Grit and bias clash as transpeople strive to carve out path in Indian politics - Hindustan Times
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Grit and bias clash as transpeople strive to carve out path in Indian politics

Jun 01, 2024 02:40 AM IST

Her story is one of resilience, highlighting the transformative power of grassroots activism amidst persistent institutional biases and discrimination

The unforgiving May sun is baking clumps of parched red earth, its piercing rays slicing through sheets of dust on a smattering of people ambling about a stage. The venue is covered but it’s a poor shield against smothering vapours rising from the ground. There are still a couple of hours left for the rally when Disha Pinky Sheikh walks in. With a shimmery golden sari draped around her and battle-worn chappals on her feet, the 40-year-old is immediately mobbed by a group of young men looking for a selfie. She obliges, smiling.

Disha Pinky Sheikh is poet and worker, charismatic speaker and state vice-president of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi(HT Photo)
Disha Pinky Sheikh is poet and worker, charismatic speaker and state vice-president of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi(HT Photo)

It’s an unusual moment. Because Sheikh, poet and worker, charismatic speaker and state vice-president of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, is also a transgender activist who has risen through the ranks, once brutalised at 14 and begging at traffic signals in Bhiwandi, to now commanding an audience of thousands as she traverses rally after rally in the election campaign torpor.

Her story is emblematic of the representation of transgender people in India’s ongoing general elections, nascent but thriving, showcasing a remarkable diversity of political allegiances but also united in their demand for a life of dignity and respect. Their ascent has refused to be daunted by the refusal by any major party to name a transgender person as a candidate, instead focussing on the grassroots transformation of opinion that prompted almost every party to include questions of transgender welfare and rights in their election manifestos.

But as HT found in conversations with dozens of transgender activists and political leaders, their path in politics is peppered with institutional bias, structural hindrances and everyday discrimination of the sort their cisgender colleagues don’t have to battle. And then, there are the vagaries of Indian politics.

Selfie done, Sheikh is now walking ahead. In her mind, she is more karyakarta, less leader, engaging in raucous conversations with ordinary workers about the number of chairs, mike placement and how loud the fans’ whirl will be. “She is an excellent people manager. Sometimes candidates and leaders clash because of egos but she can quickly calm them down,” says Dilip Khedkar, senior VBA leader.

The sun is now straight overhead and the clamour at the venue is touching a fever pitch. As VBA chief Prakash Ambedkar walks in, a posse of men young and old run behind him. Sheikh clambers on the bias, sharing the stage with the leader of her party, and sitting two chairs down from him is no light achievement for the trans politician. She rises to speak before him, using an eclectic mix of Marathi metaphors and one-liners to hit out at the National Democratic Alliance and remind the audience of the VBA, a third force in Maharashtra’s convoluted multi-party polity that has rendered elections in the western state among the most unpredictable in this election. “We are Babasaheb’s children, we will protect the Constitution,” she says from the stage to a roar from the audience.

The meeting ends, and a ripple goes through the crowd as it jostles to meet Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution and a towering figure among India’s marginalised castes. Groups of women ringfence Sheikh too, but she has no time. Another rally in Shirdi, 70km away, is about to start and she is already late.

“I never take for granted my position in this party. It ensures that even those who want to denigrate me, cannot,” she says, now practically running to her car. “And I never forget where I have come from and who I have to work for – my community.”

The journey

Politics was not always Sheikh’s goal. Born in an impoverished nomadic family in Yeola, once made famous by Dr Ambedkar who vowed to not die as a Hindu at the spot in 1935, Sheikh hailed from the Ghisadi community of blacksmiths who travel from village to village in bullock carts, traversing rural Maharashtra.

The daughter of a single mother with three other siblings, Sheikh had a stark childhood, going to school sporadically, and working with the family to ensure meals on the table. “Maa wanted me to pass school. I copied 100% to get 48%,” she says.

The first stirrings of her unique gender conundrum came in Class 6. “And with my femininity, I started paying the price of being different – whether it be discrimination, harassment or bullying, everything happened,” she says.

