On Thursday, when Protima Sharma, 30, will sit at the polling booth in Kumar Asutosh Institution for Boys (under the Belgachia Constituency in North Kolkata), it will be a small victory for the transgender community in Kolkata.
Protima, a resident of North Kolkata, identifies herself as a transgender woman and will be the first member of the community to sit in a polling booth. “I have been asked to help not only the transgender voters of the area but also other voters,” said Protima, who has worked with Bandhan, a Kolkata-based transgender association, for about a decade now.
Protima will work with the EC-appointed polling agents in the booth, as as local representative.
Ranjta Sinha, who leads Association of Transgender/Hijra in Bengal (ATHB), claims it to be a symbolic victory. “When people from near Belgachia asked me if we wanted to be represented at the booth, I felt it will be a symbolic victory for us and I suggested Protima’s name,” said Sinha.
Last week, the Election Commission had announced that a group of transgenders will be in-charge of a polling booth in South Kolkata.
“Transgenders don’t come out in the open due to fear of rejection by the society. We want them to come out. This is a message for the entire third gender to come out and disclose their identity in public,” said Smita Pandey, district electoral officer.
While the transgender community welcomed the move, some felt the gesture was too small, too late. “Why just one polling booth in South Kolkata? This initiative should have been taken in all districts of the state. Are there transgenders only in South Kolkata?” asked Sinha.
In West Bengal there are about 6.5 crore registered voters and only 758 of them are from the third gender. “That’s a ridiculous number.
Even in our organisation, we have more than 30,000 members belonging to the transgender community,” said Sinha.
Last year, West Bengal government announced the constitution of Transgender Development Board for the over 30,000 plus-strong community in the state. State Women and Child Welfare Minister Sashi Panja is the chairperson of the board while Manabi Bandyopadhyay, the first transgender principal of a college in India, is the vice-chairperson. It has 12 members and representatives from various transgender communities.
Many from the community feel that the board has failed the community in a number of ways. “We wanted the board to be more hands-on and work effectively towards betterment of the lives of the transgender and hijra community of the city. While it’s great that we have the right to vote as the third gender now, our life remains the same. There are still no government shelters for homeless transgender people and hijras,” said Anurag Maitreyi, who identifies herself as a transgender activist.
Last year, the state government announced a dedicated transgender ward with medical team to take care of patients from the community at the RG Kar Medical College and Hospital in North Kolkata, which is still not functional. “Every time we approach them, they say they don’t have beds or doctors. It’s all a hogwash. Every political party wants publicity and the LGBTQ cause is very fashionable now, so they used us,” said Sinha.
Panja, however, claims that the hospital ward will be functional “very soon”. “It’s not that easy to get a specially dedicated ward in place,” she said.
Even Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party tried to cash-in on the “transgender wave”, said Sinha. “They fielded two transgender candidates (in Bhowanipore and Jadavpur). But both backed out eventually. It was just a publicity stunt,” said Sinha.
Bobby Hijra, a transgender activist from Joynanagar (South-24 Parganas), who was fielded against Mamata Banerjee in Bhowanipore, too feels used by the party. “I realised that they were not sincere in their intentions. They just wanted attention. So I backed out,” said Bobby.