Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Braving all odds, transgender candidates take Lok Sabha poll plunge
Aswathi Rajappan had barely stepped out of the house early on Sunday in Kerala’s Ernakulam town when a group of local policemen called out. They ring-fenced Rajappan and a friend and asked what they were doing in a public place. When told that the 25-year-old engineering graduate was an independent candidate in the ongoing general elections from the city, the policemen laughed.
“They threw insults at me, they said I didn’t look like a candidate, and the impression I gave was that of a criminal because of my skin colour. What is this impression but bias? This is why I am fighting the election.”
Rajappan, who identifies as a Dalit intersex person and uses the pronoun ‘ze’ (instead of he or she), is one of a small group of transgender people fighting the Lok Sabha elections.
These candidates come from across castes and regions – from Gujarat in the west and Tamil Nadu in the south to Odisha in the east and Uttar Pradesh in the north -- and represent the rapid strides made by the marginalised community barely five years after the Supreme Court upheld their rights in a landmark judgment, known as Nalsa vs Union of India.
Despite significant structural obstacles, every candidate is ambitious. Rajappan, for example, was stirred to join politics because of the high rates of crime against transgender people and a particularly bad experience during a public consultation on the transgender bill.
Ze wants to push for the inclusion of not only intersex people – who are born with bodies that do not fit with what typical social categories of male or female – but also for the welfare of Dalits, disabled and tribespeople. A local school ze runs in their village for Dalit children inspired Rajappan to think of education, which as an Ambedkarite anti-caste activist, is central to zir (Rajappan uses this pronoun instead of his or her) politics.
“Intersex people are always invisibilised. My whole aim is for dignity, and freedom to live as human beings. I want people to accept us as we are,” says Rajappan, who is taking on heavyweights like Congress’s Hibi Eden, Union minister KJ Alphons and CPI(M)’s P Rajeev.
Thousands of kilometers apart, Bhavani Nath Valmiki is fighting her own electoral battle. Unlike most other transgender candidates in the fray (who are independent), Valmiki has been nominated by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from Prayagraj, held by the BJP’s Shyama Charan Gupta.
Valmiki -- who is the north India head of the Kinnar Akhada, a Hindu monastic order of transpeople that made a splash by participating in the recently concluded Kumbh celebrations -- says she could have fought from a reserved seat but chose the high-profile constituency to show that a person tagged as “reserved” can fight in a so-called “general” seat. “I entered politics for social good and my poll pitch will be unemployment. We don’t fear terrorism, we fear lack of jobs for the young.”
Valmiki, who is known as Bhavani Maa to legions of her followers in the Akhada, says the capability of a transperson will determine their outcome, not their gender. “A kinnar (loose Hindi translation for transperson) finds no job, no family support or a home. But we live. If we can fight hunger, we can fight elections.”
Dressed in a green sari, Shabnam “mausi” (aunt) made history when she stepped into the Madhya Pradesh assembly in March 2000 as the first transgender MLA in India. Having defeated the Congress and the BJP candidate in a by-election from Sohagpur, Shabnam quickly gained a reputation for toughness after her surprise victory made international headlines.
“I never knew that I was popular, but there was a buzz that a dabangg (fearless) kinnar lived in the area. When the byelection was announced, 15-20 people came to my house and said we have to take on the politicians,” she says.
Shabnam mortgaged her jewellery for the campaign and a follower gave her a car. “You cannot imagine the atmosphere. We would be driving and singing all night, making insults for the parties, in the car; making jingles with drums. I never thought I could win, but the people made me their own.”
Shabnam’s legacies for the area include electric poles and schools in the area, but she feels let down and humiliated by political parties – especially the Congress. Nevertheless, her election marked a watershed moment.
Just the year before her win, another transgender person – Kamala Jaan – had been 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 – this despite the Election Commission having recognised transgender voters in September 1994 (the watchdog allowed transpersons to vote under male or female categories) following a letter by Shabnam.
“The kind of language used in the judgment is unimaginable today, devoid of the language of rights that is so common today, and goes to show the kind of strides made,” argues Siddharth Narrain, a legal researcher. Similarly, the tenure of Asha Devi – who defeated heavyweights from both national and regional parties in her mayoral victory in Gorakhpur in 2000 – was ousted by the courts on similar grounds. In contrast, Madhu Bai Kinnar, a Dalit transwoman who became the mayor of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh in 2015, is set to successfully complete her tenure. And in the last general election, three prominent transgender candidates grabbed headlines – Bharathi Kanamma in Madurai, Sonam Kinnar in Amethi against Rahul Gandhi and Kamala hijra against Narendra Modi in Varanasi.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the number of “third gender” voters is 41,292, a rise of about 45% from the figures of 2014, when the EC first started the category. The highest number of “third gender” voters is in Uttar Pradesh (8,374), followed by Tamil Nadu (5,790) and Karnataka (4,839). In states such as Rajasthan, there is an eight-fold increase, though the absolute number remains small (231). In some states such as Tripura (14), Mizoram (6) and Nagaland (20), the numbers are extremely low.
Not just this, data from the EC showed that the turnout figures for transpeople stood at an abysmal 17.94%, as compared to an overall figure of 64.9%.
Shrigauri Sawant, a Mumbai-based activist who is an EC-appointed election ambassador, believes that the low numbers underline the problems transpeople face while registering to vote, with paperwork, hostile attitudes at the bureaucracy and with changing names and genders. Sawant is going from door to door to get people to vote and thinks the 2014 judgment gave people awareness and showed to the world a community fighting for their rights.
No major political party other than AAP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – which has fielded Kajal Kinnar from the Korei assembly constituency – has fielded transgender candidates yet, though most mainstream parties have included them in manifestos. As a first, both the Congress and the BJP have made promised transgender welfare and parties such as the DMK, CPI-M (as well as Congress) have promised to roll back a controversial transgender rights bill. The Congress named activist Apsara Reddy as its national general secretary of the women’s wing in January.
But Sawant cautions against the tendency of parties fielding transgender candidates in tough battles, where the chance of victory is dim.
“Patriarchy makes society think transgender people cannot do anything. Gender has nothing to do with ability. We are Indian citizens, voting is our right. That is the importance of elections for transgender people.” She says.
(With inputs from HTC in Thiruvananthapuram, Guwahati, Bhopal, Lucknow, Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Jaipur, Chennai, Bangalore)