After cows, Dalits and Kashmiris came the turn of transgender people.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his party MPs on Tuesday to reach out to the transgender community in their respective constituencies, setting them a target of meeting 500,000 people from one of India’s most marginalised sections.
This is possibly the first time that the BJP leader has reached out to the transgender community, often ostracised by society and shut out from jobs and education opportunities.
“Humanity is not confined to male or female. Go and meet them. Have meetings and rallies,” Modi told his party members, hailing a bill conferring rights to transgender people as a “great step for social reforms”.
Modi’s comments aren’t surprising though he leads a party that has been in the news for its deeply conservative views. It is in line with the views of new progressive Modi – a 2.0 of the Hindu Hriday Samrat if you will – who lashes out at once-patronised cow protection vigilantes, asks people to attack him instead of Dalits and loves Kashmir.
For the past four days, the prime minister has sprung a surprise--indicating to the world that he is alert to mounting international criticism of his administration as a tech-savvy but culturally intolerant regime that is hostile to minorities and dissent.
His paean to Dalits came shortly after the United States expressed concern over rising atrocities against the vulnerable community. He spoke on the spiraling violence in Kashmir more than a month after the first clashes and it came after his image as a pan-India leader was questioned in national and international media because of his silence.
Every single of these messages appeared carefully tailored for an international audience and aimed at giving out the message that India is ruled by a global leader with progressive views.
This is a sea change from the prime minister’s earlier responses, when he chose to be silent and bulldoze through a torrent of criticism following Hindu hardline ghar wapsi conversion programmes, vitriol against alleged cases of “love jihad” and especially the mob lynching of Mohammad Ikhlaq over rumours that he slaughtered a cow.
Even this January when India was rocked by protests over the death of PhD student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad after alleged casteist hounding by university authorities, Modi chose to keep silent – making a short statement that further infuriated anti-caste activists and opposition parties.
Of course, this comes at a cost – the undying love of hardline Hindu elements, who are already grumbling that the new “secular” Modi isn’t the leader they voted for. The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have had a troubled relationship with oppressed communities of all hues – be it religious minorities, backward castes or the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.
Hindu hardliners have attacked couples out on Valentine’s Day, have been accused of peddling violence and patriarchal norms that shackle women, and have called homosexuality an abomination – India’s home minister Rajnath Singh called it a mental illness last year. Modi’s overtures might further rupture his relationship with his core constituency.
But a more pressing concern is whether the statements will inspire any real change. Dalit activists have already said they’d prefer stricter implementation of anti-atrocity laws to impassioned appeals. Kashmiris have unequivocally rejected the prime minister’s professed love for the Valley and his offer of development, saying they’d rather see some real political change on the ground.
The same questions abound over the issue of transgender empowerment with many activists saying a recent bill dilutes Supreme Court guidelines from a historic verdict two years ago and will hurt the vulnerable community.
The bill proposes setting up a board with medical officers to certify transgenders. This, Hijra community elders say, will intimidate people. “Why should I have to strip and show myself to a male doctor? Isn’t this humiliation,” asked Sabeera, a member of a 500-year-old Hijra haveli in Hyderabad.
The bill also criminalises begging, a provision that may be used to harass transpeople and even jail Hijra gurus. Activists say section 377—which criminalises homosexuality – is used by police to harass working-class transpeople. The new law, they say, will meet the same fate.
“You don’t give us employment or education and want to take awaywhatever little we make from traditional occupations? This bill will kill us,” said Sabeera.
Another provision says transpeople will be placed with natal families or government homes, making it difficult to remove victims from abusive families. “How can the government say where we stay or eat?” asked Rachana, a hijra community member.
If the prime minister is serious about his transgender outreach, it will not remain confined to mere words. His government will consult trans activists and amend the bill, bat for stricter implementation of benefits, and induct transgender leaders in his party.
He will also follow through on his promises to other minorities – because transgender people can be Dalits, Muslims or women – and violence against one community touches all. His government will come out against section 377 and end this shameful law once-and-for-all. Anything less may soar the prime minister’s international reputation and make for good headlines abroad, but will do little to help the people he is elected to serve.