Exploitative and greedy or misunderstood and desperate? The debate on eunuchs who make their living dancing and singing outside homes celebrating weddings or births has been a long-standing one. Now, some citizens here say they have been harassed enough and have launched a helpline to deal with the "eunuch menace".
The 24X7 helpline set up by the Veteran Sahayata Samiti (VSS) in this Uttar Pradesh capital hopes to help those at the receiving end of 'hijras', the broad term for transgender and crossdressers who move around in loud, raucous groups and are frequently seen in celebrations in cities and villages across India. They usually disperse after they are given money.
The Samiti has begun distributing stickers and flyers in the Indiranagar neighbourhood.
The aim is to set up small but effective clusters of influential people in all localities of the city to deal with the eunuch menace, say VSS volunteers, pointing out that hijras are sometimes just lumpen, unemployed elements - not really eunuchs at all.
"We face a resource crunch and cannot reach the distressed people in time. By the time we reach the place, these goondas in the garb of eunuchs generally flee," retired Col Mohan Chandra Papnai, the man behind the campaign, told IANS.
Eighteen months ago, Papnai himself faced harassment from eunuchs when his pregnant daughter returned from Mumbai for delivery.
It is believed that the gods have especially graced eunuchs, since they are neither male nor female. They have been given, it is believed, special talents for dancing and singing.
The general belief is that when they dance or sing on a special occasion like a wedding or a birth many blessings come the way of the family.
There are occasions though when eunuchs make exorbitant demands for money; people are often also intimidated by them.
Papnai recalled his own experience: "I cannot explain the terror I felt. My wife sent me an SOS that these eunuchs had barged into the house. She had bolted the bedroom from inside to escape them."
The 70-year-old retired colonel says that he has since remained in a state of preparedness: there are now several sticks in the house, ready to be wielded as weapons in case of need.
Papnai's friends too admit that the demands eunuchs have made in the past have been "scary and stunning".
The Samiti has now also set up a drop box at the busy Pratap Market where people are free to drop any complaints.
The Samiti is working on forming 40 committees across the city, which would have the local station house officer (SHO) from the police, the local corporator, the sector warden of civil defence and some influential people as members.
Papnai has also written to Lucknow mayor Dinesh Sharma for help. The mayor's suggestion that fixed slabs be introduced for eunuchs so that everyone knows how much money to part with on what occasion was dismissed.
"Some people are out to defame the community by engaging in forcible collection of money. In (Uttar Pradesh's) Avadh region, it has always been a happy affair," Payal, the leader of a eunuch group, said.
She added that eunuchs she knows are happy to receive what they are given, without making any demands.
She, however, admitted that there were lumpen elements that had infiltrated the community and might be responsible for such instances of extortion.
Papnai has asked influential pressure groups in different localities to educate people not to get "petrified at the sight of clapping eunuchs." He has urged the people to seek help instead.
There are an estimated 2,500 eunuchs in Lucknow alone, though police officials say many of the people who actually extort money may be unemployed youth who are not really eunuchs.
The helpline number is: 9838847403.
(Mohit Dubey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)