Eunuchs are an integral part of South Asia’s civilizational space, but politicians today seem to delight in reinforcing the latter-day prejudices that are associated with them.

In the incessant mudslinging that has long been a staple of the Indian political space, few “insults” have been more regressive and damaging to the fight against discrimination of minorities than the term “hijra” (eunuch). The term has been used by politicians across party borders — in a rare and detrimental display of partisanship — to accuse their opponents of being weak, effeminate, impotent and an “other” incapable of representing the majority.

In West Bengal, a BJP state vice-president had on May 28 referred to Trinamool Congress activists as eunuchs. A few weeks earlier, on April 30, another leader from the same party lashed out at Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, calling her a “hijra”. The move was swiftly condemned by every party, including the BJP, with its state president Dilip Ghosh saying “no one should use such words against a woman”.

What is curious here is not the barrage of insults, but the reaction the term evokes in others. In itself, “hijra” or “eunuch” is merely a term used to refer to what governments in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – among other countries in south Asia – have legally recognised as a “third gender”, and do not inherently possess derogatory, slanderous or disparaging properties.

The leaders in question might be rebuked for their remarks, but the larger problem here revolves around the continuing usage and perception of the word hijra as an insult. It has been repeatedly used to imply weakness, impotency, and the inability to “get things done”, among other things.

In choosing to make use of the term in such contexts, politicians are reinforcing the prejudices associated with it, and are sabotaging efforts to uplift the community.

The situation is by no means limited to a single state or party. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray had in 2009 referred to the erstwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a eunuch. The then party chief Bal Thackeray had followed up by referring to Singh as “politically impotent”. In a turnabout, the “politically impotent eunuch” then went on to become the Sena’s main rallying point in opposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision in 2016.

Further incidents include Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan alleged reference to party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav as a “hijra” during a rally at Rampur in 2014, the now former Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan mosque Maulana Nurur Rehman Barkati referring to “those who chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’ outside mosques” as hijras and many others besides.

The transgender community has had a tumultuous time in India. In times before the advent of the Raj, such as in the Mughal empire or other kingdoms in the sub-continent, they were very much part of “mainstream society”, holding positions as diverse as political advisors, administrators and other roles close to royalty.

They were, and among some groups of people still are, revered and thought to possess divine powers, and were often asked for blessings on a number of occasions. Despite having such a presence, spanning thousands of years in the region, their fortunes changed considerably after the colonial British legal system declared them a “criminal tribe” in 1897.

Although the “hijras” were denotified after Independence, much of the stigma persists, and they have since faced an uphill battle for access to medical care, employment, the right to vote, protection under the executive branch, and indeed, for their very existence to be recognised under the legal system.

Various governments have made efforts to assist the transgender community. States such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Odisha have set up different kinds of welfare bodies, while West Bengal had set up what it claimed to be a board “for development, not welfare”. Other measures have included quotas for transgenders in various public sectors and colleges and their inclusion in the police force in certain states, among others.

Rarely have the major parties behind these “efforts” allowed members of the transgender community to contest elections on their ballot. Among the few transgenders who won, some — such as Kamla Jaan of Katni, elected in 1999, and Kamala Kinnar of Sagar in 2009 — were disqualified for contesting under the female category. After the Supreme Court judgment recognises the “third gender”, Madhu Kinnar from Chattisgarh was elected as Mayor of Raigarh after running as an Independent candidate.

Schemes implemented to help the hijras – regardless of their efficacy or lack of end results – are meaningless if the lawmakers implementing them continue to exhibit this dissonance in thought and language.

Any attempt at changing this prevailing discourse must begin with language, for it holds an undeniable power in politics and governance, acting as a cornerstone for rhetoric and campaign, in the framing of laws and policies.

It is fitting then that politicians, who act as role models to tens of lakhs of supporters who absorb their rhetoric, must be the first to denounce the derogatory connotations associated with the term “hijra”, and encourage others to do the same.