A breathless Riya Sarkar, 29, walks into Ballygunge Government High School in south Kolkata to collect her election material. “Am I late?” she asks Anjana Bhattacharya, in-charge of the distribution centre, who reassures her with a firm handshake. “We are proud that you have decided to take part in this celebration of democracy,” Bhattacharya says before leading Sarkar to the distribution room.
It’s 11 am and the centre is teeming with polling officers. Sarkar, like hundreds of other officials, joins the queue to collect her poll material. They all look nervous, they are all “scared about handling an entire polling booth”, as Malati Saha, another polling officer, puts it. But Sarkar, who on Saturday will become the first transgender person in India to preside over a polling booth — number 260 in South City International School (Rashbehari Assembly constituency) — will have the additional responsibility of creating history. “I hope everything goes well,” she says.
Sarkar has decided she will come dressed in a sari to the booth. She wants to “make sure” that everyone addresses her as “madam”. “All my life people have made fun of me; now I am confident enough to assert myself,” says Sarkar, a teacher at Dum Dum Prachya Bani Mandir for Boys.
She was approached by Smita Pandey, the district electoral officer, Kolkata South, for the job as the polling officer. “She (Pandey) said I had to do this for my community. She felt if more transwomen like me come forward, there will be more acceptance,” Sarkar said.
Pandey, who shortlisted 24 other transgenders to be polling officers, said she was disappointed at not being able to involve other members of the community in the electoral process. “The Election Commission has a rule that only government employees can be polling officers. None of the transpersons we shortlisted, apart from Riya Sarkar, were government employees,” Pandey said.
Of the 6.5 crore voters in West Bengal, the number of registered voters from the third gender is 758.