The nine ‘Bastar Fighters’ blazing a trail for transgender people
According to data gathered by the Union ministry of home affairs, 8,527 people have been killed in LWE incidents across India between 2004 and 2021
It is 4am, and the police training centre at Mana on the outskirts of Raipur, is beginning to stir. Inside a dimly lit dormitory with clothes hanging on off-white walls, 24-year-old Seema Pradhan is sitting on the edge of one of the 21 beds lined up in a row. The sheets are neat, the pillow uncreased, the blanket folded in a neat square at the foot of the bed; Pradhan has been awake for half an hour. In one of their hands, is a black shoe, the other a tube of polish, and as they shine the shoe, they glance at the clock every few seconds. Minutes later, they slip into a perfectly ironed police uniform, comb their hair into a braid, take a deep breath, and step out onto the field of the 45-acre campus.
The training schedule is rigorous, because the future will not be easy, a constant battle between life and death. Pradhan is training to be a member of the “Bastar Fighters”, a special force of the Chhattisgarh Police announced by chief minister Bhupesh Baghel in 2020, which exclusively recruits local youth from Bastar — those familiar with the region’s culture, language and demography — to battle Maoism in south Chhattisgarh.
But that is not the only reason they are extraordinary. Pradhan is part of the first ever batch of nine transgender people who are training for a combat role in Chhattisgarh’s fight against left wing extremism (LWE).
“Every day when I look at myself in the mirror wearing a police uniform, I feel proud of myself. I always believed I would rise above what the world thought I would be, and when I look at that uniform staring back at me, I know I have achieved what I always wanted,” Pradhan says.
According to data gathered by the Union ministry of home affairs, 8,527 people have been killed in LWE incidents across India between 2004 and 2021. Chhattisgarh — the state most affected by LWE in India — has deployed a plethora of agencies over the past two decades in its bloody fight against the banned CPI (Maoist).
There was once the controversial Salwa Judum (meaning “purification hunt” in Gondi), a militia that was mobilised by the state government consisting of local tribal youth, that was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011. There is the state police, and the District Reserve Group (DRG), and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Border Security Force (BSF). Each have had their own failings.
The central paramilitary forces draw on personnel from outside Chhattisgarh, and therefore language, demography and morale have always been a challenge. DRG was supposed to bridge this gap, but has come under accusations of employing far too many surrendered Maoists to be a streamlined force.
Enter the Bastar Fighters.
In 2020, the Chhattisgarh government decided to raise a special unit, and announced a district-wise recruitment drive with the aim to bridge the gap between locals and the police force. “The force will comprise of local youth, who are well acquainted with the terrain, language and the demography. Taking forward the government’s policy of inclusive development in Bastar, this recruitment has the potential to disrupt the status quo and will take the fight to the Naxal’s court. Not only this, these fighters will aid the government in implementing schemes and development of infrastructure,” CM Baghel said in August 2022.
Police officials said that they received a total of 53,336 applications from the seven districts of Bastar division, of which 37,498 were men, 15,822 were women and 16 were transgenders. Nine of the 16 transgender applicants were recruited on August 15, 2022, eight of whom are from Kanker, and one from Bastar.
The nine, however, are not the first transgender people to be recruited by the Chhattisgarh Police — for the first time, another 13 were recruited as constables in 2021 after the Chhattisgarh Constable Recruitment Examination 2019-2020. But the difference is that they are the first ones to be training for a role that will put them on the frontlines.
At the training centre
The dormitory Seema lives in, exclusively houses the 20 transgender people undergoing training at the Police Training Centre right now — the seven Bastar Fighters and the 13 constables recruited earlier. The training for the specialised force began on September 17, while training for the constables has been underway since June 21.
On the dot at 5am, a trainer begins an attendance count, and everyone on the field is divided into small groups for physical exercise. From 6am to 9am, and 3.30pm to 5.30pm, there are strenuous drills in the early winter sun that includes weapons handling and firing. Between 9.30am and 1.30pm, the recruits attend classes indoors, where they receive lectures in law and order, criminology, social behaviour, policing and other subjects.
But their identity isn’t completely their own; not yet at least.
When they joined, they were asked to “declare themselves” as men or women. The question, officials said, was for logistics. Men and women train separately, and with just nine recruits, another set of classes just for them were deemed unfeasible. Every one of the nine ticked the box labelled “female”, joining the 150 women trainees at the centre for their classes and drills.