Unaware of her rights at the time and growing up in an age where systemic bias against transpeople was considered every day, Sheikh focussed more on the material struggles of feeding herself and her family. “In six months, I travelled across Marathwada. I worked as a labourer, did desk keeping, and as a blacksmith. Whatever work I could get, I did,” she says.

“There was no time to think about the bias. I felt like because I was like this, discrimination was natural. It must have been my sin from my previous life. This is what we were taught,” she adds.

In 2000, at the age of 16, she walked out of her house, leaving behind a life of pernicious violence, agony and barbs about her gender. “I didn’t even wait for my Class 10 results. I found out five years later that I had passed,” she says. “I was too busy fighting an internal battle – that of being a woman.”

In 2005, she joined a group of other transpeople in Mumbai and started begging, one of the few avenues of income open to a community long shut out from formal sources of employment.

“My family had cut ties with me two years before. But when they found out that I was earning from begging, they came back. It was emotional but it was clear to me that economic reasons had driven them,” she says.

An old crush at the time pushed her into activism and inspired her to start reading Dr Ambedkar’s work. “In the beginning, I would only follow him because I wanted to gain something common that both of us were interested in,” she admits.

These tumultuous years steeled her for the rough and tumble of politics. Today, she is among the 12 people steering the VBA, which was in negotiations with the Opposition’s INDIA bloc but ultimately fought the general elections alone.

“Transpeople are often seen either as violent or as sacrificing mother-like figures. I am neither. I know my rights,” she asserts. “If my name is not there on a placard or my photo is on the side and not in the centre, I make an issue out of it, politely but firmly. You can ignore me but you cannot remove me. I need that representation.”

The history

Transgender people have had the right to vote in elections since September 1994 after the Election Commission of India recognised transgender voters (the watchdog earlier allowed transpersons to vote under male or female categories) following a number of petitions by activists and groups such as the All India Hijra Kalyan Sabha.

In March 2000, Shabnam “mausi” (aunt) Bano made history as the first transgender MLA in India. Having defeated the Congress and the BJP candidate in a by-election from Sohagpur, Bano quickly gained a reputation for toughness after her surprise victory made international headlines. Bano mortgaged her jewellery for the expenses, and her followers financed the campaign, often spending nights on the road in impromptu meetings and entertaining villagers with short skits, jingles and local tunes.

Yet, despite her watershed achievement, she said she was repeatedly humiliated by major parties, especially the Congress that was dominant at the time. “My victory notwithstanding, they couldn’t digest that a transgender person was standing amidst them,” she said.

Months before her victory, another transgender person – Kamala Jaan – was elected the mayor of Katni town in Madhya Pradesh but her election was struck down, first by a tribunal, and then by the high court in 2003 on the ground that the position was reserved for a woman, and Jaan was not biologically one because she couldn’t bear children. A similar fate awaited Asha Devi – who defeated heavyweights from both national and regional parties in her mayoral victory in Gorakhpur in 2000 – who was ousted by the courts.

It took Madhu Bai Kinnar, a Dalit transwoman who became the mayor of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh in 2015, to successfully complete her tenure. In 2021, the Bombay high court ruled in favour of transperson Anjali Patil, a candidate for the local body polls whose nomination had been rejected by the returning officer because the seat was reserved for women. The court’s categorical decision finally turned the page on transpeople being considered women for electoral purposes.

“It is quite apparent that the returning officer was handicapped insofar as the knowledge of the law was concerned while deciding the fate of the nomination form of the petitioner,” the court noted in its verdict.

A starring role in this extraordinary transformation through the last three decades was that of the top court’s landmark verdict in Nalsa vs Union of India, which affirmed the rights of transgender people. Without this judgment, which celebrates a decade this year, many of these advances would not have been possible.

The promises

The 2024 general elections began with a flurry of promises for the transgender community.

The Congress didn’t explicitly mention trans people but promised civil unions for all LGBTQIA+ people and an expansion of Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The BJP underlined its achievements bringing the 2019 Transgender Rights Act and promised to expand the Ayushman Bharat scheme to include transpeople, while building more garima greh shelter homes.

