“My harassers belonged mostly to the educated, urban, middle classes”: An Interview with Manabi Bandyopadhyay, India’s first transgender principal

ILF Samanvay
07 December, 2015

On 9 June 2015, Manabi Bandyopadhyay took charge of Krishnanagar Women’s College in West Bengal’s Nadia district. She is the first transgender person in the country to be appointed the principal of a college. The news, splashed across newspapers, catapulted the 53-year-old Manabi into a world of attention and fame. Since then, she has been engaged in public conversations, speaking about her sexuality and the personal humiliations she had to face as a transgender person. Bandyopadhyay’s personal experiences with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and with the Trinamool Congress—two of West Bengal’s leading political parties, both rooted in differing political ideologies—shed some light on the paradoxical political and social contradictions that often characterise such organisations, and how these reflect in their attitudes towards feminist and queer groups. According to her, the progressive CPI (M)—which led the Left Front government in West Bengal—consistently refused to acknowledge her gender transformation in the state’s official administrative records. On the other hand, Bandyopadhyay said, the Trinamool Congress chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose comments in the past have been widely criticised as being gender-insensitive, reportedly took a personal interest in correcting these records and clearing the pending dues owed to her by the University at which she was teaching.

On 29 November 2015, the senior journalist Monobina Gupta met Bandyopadhyay in Delhi, at the ILF Samanvay Languages Festival, where Bandyopadhyay was speaking on the effect that recognition of sexuality and gender can have on the public perception of the individual. In this interview, Bandyopadhyay discusses her experience and the hardships she faces as a transgender person. She asserts that the CPI-M has not really followed Marxism in its letter and spirit, and that, to her, Banerjee is the “sachcha” (true) communist.

Monobina Gupta: You have engaged with both the Left Front government and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government. Tell me about your experiences vis-à-vis these governments as a transgender person.

Manabi Bandyopadhyay: Mamata Banerjee gave me my identity and dignity as Manabi Bandyopadhyay—a trans-woman. Before she came to power, I had to fight the Left Front government to get my legitimate recognition as a woman—something that the Left government denied me. The college in Jhargram, where I used to teach Bengali, owed me a huge amount of accumulated dues from my increment, all of which were stopped because they refused to make the changes that were necessary in the University’s official records to recognise me as a woman. This is despite a court affidavit certifying me as Manabi after my sex-change operation in 2003. Three years on, I completed my PhD from Kalyani University as Manabi Bandyopadhyay which entitled me to a higher grade of increments. But my name was not changed in my college records which continued to identify me as Somnath Bandyopadhyay (the name I was known by before the sex change surgery). I repeatedly petitioned the Left Front government to recognise the change in my identity and my name. I was awarded a PhD degree in 2006 but had to wait until 2011 for the Trinamool Congress government to come to power. Only then could I get the entitlements that were mine as a teacher with a PhD degree.

MG: How did you get the job of a college lecturer under the CPI-M regime?

MB: I hid the truth. Nobody knew my true identity. They must have looked at me and sensed that I was different. But they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, because my identity, from my childhood, was male. Maybe some thought that my body was the way it was because I used to be a dancer.

MG: To whom did you send the formal application for changing your name from Somnath to Manabi?

MB: Through my college in Jhargram, I applied to the state education department. That was during the Left regime. I got a letter from the state education department informing that they would concede that Manabi and Somnath is the same person. But they would not change the prefix from Sriman to Srimati. In other words, the government refused to acknowledge my gender transformation. I seriously considered taking them to court and started consulting lawyers. But then, there came a regime change in West Bengal. I wrote to Mamata Banerjee, and then to West Bengal’s education minister Bratya Basu. Suddenly, matters were expedited. I got a call from Bikash Bhawan, the building that houses the state education directorate. They told me that Mamata Banerjee had personally inquired into the status of my payments—whether I had received the money et cetera.

MG: The CPI-M is perceived as a progressive part—politically and maybe socially as well—while the Trinamool Congress is regarded as a conservative party. How did you engage with their two different cultural and political contexts?

MB: Mamata is the sachcha communist. In fact, the term “trinamool” denotes the nascent, the backward—let’s say fledgling roots. In a way, the party looks after all those who represent these characteristics. I met Mamata on 4 September this year. The occasion was Teachers’ Day. I was invited to a function of the government which was honouring the teachers who had done commendable work. I didn’t know that I would be on the podium. But Didi [a moniker often used to refer to Mamata Banerjee] called me there and introduced me to all the guests. The education minister was there. I was felicitated and asked to speak. I spoke about my life and my experiences. There was an interaction with the audience. I had a conversation them. Suddenly, I was famous. The word went around that the chief minister had felicitated me.

