eunuchs to survive.

Traditionally, eunuchs believe it is their right to accept money at weddings and childbirths, among other auspicious occasions. But many in Madhya Pradesh now claim the fake eunuchs are depriving them of their rights.

Shuriah Niazi is a freelance writer based in central India.

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