Published: 04th April 2021
Lost in Translation: Why do Indian elections not have enough transgender candidates?
Transgenders need more representation, for that they need empowerment and for that, they need more representation — is it a vicious cycle with no end?
The Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court allowed a transgender individual to contest a village panchayat election from a seat reserved for women stating that she has the right to self-perceived gender identity. A single-judge Bench of Justice Ravindra Ghuge on January 2 pronounced the order. Anjali Guru Sanjana Jaan’s nomination had been rejected because she was not accepted as a woman. The court said that the authorities must not have been aware of the law — the much-criticised Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 permits a transgender individual to have a right to self-perceived gender identity. "In the present case, the petitioner has opted for the female gender as her self-perceived gender identity and also makes a statement that henceforth in her lifetime, she would not switch over to (the) male gender driven by opportunism and would continue to opt for the female gender, in future, save and except if there is a reservation provided for transgenders in public life," the judge said.
While Jaan got to contest the election, the number of transgender candidates who have contested in any Indian election so far is negligible. According to the 2011 Census, there are 4,87,803 trans-individuals in India (a number that is most likely to have increased considerably since) but their representation in politics has been close to non-existent. Very few trans-individuals have braved all odds and contested elections but fewer have succeeded. Shabnam Bano aka Shabnam Mausi won an assembly seat in the Madhya Pradesh State Legislative Assembly in 1998 and was in office till 2003. A film was also made based on her life. After Shabnam, Kamala Jaan from Raigarh in Chattisgarh became the Mayor in 2000 and Madhu Kinnar won the same post in 2015. But there has been no representation from the community in the Parliament to date.
While Indians recognise transgenders as a part of their society, they have not been completely mainstreamed yet. The Aam Aadmi (not the party) still does not appear to be open to the idea of a trans person as their representative — the reasons range from societal taboo to lack of trust in their abilities to fulfil their duties while in a position of power. The stereotypes imposed on the community by civil society continue to deny them access to opportunities. Even if a few individuals make it through and attain education, become competent for a job, their story is not highlighted. Indian society likes to look at the community through a lens of pity and treat them as destitutes. There have been some major judicial and legislative changes in the past decade or two — the NALSA (National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India) judgment was pronounced on April 15, 2014, then came the Trans Act 2019 which was criticised for its lack of sensitivity and was later revised. But whether these legislative and judicial changes have made any social impact is what needs to be understood.
When we talk about their political representation, these are the questions that must be addressed — the obstacles ahead of aspirants, the lack of political intent to help them contest, the elitist ostracism they face even within the LGBTQ community and what it would take for us, as a society, to be more accepting.
Those who fought the fight
While the social taboo and ostracism has kept most transgenders from actively participating in politics, there have been a few risk takers. M Radha contested the Lok Sabha Elections from the Chennai South constituency in 2019. She lost. But she considers her short political journey an achievement. “Everyone who comes to politics has expectations. I didn't have any in particular. I wanted to make a mark by contesting. We see a lot of transgenders who have trouble getting any basic incentive. If they were to use a politician's name they would get support. I realised that influence is important to help transgenders,” she said. “Transgenders have the bravery of men and the compassion of women. I wanted to do something for all the people, especially transgenders and ensure people get what they're owed from government schemes,” added Radha.
Apsara Reddy, a transgender activist and a journalist, had joined politics in 2016 as a Spokesperson of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) but she never had any great leaning towards it initially. However, the opportunity made her realise the potential it held. “I never really had an aspiration to join politics although I was inspired by Madam Jayalalithaa growing up — every time I had any kind of self-doubt, disappointment or frustration, I drew inspiration from the way she dealt with her professional and personal life. Much later, I got the opportunity to receive an award from Amit Shah and Tamilisai Soundararajan for Women's Day in 2016 and on noticing that Madam Jayalalithaa invited me to join her party (AIADMK) as a national spokesperson. The offer came on a platter and it was too good to refuse as it came from my inspiration and icon. Even though I had no aspiration to join politics, when the offer came I said to myself, why not politics. It's a great platform to do good work for the people and a larger platform to make policy. I was a journalist earlier and it's nice to write in the public interest but to really bring systemic changes you need to be in politics,” she said. Reddy has been part of the Congress and the BJP over the years. She joined the AIADMK again in November 2020. While Reddy was appointed a spokesperson by Jayalalithaa herself and has campaigned vociferously in the run up to the 2021 Assembly Polls, she has not contested an election yet.
No support from parties
Radha had no idea of what one has to do in order to contest elections. She was almost hooted out of the nomination centre when she first visited. But she did not lose hope. “No one helped me. A judge suggested that I stand for the elections because she felt I was brave and strong and had a social bent of mind. When I went to file my papers, the officer said that there were only two options 'male' and 'female' but no transgender. I asked them why I can vote but cannot contest an election. I said I won't leave unless they let me contest. Then they called their office in Delhi and the ECI resolved the issue and allowed me to stand. They even took only half the deposit needed,” she added.