MG: What led you to undergo a sex-change operation?

MB: I was forced to have the operation in 2003. I was a transgender before the surgery. Now I am trans-woman. I mentally felt that I was a woman and forced to inhabit a man’s body. I was battling an existential crisis. But nobody seemed to understand my agony. They would urge me to accept my station in life, citing examples of transgender persons like me, who are married and have children. But I did not want to cheat my own reality. I simply wasn’t able to do that. My education, my very being was telling me to be honest with myself. I started to save my salary to undergo the operation. Many people buy houses, buy jewelry with their savings. I had my surgery.

MG: Why then do you describe your surgery as “forced”?

MB: My colleagues in the Jhargram college would relentlessly harass me. Some would want to sleep with me and then go around claiming that I desired them. The place was backward and terrible to live and work in. Surprisingly my tormentors were teachers, not villagers or students. My harassers belonged mostly to the educated, urban, middle classes.

MG: How did people react to you after your sex-change?

MB: They started calling me “hijra.” I had to contend with what I would describe as buddhijibider sharajantra (a conspiracy) of intellectuals. I was harassed from the very beginning, but after my sex change operation, I became a special target of humiliation. My harassers would taunt me and say “Look at her, she is going around with a foreign body inside her.” After my surgery, I faced total social ostracisation.

I had to stay in Jhargram. It was impossible to travel everyday from Kolkata. First, nobody would rent out accommodation to me. There were nights that I was forced to spend outside after returning home somewhat later than usual and finding the landlord has locked me out. That I was not murdered is truly a wonder. Ironically, Jhargram is dominated by Maoists. But I can say that the people who intended to harm me were from the middle-classes and not Maoists.

I have no words to describe the mental and physical harassment that I faced from CPI-M affiliated or Left-leaning teachers in the college. I remember a lecturer in the common room once throwing a paper weight in my direction and hitting me in the chest. I couldn’t go to the toilet. My access to the women’s toilet was barred and I couldn’t use the male washroom. So I had to wait till I reached home to relieve myself.

MG: Did you have any friends?

MB: None at all.

MG: How has your situation changed?

MB: It has changed because Mamata Banerjee has this societal space for me. Let me tell you how I tested myself as well as her government’s real commitment to transgender persons. In the application form that I filled for the principle’s post, I identified myself as “third gender” in the “Others” column that has been now introduced. Earlier, the form would carry just a male or female binary. This time I wanted to see if the Trinamool government would give the job to a third-gender applicant. Later, I heard that my identification did trigger confusion and that there was a debate over whether or not I should be given the job. It was then the chief minister herself who intervened, saying, “Go ahead with it.”

The West Bengal government established a transgender development board in June this year. I have been appointed its vice chairperson. The board is supposed to look after the welfare of transgender persons, to integrate them with mainstream life. There will be district-level boards also.

MG: Mamata Banerjee has been fair to you. How do you feel about her comments on women, particularly with regard to Suzette Jordan, the Park Street rape victim?

MB: I don’t remember what exactly she had said. But I remember the controversy around whether the victim was part of an escort service. That is not to say that the rape was justified. But then you also have cases when clients don’t pay money for the service the whole incident comes to be described as rape…

Mamata had then just come to power after 34 years of Left rule. There were plenty of conspiracies and got-up cases to frame her. Maybe some would describe me as Mamata-panthi [a supporter of Mamata], if not Trinamool-panthi. But my family and I are personally indebted to her.

MG: How does society treat you now after the recognition you have received from the government?

MB: People move with the sweep of the times. Earlier, I suffered because the Left Front government was indifferent to my plight. Now, the very same people who earlier slighted me share the public podium with the chief minister. It makes a lot of difference. People now come to me with job applications, some requesting me to deliver letters to Mamata Banerjee.

MG: Tell me about your marriage.

MB: The person I married is originally from Orissa. He used to stay right opposite my residence in Jhargram. He really treated me well and I got carried away. We had a gandharva marriage [a marriage that was mutual and not arranged]. Later, he disowned the marriage and slapped a case against me under section 501 [of the Indian Penal Code, for defamation], saying that I was actually a man and not a woman. I, too, have slapped a case on him, under section 376 [sexual assault]. The case is still ongoing in court.

MG: What next? Are you enjoying your work?

MB: I don’t know about enjoying my work. I am working with the same set of low-minded people. What has changed now is their knowledge that I have access to power, and they are grudgingly putting up with me. Nobody accepts from within. What is important is what I want. It is true that I have become much more neutral to these attitudes. After being hurt so much, I have realised that I have indeed travelled a long journey of pain. After this journey, there are no expectations. Aamar ei path chala te anondo [My joy lies in my travelling this path].

This interview has been edited and condensed.