Transgender pilots make big step for Indian aviation

It is a welcome development that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC) has established standards that will allow transgender people to operate as pilots, even of commercial aircraft. It is one of those rare moments in our public life when the institutional mechanisms function as they should and allow life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The DGCA has taken this action, following a request from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to remove unreasonable conditions that prevent a transgender person from even obtaining a student pilot license, pointing out that the existing standards breached the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019. Adam Harry, a student pilot who obtained his student pilot license in South Africa, was denied his application for a student pilot in India, on the grounds that he was still on hormonal treatment following a sex change. He was told he could reapply once he stopped taking the medication. This actually meant a lifetime ban, as his medications were prescribed for life. This intervention by the Department of Social Justice ultimately prompted the DGCA to issue standards allowing transgender people to apply for all categories of pilot licenses.

Indian aviation is not as insular when it comes to accepting mixed roles at senior levels as some other sectors such as energy. Female pilots and co-pilots are quite common. In fact, India has the highest percentage of female pilots in the world. About 12.4% of all pilots are women, more than double the number in the United States, the world’s largest aviation market. Women have been flying helicopters and transport planes in the Indian Air Force since the 1990s. Now they also fly fighter jets.

Paving the way for transgender people to pursue careers in aviation without facing discrimination is a definite step forward for Indian aviation and for the industry in general.

In doing so, India also reclaims a tradition that colonial rule, its laws and its mores had disrupted and dislodged. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code had criminalized “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, the order of nature being undefined and automatically assumed to reflect the standards that Lord Macaulay, who drafted the Penal Code Indian, took for granted. It wasn’t until 2018 that Section 377 was struck down by the Supreme Court.

Although it is not the case for anyone that traditional Indian culture has supported gender equality or held gender fluidity as the norm for the course, transgender people have been assigned certain roles associated with auspiciousness. Traditional Indian society was hierarchical and unfair in multiple ways, so the treatment meted out to the transgender community was neither uniquely nor excessively discriminatory.

It may be recalled that the normative order is defined and refined by religious texts and epics. The Mahabharata contains two transgender characters who are portrayed in a positive light, on the whole, if not quite celebrated.

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One is Shikhandi, a princess reborn with a neutral gender, in order to avenge her abduction by Bhishma, while seeking to win wives for her half-brothers, and the subsequent rejection by the prince on whom she had cast her vested. In the Battle of Kurukshetra, Pandava’s army confronts Bhishma, putting Shikhandi at the front, whom Bhishma refuses to fight against. This helps the Pandavas to defeat Bhishma.

Another is Brihannala. She was, in reality, Arjuna, the warrior prince, reciter whose 10 names are said to banish fear, who had taken the form of a eunuch, to live for a year as a dance teacher with Princess Uttara of the kingdom of Matsya . The Pandavas had chosen this land as their place of exile for the year when they were to remain incognito.

A warrior who helps the forces of good defeat the forces of evil, and the alter ego of Krishna’s most talented archer and best friend – these are not role models who denigrated transgender people. In Indo-Islamic culture as well, transgender people played important social roles, both in the harem and in the bazaar.

This sensitivity has been altered by colonial rule and its own clearly pejorative attitude towards transgender people. The DGCA’s recognition of transgender people as normal people entitled and endowed with the agency of people of other genders is therefore little more than a nod to waking modernity.

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