Tribal, trans, and leader: This young crusader from Haridwar is a guiding light to her community

Tina, a transwoman from the Van Gujjar community from Haridwar, is on a mission to change how the world sees her nomadic tribal community.

Tribal, trans, and leader: This young crusader from Haridwar is a guiding light to her community

Tuesday September 19, 2023,

5 min Read

Tina, a transwoman, is a living testament to the reality of intersectional discrimination in India. Her life is a fitting reply to it with the power of education and community. 

“I’ve not had the luxury of waiting for any government to protect me. I would say most people in my community haven’t. From a very young age, we’ve learned how to work our way around displacement and discrimination,” says the 20-year-old from the village of Gaindi Khata in Haridwar.

Tina belongs to the Van Gujjar community, a nomadic pastoral tribe from the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Most of them are also Muslims, and for generations, they were classified as Denotified Tribes (DNTs). As with many DNTs, it was common for them to be falsely implicated in crimes.  

As a forest-dwelling community, they are regular victims of displacement. The areas they had been living in for centuries were turned into national parks, following which parts of their population were rehabilitated into the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve and Rajaji Tiger Reserve. 

Tina is a first-generation schoolgoer in her family. As the first trans person to have come out in her community, she has also been paving the way for the empowerment of children and women. 

“For years, we lived on grazing pastures with our livestock. We did some farming and led a self-sustainable life. After rehabilitating, many of our children didn’t go to school because they were not equipped with the skills to socialise, study, and function within structured institutions. To date, the low education rate among our children remains the biggest challenge,” she says.

A fight for identity

Tina was assigned male at birth, but she says she felt marginalised all her life for being a tribal—something that continues to dissuade Van Gujjar children from going to school. 

For instance, her peers and teachers casually threw around words like ‘junglee’ (brute) at her. She also faced immense pressure from her family to ‘stop behaving like a hijra’, which pushed her to leave home when she was barely 15 and take refuge in the trans community. “My tribal identity, however, followed me there too,” she says.

A sense of relief fell upon her when she joined college. Her uncle got her a smartphone where she could finally access information about the global LGBTQIA+ movement and feel a sense of community. 

After battling severe gender dysphoria for years, her access to literature and a lot of self-reflection led her to understand her identity as a trans person, even though her family has not embraced her yet. 

“It was a very isolating fight, because there was no one to look to for reference,” she says, adding, “But my introduction to the internet made me want to take this fight for inclusion more purposefully, as I saw that world over, our brothers and sisters were doing the same.” 

Nonetheless, the discrimination she faced as a child didn’t stop her from nurturing a spirit of altruism. She has found solace in her ‘guru’ in the trans community, who is helping those in need. “I was inspired by her and began reading about Mother Teresa. I felt this is what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Tina says.

Her dreams finally took shape when she discovered Maee—a volunteer group of Van Gujjars working towards educating the community’s children. Tina instantly found a calling in this group, helmed by an activist named Taukeer Alam in Gaindi Khata, and joined them to teach the children after their school.

Eventually, she moved to Delhi and started her association with Pravah—an NGO that helps young people develop leadership capacities to bring about social change. Here, she bagged the organisation’s ‘Student’s Mobilisation Initiative for Learning through Exposure’ (SMILE) fellowship. 

The eight-month-long programme provides young people with intensive learning and leadership opportunities, through designing, facilitating, and leading impactful social change projects, besides helping develop advocacy, networking, and fundraising skills in their journey.

Today, she’s also got Tata Steel’s Samwad Fellowship, which aims to support indigenous practices of vulnerable tribal communities. “This fellowship is a big boost for me and my community, in addition to education,” says Tina. 

As part of this programme, she is working on a project to revive the traditional embroidery work of the Van Gujjar community to create business models out of it for rural community women in Uttarakhand.

“We have formed groups of women who are getting trained to make handicrafts and traditional bead jewellery for commercial use. When the winters come, these women will go into the forest to collect wood and come back to work on these crafts,” says Tina. 

“I want to shoot a documentary film that follows their journey and their everyday life. I want to show our people to the world in a way they have never been seen before—for our timeless traditions and practices,” she adds.

Edited by Suman Singh