The unacceptable handling of the Pinki Pramanik case in West Bengal has left human rights activists as well as her friends and colleagues shocked and distressed. A middle distance runner, Pinki, 26, is an athlete of national repute. She may have brought honour to the country by participating in numerous athletic events both at home and abroad, yet the country treated her dishonourably after her live-in partner, Anamika Acharya, alias Shilpi, filed a case against her at the Baguiati police station under Bidhannagar Commissionerate on the outskirts of Kolkata. Acharya claimed that Pinki was actually male and had raped her.
What followed was an amazing media and police circus. The police arrested Pinki and tried to force her into agreeing to a gender test. Despite her refusal, they rendered her unconscious and went ahead with the test at a private nursing home. Later, at a press conference they declared that Pinki was male. Worse, an MMS of the gender test was surreptitiously circulated in the media and on social networking sites.
It was as if the police and the media were drawing a vicarious and perverted thrill from this case, at the cost of Pinki’s privacy and dignity. Says Pinki, now out on bail after the Barasat Judges’ Court ruled that her gender had not been conclusively proven, “In the police lockup and in the jail where I was later sent, I was kept in a common cell and manhandled badly by male policemen. It was taken for granted that I was male.”
Meanwhile, human rights organisations and those working on LBGT (Lesbian/Bisexual/Gay/Transgendered) issues like the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, Sappho, and the Nari Nirjantan Pratirodh Mancha, rallied in support of Pinki. Some from the sporting fraternity have also come forward in her support. Says swimming champion Bula Chowdhury, “Whether Pinki is male or female will be sorted out legally, but putting her with criminals in a common cell cannot be countenanced.”
Pinki’s case has the contours of a domestic dispute that had gone horribly wrong. Acharya, who was living with Pinki for the last three years, claimed in her FIR that Pinki had promised to marry her. Pinki, however, claimed that Acharya had worked for her as a domestic help and was framing her because she had refused to pay her more money. Neighbours went on record to state that the problems between the two started when Pinki stopped meeting Acharya’s demands for money, which she was using to support her estranged husband and child. Later, Acharya also confessed that she was instigated to file a rape case by athlete Jyotirmoyee Sikdar’s husband, Avatar Singh, because of a land deal that he was negotiating with Pinki. After her release, Pinki has also filed counter charges against Acharya alleging theft of her voter ID card, driving licence and some ornaments.
Given this complex web of accusations and counter-accusations, the question is why did the police choose to target Pinki and her sexuality? The case demonstrated clearly that most people, including authorities like the police, have a very inadequate understanding of gender and sexual identity. In a comment on the issue Aparna, Founder-Editor of Women’s Web, an online magazine, writes, “Brought up as most of us are to take being ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ for granted, this can be difficult to understand, but the point remains – whatever medical tests declare Pinki to be, that is not a crime. What Pinki Pramanik is accused of is rape, not of being a man, but this fact is getting lost in the brouhaha over her sex.”
Existing laws also do not help. Says Muktanjana Dey Karmakar, a Kolkata lawyer practicing at the Barasat Judges Court, “According to IPC Section 375, a rape case can be filed when one party is male and another female. Our law does not take into cognisance any rape between man to man or woman to woman. So in Pinki’s case, the matter under consideration by court is gender. If it is proven that Pinki is male, only then can the rape charge will be considered. However, no medical test has been conducted by the police on Acharya so far, which is sheer negligence. Police has acted in a presumptive and insensitive manner.”
But can gender tests conclusively declare a person to be ‘male’ or ‘female’? No, says Dr Arati Basu Sengupta, a Kolkata-based gynaecologist. “Chromosome testing can determine the genetic pattern – the female XX and male XY – and the hormonal status – dominance of estrogen (female) and androgen/testosterone (male). The third determinant of sexuality is the genitals. But none of these three characteristics can conclusively determine sexual identity since variations are often seen. Just having female genitals would not mean the dominance of estrogen or vice-versa,” Dr Basu points out.
Somewhere the gross mishandling of Pinki Pramanik’s person speaks volumes about the unforgiving nature of society as well as law enforcers towards those who are ‘different’. As Delhi-based professor, Nivedita Menon observed in the national daily, ‘The Indian Express’, “Since the dominant understanding now is that a body must be unambiguously male or female, large numbers of bodies that do not fit this description are designated as diseased. For instance, intersex infants born with no clear determining sexual characteristics, eunuchs, men and women who have some characteristics that are ‘non-masculine’ and ‘non-feminine’, respectively.”
Agniva Lahiri, Executive Director of ‘People Like Us’, an LGBT organisation, agrees. “There is no awareness of LGBT issues at all in our society or amongst law enforcers. We are constantly humiliated and harassed for being different. Pinki is caught in this for no fault of hers. She should not have been penalised for just living with a female and because her partner claimed she was actually a male. They have messed up so badly that now, when people spot us (gays/transgenders), they point and say look there goes Pinki. This kind of finger-pointing against the LGBT community is common in India, both by society and by police,” says Lahiri.
The bottom-line is: Who or what decides one’s gender – is it society, medical professionals, the police or the law? In a democracy, where the right to gender equality is constitutionally mandated, how relevant is one’s gender in a social or legal context? And does one’s gender decide how one is to be treated by the police and the media?
The Pinki Pramanik case highlights the need for norms to be evolved in the handling of LGBT/sex-change issues by our law enforcers. It also demonstrates that the time has come for the country to re-examine its attitude to gender identity and to those deemed ‘different’, or who don’t fall neatly into the male-female categories.