RAIPUR, India — Nearly two years ago, the government of Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, announced a drive to recruit transgender police officers. Forty young applicants, many of whom had been harassed, even tortured, by members of the very organization in which they now sought to enlist, put everything on the line to join the force.
They hoped that wearing a uniform would save them from the fate of previous generations — lives of begging, prostitution and exclusion.
“Wherever we go, there will be pride,” said Rakesh Sori, 26, one of the recruits. “Those who do not talk to us will want to talk to us.”
The pioneering program seemed one in a series of promising victories for gay and transgender rights in India. In just a few years, the Supreme Court has decriminalized gay sex, ruled in favor of education quotas and ordered that transgender Indians be given “due representation in public services.”
But what started as an exercise in pride has resulted only in disappointment.
Becoming a police officer is a steppingstone out of poverty, and competition for the limited positions in Chattisgarh is fierce. More than 380,000 people applied for 2,259 jobs last year, making admission about eight times more competitive than getting into Harvard College, said R.K. Vij, a director general of the police.
Despite months of training and study, none of the recent applicants has been permitted to join the force, a consequence of political infighting and mismanagement. The test results, due in December, have been indefinitely delayed and the government has offered little in the way of an explanation as to why.
For the transgender recruits, who were actively encouraged to apply, the government’s delay has had particularly dire consequences. In many cases, coverage in the local news media of the recruitment drive outed them to their families. Some were assaulted by relatives, forced from their homes and fired from their jobs.
This summer, hundreds of applicants — including the transgender recruits — protested outside state officials’ homes.
“Despite putting in so much, we have nothing,” said Tanushree Sahu, 23, another transgender recruit.
Only a few openly transgender people have previously managed to join India’s police force, and activists on three continents said they had not heard of a program like the one in Chhattisgarh, home to more than 25 million people.
“Most transgender people in India find themselves in deeply precarious circumstances,” said Kyle Knight, a researcher in the L.G.B.T. rights program at Human Rights Watch. “Including them as public officials signals their importance.”
The push to diversify Chhattisgarh’s police force picked up in 2017, when Vidhya Rajput, a transgender activist, met high-ranking officials in Raipur, the state’s capital. She pulled out copies of a 2014 Supreme Court ruling conferring full rights to transgender people and said the state was not in compliance.
Ms. Rajput, 42, who runs a transgender-rights advocacy group, emphasized that police jobs were a step toward dignity. She told the officials about transgender women being intentionally run over and 12-year-olds “selling their bodies for 15 rupees,” or 22 cents.
The government was convinced and officials agreed to spend about $22,000 on teachers, food and housing for the applicants.
“Transgenders, third genders, should also get an opportunity, an equal opportunity,” said Pawan Deo, a police official who oversaw recruitment.
A spokesman for Chhattisgarh’s chief minister directed questions about the delayed results to the Social Welfare Department. Pankaj Verma, the department’s joint director, said he had no idea when the results would come out and said it was the chief minister who was responsible for their release.
Last year, 40 transgender women, including 11 from Raipur, applied for the constable jobs. To qualify, candidates must be under 29 and taller than 5 foot 2 inches, pass a written exam and run 800 meters, or about 875 yards, in 3 minutes and 20 seconds
The transgender applicants were the children of mechanics and rickshaw pullers. Some were in the midst of transitioning. Others had suffered grisly abuse. One said she had been gang-raped by men who locked her in an abandoned building. Another, Soniya Janghel, 22, said she was pushed into sex work as a teenager.
“We face constant threats to our lives,” she said. “People have put knives to my throat. I have jumped from moving cars.”
Trusting the police was another leap. Security forces have perpetuated horrific crimes against transgender Indians, including torturing them in custody.
The recruits were also essentially stepping into a war zone. For decades, the Indian state has clashed with separatist Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh’s forests. Before the recruitment drive was announced, insurgents launched their deadliest attack in years, killing at least 25 officers.
Still, the recruits were hopeful.
“If we are together, what is there to fear?” asked Ms. Sori, who works in a sari shop and lives in a slum. “Everybody will say, ‘She is Rakesh’s mummy, the mummy of a policewoman,’” she said, imagining how her mother would be treated after she became an officer.
Before the running test last May, several recruits cried from anxiety at Raipur’s police grounds. Officials cheered as the group sprinted. At the finish line, Ms. Janghel collapsed. Ten of the 11 Raipur recruits ran fast enough to advance to the written exam.
In June, the group left their jobs as cooks and domestic servants, and moved out of their homes and into a government hostel on the outskirts of Raipur, where they received free food and lodging. Ms. Rajput, the activist, joined them.
They spent the next three months in the classroom. Government teachers prepared them for the 100-question police qualification test. They learned about topics they had never previously heard of, including osteology, the study of bones, and capitalism.
After classes, Ms. Janghel would strut past the hostel’s two rows of beds and pretend she was on a catwalk. The recruits would belt Bollywood songs and prank Ms. Rajput by hiding her clothes.
On the morning of the written exam in September, the group gathered in a circle. Ms. Rajput told them to cite the Supreme Court if officials harassed them.
“What will you say?” she asked. “‘That gender is my choice and my will. That this is my Constitution and my right.’ If you keep talking, they will keep quiet. If you keep quiet, they will look at you and snicker.”
But the energy changed after the group emerged from the testing center.
At the hostel, the recruits said the exam barely covered the material they had studied. They said the questions were irrelevant to a constable’s job, asking things such as: “What was India’s ranking in the 18th Asian Games?”
The government missed a December deadline to publicize the results of the exam and announce the next class of constables. That same month, the Indian National Congress ousted the governing Bharatiya Janata Party in state elections. The new government accused their rivals of taking bribes from applicants and fixing the test results, but it never released evidence to back its claim.
The delay and the uncertainty have caused new problems for the recruits. Two lost their jobs because they took time off to prepare for the exams. For the first time, others began following gurus, some of them transgender, who exchange social support for payments made from begging on trains and sex work.
The gurus told them transgender women were meant to beg. They threatened Ms. Rajput if she kept pushing for the government jobs.
“I was the one who got them to dream, and I am responsible,” she said. “It was not just a police test, or getting a job. They were looking at a different future.”
The past year brought particular heartbreak for Ms. Sahu.
Before moving into the hostel last summer, a local news outlet published a photograph of the recruits, including Ms. Sahu. After seeing it, her brother entered her bedroom one night, raised a bat and beat her bloody.
Ms. Sahu was forced from her family’s home. She joined a guru this year, though she insists she has not been forced to beg. When she passes her parents in the market, they do not acknowledge her. She worries that if she goes home “they will kill me.”
But Ms. Sahu and the others said the fight was not over. In restaurants, they no longer lower their voices when they talk about their boyfriends. They wear saris in public now, and many marched at the front of the protests this summer against the delayed test results.
The group has made a pact: If the tests are thrown out, they will take them again.
“When I wear a uniform somewhere, even my parents will feel that I have a capability and a status,” Ms. Sahu said. “I can go home and forcefully stay. It is power. I cannot give this up.”