India's Supreme Court has recognised transgender people as a third gender, in a landmark ruling that may offer gay people a glimmer of hope.
"It is the right of every human being to choose their gender," the court said in granting rights to those who identify themselves as neither male nor female.
The court ordered the government to provide transgender people with quotas in jobs and education in line with other minorities, as well as key amenities.
Indian transgenders in Mumbai delighted after the Supreme Court granted recognition to them
"Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," Justice KS Radhakrishnan, who headed the two-judge Supreme Court bench, said in his ruling on Tuesday.
"Transgenders are also citizens of India" and they must be "provided equal opportunity to grow", the court said.
"The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender."
According to one estimate, India has about two million transgender people.
The court’s decision would apply to individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth, the Associated Press said.
The Supreme Court specified that its ruling would apply only to transgender people and not to gays, lesbians or bisexuals.
The landmark ruling follows the Supreme Court's decision in December to reinstate a colonial-era ban on gay sex which criminalised gay sex by reversing a landmark 2009 Delhi High Court order which had decriminalised homosexual acts.
According to a 153-year-old colonial-era law - Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code - a same-sex relationship is an "unnatural offence" and punishable by a 10-year jail term.
The demand for equal rights for India’s transgender population was bought to court in 2012 by a group led by transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a Hindi film actress.
She welcomed the judgement, saying the community had long suffered from discrimination and ignorance in the traditionally conservative country, reports the Agence France-Presse news agency.
"Today, for the first time I feel very proud to be an Indian," Ms Tripathi told reporters outside the court in Delhi.