“All the transgender people recruited in the special force have declared themselves as female, hence they attend classes with the women recruits. This is why only women are allowed to enter their hostel. The male recruits are not allowed access to their living areas,” said Jitendra Chandra, the reserve police inspector of Mana Training Centre.
At 1.30pm, 24-year-old Riya Mandavi heads back to the dormitory for lunch after a criminology class. They enter a big hall which serves as the hostel, quickly freshen up, and wash their face. Mandavi says that when they first arrived at the centre in September, they were proud, but worried. Discrimination had always been a part of our lives, and I expected the experience at the training to be no different, Mandavi explains.
“But it has been. We live in a large dormitory which is our hostel. We were concerned about the facilities that would be provided to us, but there are five bathrooms and toilets that are cleaned every day, and there is furniture for our daily use. This is more consideration than most of us have seen in our lives,” Mandavi says.
Officials at the training centre say that in order to create a “conducive environment”, several sensitisation programmes were held in the past year. “The day Chhattisgarh Police started recruiting transgender people in the force, we began organising sensitisation programmes for our staff and even for the other recruits. This has helped us a great deal; and thus far, more than 10 such programmes have been held inside the camp,” says Nidhi Nag, deputy superintendent of police, posted at the centre.
Well intentioned they may be, but sensitisation programmes are often no substitute for lived reality. When the transgender recruits first stepped into Rita Chaturvedi’s criminology class, she admits she felt a tinge of nervousness. “But that very first day, I realised they were incredibly integrative and studious,” Chaturvedi says.
Chaturvedi has been a trainer at the centre for the past decade, but she says she has rarely seen students with a greater zeal to learn than her nine new students. “They grasp concepts quickly, they ask questions, and their curiosity inspires me. They make it a point to mingle with everyone, and are incredible students,” she said. “Perhaps it just means more to them to be here.”
It wasn’t just the teachers that overcame their initial hesitation.
When Sonia Janghel, a 23-year-old transgender recruit from Kanker, first arrived at the training centre, they felt a sense of familiar hesitation from the women around her. But the uniform they wore together broke those walls down eventually. “On the first day, there were women who were hesitant to be around me. But I think it took all of two days. They began asking questions and many myths in their minds cleared up. We had long conversations and we are now like family,” Janghel says.
For all of her adolescent life for instance, Tripti Kurre, a female recruit of the Bastar Fighters from Rajnandgaon, said she had been told to stay away from the third gender. “We grew up being told that they would be more aggressive, and would act differently. But the more time I spend with my friends here, the more I know my presumptions were incorrect,” Kurre said.
Next to her, Madhuri Singh nods her head. “Before they came here, most of them were street performers, forced to roam around in towns and cities. What they have faced in their lives is unimaginable, and I only have a sense of respect for them now. They are the toughest of us all,” Singh says.
A roadmap to the future
Experts say that efforts such as these, and the enforcement of the laws in place were key to ending long-standing discrimination. Section 9 of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, states that no establishment shall discriminate against any transgender person in any matter relating to employment including, recruitment, promotion and other related issues. “This obligates government and private establishments to facilitate separate resources for them. This act is also in accordance with the 2014 judgment of Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India wherein the Supreme Court recognised transgender as the third gender,” said Abhinav K Shukla, professor of law, Hidayatullah National Law University.
Third gender activists said that normalising aspects like recruitment in the police force would act as a multiplier, and encourage healthy practices. Vidhya Rajpoot, president of Chhattisgarh Mitwa Sankalp Samiti, member of the Third Gender Welfare Board, and one of the most prominent transgender activists in Chhattisgarh said, “The right to gender equality is enshrined in our fundamental rights and Chhattisgarh has presented an exemplary example to the country. This is a huge success for us, and there are now so many others in our community that are waiting for the next round of recruitment. We can see change before our eyes.”
Rajpoot still makes trips to the Mana Police Training Centre for sensitisation programmes, and occassionally checks in on the new recruits. But there is rarely any time to have a conversation. For from 4am in the morning, to late in the evening, Seema and her cohort Bastar Fighters train and study to operate in the most dangerous forests of India, blazing a trail for those behind them.
“There is hardly ever time to stop and chat. They have their futures ahead of them, and that is the most wonderful thing in the world,” Rajpoot said.