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Dakshina to Democracy: On Transgender Rights and Representation

By Ishu Gupta (edited by C. Chandrawala)

Let us begin with the very basics: “Transgender” is often used as an umbrella term to signify individuals who defy rigid, binary gender constructions, and who express or present a breaking or blurring of culturally prevalent stereotypical gender roles (NACO[1]).

The Importance of (Transgender) Representation

The year 2021 embarked on an important milestone in the transgender fight against the subcontinent’s dismissal of their existence. The Government of Karnataka amended the Karnataka Civil Service (General Recruitment) Rule, 1977, reserving 1 per cent of all government jobs for the transgender community. Amidst the celebrations welcoming this move, there remains a need to question the lack of representation for the transgender community beyond the Karnataka Civil Service. I mean, we’re all for Karnataka, but as far as benchmarks for political representation go, there’s certainly still some ground to cover (namely, the other 28 states). Over 2021, the issue of political representation has become increasingly visible and important within contemporary democratic theory as it acts as a cornerstone in recognizing the importance of plurality and generating social and political legitimacy.

And legitimacy is important because it frames not only privileges one is afforded, but also the narratives that frame their existence. For example, while growing up, my only real memory of transgenders is of them visiting our home asking for money after any auspicious occasion or begging on the roadside. This is the narrative that frames their existence, cultivated by my perception and that of the many who grew up having the same narrow-minded fears instilled in them as I did. The impacts of these narratives however have much more cutting – on average 92% of the transgender community in India are deprived of the right to participate in any form of economic activity - NHRC[2]. If people are denied the ability to earn an income, begging and building narratives around traditions like dakshina quickly become the only available option to feeding, clothing, and sheltering oneself.

I was lucky enough to grow away from these incredibly harmful narratives. During a fieldwork trip, I made a few friends from the community which changed my perspective. They are often sexually harassed when interacting with mainstream society, while In India, 90% are forced into sex work, 96% are denied jobs and 60% have never attended school - their access to resources is abysmal (NHRC, 2018). What appears to be rights for cisgender persons quickly translate into privileges for those in the transgender community.

In democratic countries, politics is built around the responsibility for deciding who gets what – or in more technical language, it is responsible for the reallocation of resources. When communities are unrepresented or lack a strong advocate, the likelihood of those resources being allocated to them remains low, and as such, issues pertaining to them remain chronically underfunded. Roads in that area don’t get repaired, running water or hospitals get lower maintenance budgets, law enforcement gets less….enforced. The allocation of resources directly relates to how much of your democracy you have access to, and if you’re not noticing, it's probably because, for one reason or another, politicians are advocating in your favour. But what if they’re not? As the transgender community is a sizeable portion of India’s population, it begs the question of why they are so underrepresented within our politics. And also, how can it be solved? One (imperfect, but also not impossible) solution is representation.

State of the Union

There are 4.9 lac transgenders in India (2014), whereas the estimate suggests that the population should be somewhere closer to 5-6 million. Most transgender persons choose not to register themselves in order to avoid discrimination. At present, only 8 per cent are registered as voters. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in 2014 recognized hijras, transgender people, eunuchs, and intersex people as a ‘third gender’ in law. The court directed the Centre and the State Governments to take steps to treat them as socially and educationally backward classes of citizens and extend all kinds of reservation in cases of admission in educational institutions and for public appointments.

In 1994 transgender persons received voting rights in India and the first time any transgender (declared) contested an election in India was in 1998. Shabnam Mausi was elected as MLA from the Sohagpur constituency in Madhya Pradesh. She was the first MLA from the transgender community. Shabnam declared her victory as a reaction against the apathy of leaders and politicians towards people's grievances. Looking at the timeline since 1998 can help us understand the lack of their participation and a sneak peek into the challenges the community faces. In 2000, Kamla Jaan was elected as Mayor of Katni in Madhya Pradesh. In 2003, her election was struck down by the high court on the ground that the position was reserved for a woman, and Jaan was not biologically one because she couldn’t bear children. In 2003, Hijras in Madhya Pradesh announced establishing their own political party called "Jeeti Jitayi Politics" (JJP). In 2015, Madhu Kinnar won the Mayoral election of the Raigarh Municipal Corporation by 4,537 votes. In 2017, for the first time in Punjab, Mumtaz contested the Assembly elections under the “other” gender category. Mumtaz was the only transgender candidate out of the total 1,145 in the fray. She was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate from the Bhucho Mandi constituency.