But Radha’s incident was a one-off case. The most pertinent problem the transgender community faces is that no party wants to field them as a candidate. Reddy, a member of the AIADMK at present had aspirations to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections as well but the Congress never agreed to her request for a ticket. “There was a time when I requested a Lok Sabha seat from the Congress party. But Congress most certainly is not there yet in terms of recognising transwomen as viable electoral candidates. I felt although I had worked sincerely and with commitment as the National General Secretary of the women's wing, they were not very open to the idea because I feel that people also have to actually have a vision and project the trans person in the right direction and support them,” said Reddy. But she is hopeful, “Going forward, I think many political parties would do so and I think they will see merit in doing that as it will add depth to their agenda of inclusion and equality.”
While that is an irrefutable logic, the political camps do not seem to understand that. Why do the parties not want to field candidates from the third gender? The answer is simple, said Shree Ghatak Muhuri from West Bengal, the first transwoman to get her marriage certified. “Because we don’t feature in their target vote bank. Why would they care about us? The only times a trans-individual is given a ticket is to taunt the opposition that you will be contesting a ‘hijra’,” said Ghatak. “What I have understood over these years is that people do not care much about the issues. They look at the people they are voting for and search for someone they relate to or know — thus actors, public figures are fielded as candidates. Why will they field a trans person as a candidate?” she asked.
The next logical question would be: why not contest as an independent candidate like Radha? Fighting an election without a party’s support is not impossible but it brings down your chances of winning significantly. Not only that, without a party’s support, as an independent candidate you need financial affluence to fight an election — from nomination fees to campaigning, it's an expensive affair. Radha could manage it because she had some semblance of support from not just her community but from the locals — in every small way possible. “I am part of a transgenders' association where there are 500 members. They all contributed and helped me with my expenses. I did not have any money of my own. Some shopkeepers and small business also supported me by printing pamphlets, giving cups of coffee and so on,” said Radha. But what if you do not have a support system like her?
An urgent need for representation
Transgenders have been ostracised in our society since what would seem like the dawn of civilisation— they have been seen as different from the mainstream. They have been given a place in our mythology and epics but have not been made part of the mundane. They lack proper education in most cases, there are not enough government schemes to include them in daily life, people look at them differently and thus getting a job becomes a hassle. "And thus they have no financial stability — have any of the political parties thought about representation? CPIM during its 2019 election campaign put LGBTQ rights at the forefront and candidates met trans-individuals to understand their issues," said Apratim Ray, Office Secretary of the state SFI unit in West Bengal. Born a man, Apratim wants to move the court soon to legally identify as a trans person.
While the issues of the trans community need to be highlighted better, why should a candidate from the first or the second gender have to talk about the issues pertaining to the transgender community? And therein lies the major issue of representation. It is not just about having a medium to voice their demands and opinions. It's about transgender individuals getting a chance to speak about their issues and not via a cisgender individual who probably will empathise but not understand the problem and thus the policies they will form won't be effective.
Right (to) representation
One might argue that every state has a Transgender Development Board to take care of the community's needs and help them prosper in society as we develop as a country. But even the members say they are not very hopeful that the board would do anything fruitful. “There has been no work done to date and we don’t have any hope from the board as well. I am very sceptical about how much work I would actually be able to get done even as a member,” said Ghatak, who serves as a member of the West Bengal Transgender Development Board.
In fact, Ranjita Sinha, who has been a member of the board before, said that the structure of the board itself shows the discrepancy in representation. The board is chaired by officials from the Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare — it is currently headed by Dr Shashi Panja. “How can a woman truly understand and empathise with the issues the transgender community is facing? What if you appoint a man to head a women development board or a commission? In the same way, a person from the first or second gender cannot truly represent the third gender’s needs and demands,” she said.
Political presence from the community is an absolute must for any concrete policy changes. “Political acceptance is extremely important for trans individuals because I feel a lot of policies and schemes are formed with keeping us in mind but then our voice is not heard truly at the parliament or at any level. I think having a tokenistic approach towards the community or a synthetic, almost charitable view of the community does not help. I think we need to be at the forefront of policy-making,” said Reddy. “Even the censor board does not have a member from the trans community and there are so many films being made on us and we are portrayed in such a bad light in TV, cinema and advertising. I feel the political parties should ensure that communities like ours have a roadmap in politics. Unless given the opportunity how is it even possible? People talk about winning candidates. But that can happen only if you have the right support system around you. I think political parties should consider fielding us as candidates for the posts of MLAs and MPs — we understand discrimination, poverty and adversity and I feel adding our voice will give a unique dimension to democracy,” she added.