Other parties also included trans people in various forms. “TMC is committed to working with the queer and transgender communities in India to find practical solutions to the challenges faced by them,” said the Trinamool Congress manifesto.

The Left manifesto was more elaborate. It promised to amend the transgender rights act, recognise and protect same-sex couples under civil union statutes, a comprehensive anti-discriminatory bill, reservation in education institutions; ensure horizontal reservation in employment, measures to address bullying, violence and harassment of gender non-conforming and LGBTQ+ students, staff and teachers in educational spaces, enforcement of UGC anti-ragging policy that addresses ragging based on sexual orientation and gender identity, ensuring accessible and safe bathrooms for trans, intersex and gender nonconforming students, staff and faculty. “Sex change surgeries of LGBTQI should not be done without their informed consent,” the party said. The DMK spoke about railway concessions for transpersons.

Yet, despite the presence of transpersons – and LGBTQIA+ communities in general – in the manifestoes, the documents were conspicuous because of the absence of specific promises. “Issues such as horizontal reservations for transgender people, which can ensure the rights of Dalit transgender people in availing reservations means for the scheduled castes, was missing from most such documents,” said activist Grace Banu.

The diversity

The Election Commission counted around 48,000 transgender voters in this general election, a vast underestimate according to community activists. The vibrant community that has members of all social classes, castes, faiths and regions also holds within it various shades of political thought – right, left and centre.

Akkai Padmashali, a Karnataka-based transgender activist and vice-president of Karnataka Congress, argued that transgender people need to be on the floor of every legislature, from Parliament to Vidhan Sabha, because the community faces persistent discrimination without any political representative raising their voice. “From statements by Sushil Kumar Modi to Ghulam Nabi Azad, we have seen the bias. Transgender people are needed in politics to change this mindset,” she said.

For her, the Congress is a suitable vehicle for this goal because it has never constrained her in speaking for gender justice. “I have been accepted by the Congress and treated as a leader should. I have been given opportunities to speak, not just on sexual minorities but also on poverty, society and hate politics,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Hemangi Sakhi, a spiritual leader and mahamandaleshwar, or leader, of an akhada in Varanasi. Sakhi initially entered the Lok Sabha fray with an intention to fight against Prime Minister Narendra Modi but later withdrew her nomination, saying she was ready for this “sacrifice” for the nation. “I want transgender people to be a part of the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Vidhan Sabha. We should raise our voices,” she said.

But she is also mindful of her identity as a Hindu leader and is vehement in her support for Modi. “The Sanatana Dharma is ready to accept transgender people. As a leader of the community, I extend my support to the formation of a Hindu rashtra, because we are all Hindus,” she added.

The future

Darkness is gathering outside Sheikh’s house that she shares with members of her community outside Shirdi when she finally gets home. It’s been a taxing day – two gruelling rallies under the scorching sun and manoeuvring the machinations of wily colleagues forever attempting to box her out of the limelight. “Some people feel that I got ahead without any following and hence resent me. But I don’t pay heed to them,” she says.

The road is always uphill. Sheikh may be the go-to person for police permissions or organising rallies, but still faces bias – a prominent regional media channel refused to have her on the show because she was transgender, and only relented after a formal complaint from the party. The sprawling two-storey house she lives in is unlike any other political dwelling because she shares it with her guru – Pinky Sheikh, who permitted her to join politics – and a dozen other transfolk. It is their joint earnings that have fructified in this permanent home. “It’s a big deal,” she says.

Sheikh is sometimes exhausted by the chicanery that politics needs – she almost missed the first rally of the day because some party members didn’t inform her – but is clear about the importance of holding space. “Yes, people sometimes emotionally manipulate me so I understand that we need more crafty trans people in politics. But till they come, I’ll hold this space,” she says.

The campaign is relentless so Sheikh has to get ready for another early start. But pirouetting in her mind are a thousand things – the journey she has traversed after being raped at 14, the position of transgender people in politics today, and how to ensure more transpeople get basic rights. “We don’t want to be the dhaniya in the salad – mere decoration,” she says. “We want to reach a spot where no one can ignore us.”

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