When the Subaltern Speak

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, four candidates from the community contested elections. Member of 'Kinnar Akhada' Mahamandaleshwar Bhawani Nath Valmiki contested election on the Aam Aadmi Party ticket from Prayagraj. She is the first transgender to contest Lok Sabha on a party banner. The lone transgender candidate in Tamil Nadu, Radha contested the election and managed to get 1042 votes. Sneha Kale became the first transgender to contest the Lok Sabha Election from Mumbai when she became an independent candidate from the north-central constituency. Ashwathi was the first openly intersex candidate to contest in the Lok Sabha Elections 2019. Ashwathi is a vocal Dalit rights activist who advocated for an intersectional understanding of marginalities and is well-known among the LGBTIQIA+ and human rights community in Kerala. In one of the interviews, Ashwathi who completed her education being registered as a woman recalls being asked questions like “Do you have sexual desires?” and “Can you satisfy a woman?” by the member of parliament after presenting the views on Transgender Persons (Protection Of Rights) Bill 2016 to the parliamentary committee (one can’t help but wonder how satisfied that Member of Parliament’s past sexual partners felt, perhaps we should ask them?). After this incident, she decided to contest. In Odisha assembly elections, held simultaneously with Lok Sabha elections, BSP fielded Kajal Kinnar from the Korei constituency, in Odisha Jajpur. She got 1391 votes, a partly 1.09% of the total number of votes. In the year 2020, Devika and Sudha became the first transgender to be elected to a panchayat. Devika won from a ward in Saligrama Panchayat which was reserved for SC Women and Sudha won the election in Kallahalli.

As the participation of transgender persons in the electoral process grows, we need to make some of the fundamental changes in our administrative processes. The recently enacted Transgenders Persons (Protection of Rights), 2019 prohibits discrimination against them in employment, education, housing, healthcare, and other services. Yet it fails to recognise some of the fundamental issues of the community, which further calls for their representation in the parliament. For example, the act does not have a provision of change of identity in documents, compels any trans person under the age of 18 to cohabit with their natal family (which is often a source of gruesome violence), criminalises begging without any provision of alternative employments and emphasises on transwomen and hijras.

Why This Matters

To understand the meaning of political representation for transgenders, we reached out to a transgender person from Gujarat who works on spreading awareness around HIV. In the transgender community, prevalence is significantly higher, at 3.1% compared to 0.26% among all adults (UNAIDS). This likely stems from the aforementioned sexual harassment, engagement in sex work, and lack of access to suitable medical facilities. She believes that more acceptance in society will come from the participation of community members in all the mainstream spaces. Telling us about her life she said, “I failed in my school as I was in this continuous conflict and it was difficult to study. Later, I started working in a diamond factory where other peers will call me names ‘Bhaila, Chakka, Hijra’ while working. They will tell the manager that they will not work if I am around and after work, they will invite me to their rooms for having sex. I have been HIV positive for the last 21 years and don’t want my youngers to live their lives infected. I make sure that they get access to protection and the required medicines.”

Ensuring a safe working environment, social security and opportunities free of discrimination are critical for the community to be able to engage meaningfully within the political and social systems within which we all reside. “Politics is a very important space for us, if any of our representatives get elected at least we will be able to go to the offices without fear of being ill-treated. One of the pressing requirements is to recognise us for the pension schemes. As we grow older it gets difficult for us to earn and sustain ourselves. We should be allowed to take employment under the employment schemes by the government. We are physically capable to do anything which a male or female can do, then why aren’t we allowed to work? Our representation in the offices will help society be more comfortable with our presence and hence it will increase our access. People are fine in sleeping with us and having intercourse, almost 50 per cent of people who I work with are into prostitution but the same people shame us when they see us in public spaces.” Representation from the community, for the community, will help raise awareness and the government’s responsiveness to the realities the community faces, and it will be easier for activists like her to make her voice heard.


About the author:

Ishu Gupta is the Research Manager of the Indian School of Democracy. Indian School of Democracy has a mission to nurture principled grassroots political leaders who will work towards sarvodaya (upliftment of all). It is a non-partisan organization that conducts short term and long term programs for young people who want to work in politics, across the geographical, political and ideological spectrum.


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