It is a vicious cycle — you need political representation from the community to give others a chance, but no one is ready to give the first person a chance. It might not be that easy to explain why this is happening. This is a designed problem, said Bappaditya Mukherjee, the Founder and Director of Prantakatha, an organisation that works with marginalised sections of the society. “There is no concrete statistic on the population of trans individuals in the country. This is a designed problem. The people involved in policymaking know that if the correct number is released then it will open a Pandora’s Box. Statistics are always the driving force of any struggle. The patriarchal and cisgender heterosexual societal structure will never let the issues come to the surface. We have to fight and bring this to the public," he said. "The Nationalist Congress Party has come up with an LGBTQ wing. This is definitely a start. If you want to really empower the community you need to form a wing like the political parties have women and youth wings or unions for workers. The people need to have agency before they move towards empowerment — you cannot just shield them and offer to represent their demands,” he added.
Discrimination and its sway
Radha and Jaan both had to face discrimination from the very start of their election journey. But one faces discrimination even when there is no election involved. “I feel we live in a society where discrimination is rampant but at the same time, we should not let it dissuade us from our path. Yes, there were people who have said harsh cruel and baseless things, people who second-guessed my intentions, people who wanted to write me off. But I think that was a source of inspiration for me. I never took this as discrimination I turned it on its head and made sure I fought my way to the top with merit,” said Reddy.
But she was a successful journalist with years of work to speak for her. She had a place in society which she had earned with her merit. “Education played an extremely important role in my life. Its acts as a foundation for what you want to do later on in life. When I wanted to transition the first thing that I thought was that I did not care if people love me or hated me, people had to respect me. And for that my career was extremely important. Being a journalist certainly helped me be more independent. I started earning from a very young age and got the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people which impacted my perspective. I think in today's world, every transgender individual should look at getting themselves educated. It is definitely a step in the right direction,” she added.
Sensitisation should be the key, right?
Social transformation for every nation is different. The path it takes and the time it takes for a social change to happen is different for every country. India is more socially accepting than countries like the USA when it comes to transgenders — we have a spiritual and mythological history of the community. But things have not gone past that. The otherwise progressive LGBTQ community too ostracises the transgenders, said Gourab Ghosh, a researcher who has completed his Masters in Gender Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs Union of India judgment was a progressive judgement but the Transgender Act took a few steps back. it had initially asked individuals to prove before a board that they are transgenders. This is a kind of harassment," said Ghosh. "We also need to look at our neighbouring country Pakistan where trans-individuals are contesting local body polls. I feel even the LGBTQ community in India has an elitism problem — the issues of the transgenders are not highlighted as much among the community even though they are an integral part of the larger community. The T in LGBTQ stands for transgenders," he added.
We only like to identify them with their problems, their tragedies instead of stories of empowerment, said Ranjita Sinha. "This creates a perception that they are not fit for political office. There needs to be more awareness. Just announcing that we have formed a board for transgenders or we have brought out a scheme for them won't help. There need to be sensitisation drives at local levels. There needs to be political intent for that. And here's where representation comes in. A woman cannot quite understand what would be the right way to increase exposure for transgenders. They view it from a cisgender lens and that does not help," she added. "The mindset needs to change. If a woman now goes for a door-to-door campaign, people listen to her. But that place has been earned by the women themselves. We need representation to enable these changes. I have met Shabnam Mausi and her story will be etched in history. So why not have more people like her. Why not have thousands of Shabnam Mausis? The times have changed. When she fought and won the election the political scenario was different," she added.
The long and winding road ahead
Inclusion is a lengthy process and it needs time to take effect. The people of the community have to step up and fight for change and it won't be an easy change or quick one. The year 2021 will see some major elections — Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are already in election mode and Reddy was ready to contest when we spoke to her, just before candidates were being chosen. "I am very hopeful that all political parties will make space for transgender candidates in the 2021 Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu and given the opportunity by my party, most definitely I would like to contest, work with a strategy, a sense of responsibility and also keeping in mind the organisational goals of my party," she added. Reddy had petitioned the party to let her contest from the Kolathur constituency, from where DMK chief MK Stalin is contesting. It did not come to be this time.
Social changes do take time. There was a time when wives performing Sati was accepted as normal — we have come a long way from that to women having representation and being able to raise their voice. No one can deny that we are far from equality and there is a long road ahead. But women have won back basic rights that were denied to them a century ago and all of this has happened through movements that sensitised society. The cisgender heterosexual patriarchal society will also take time to get accustomed to the fact that the third gender has the same rights as them. But it will happen, said a hopeful Sinha, "But we have to do it ourselves. We cannot have others fighting our fight," she added.