The Election Commission of India (ECI) has roped in transgender model Bishesh Huirem to generate awareness among the transgender community ahead of the upcoming General Elections. Huirem, who represented India at the Miss International Queen in Thailand in 2016, will be a part of a special drive by the poll panel to enrol transgenders in the voters’ list so as to ensure that they not only get the right to vote but also go out to vote.
In 2014, the Election Commission, for the first time, categorised transgenders as the “third gender” after a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court. Of the total 28,527 registered transgender voters, only 1,968 had exercised their right to vote in that year’s Lok Sabha elections. The 2011 census put the total transgender population in India at 4,87,203. As per the latest EC data, the registered transgender voters for the 2019 elections is only around 40,000 – just ten per cent of their total population.
There are various reasons why transgenders have so far failed to get a voter id-card. “I believe there are over four lakh trans people still unregistered in the electoral roll. The lengthy process involved in registering ourselves as transgender is the primary reason behind the less number of transgenders registered in the electoral roll. Apart from acquiring legal documents from an oath commissioner proving our credential, we are required to publish the same in at least two local newspapers to certify us as a transgender. Moreover, one has to incorporate the signatures of their parents or guardians in the requisite documents. No parent wants to accept that their child is a transgender and they are also not willing to put their signatures on documents certifying them as one. It is not possible to hide our identities as names, the address of parents is required,” said Huirem in an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com.
Parties disinterested owing to small vote bank
The Aam Aadmi Party has fielded Mahamandaleshwar Bhawani Nath Valmiki, a transgender, from Allahabad in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If Valmiki wins, she will be the first transgender to become a Member of Parliament in the country. In the past, Shabnam Mausi became the first transgender MLA in 1998. She was elected as the member of the Madhya Pradesh State Legislative Assembly.
Earlier in January this year, Congress appointed Apsara Reddy, a transgender, as its official spokesperson. However, despite several awareness programmes and debates around the rights of transgenders, their representation and participation in the electoral process remain abysmal with political parties’ approach towards them not going beyond tokenism.
One of the reasons for their absenteeism and disinterest by political outfits is that being spread in several pockets, transgenders don’t form a larger vote bank in one constituency. “There is ignorance for sure. Also because the community is not sitting at one pocket, they are spread at different places. And they may not add to a big number in one constituency,” argues Yashwinder Singh who manages the Delhi branch of Humsafar Trust, an NGO working for the betterment of transgenders. “Until and unless we indulge in dialogue with them, not much will improve,” added Singh.
“With the exception of a few parties giving tickets to a transgender, there has been less effort in making a transgender the face of a party’s election campaign. So there has been a trust deficit between both political parties and the transgender voters. This is also because we, especially the hijra community, have been so off the mainstream. They believe their votes don’t count much because political commentators say they are very small in number. But the fact is that we are voters, political parties should reach out to us,” said a transgender.
Why 2019 elections could be important for the transgenders
While the Supreme Court had on April 15, 2014, declared transgenders to be a ‘third gender’, “full proof categorisation was difficult for the Election Commission before the General Elections that year”. And that is what makes the election this year important for the community in terms of their participation in the electoral process with a new identity.
“I think the biggest point they (transgenders) are looking at is how the 2019 polls will be different from 2014. Whether the coming government will look at transgenders as an active force and will there be programmes looking at mainstreaming them or not? We want to be counted as Indian citizens like others and we want to have a say in which government comes to power,” says Zainab Patel, a transgender rights activist who was one of the petitioners in the National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India case on transgender rights (The NALSA Judgment).
Talking about the expectations, Patel adds, “It has been 72 years of independence. We hope the future government/s take cognizance of this fact and bring in policies and law which is beneficial for all.
SC ruling made ‘little’ difference
Though the apex court in its 2014 ruling affirmed that the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution will be equally applicable to transgender people, the reality is still very grim. “The NALSA judgment talks about the inclusivity of the community. It’s been five years since the judgment but it’s sad nowhere in private offices can you find transgenders working. Only a handful can be seen, if at all. It’s high time the political parties looked into this. I could say some parties have taken some measures…like Congress appointed Apsara Reddy as the spokesperson. I am hoping that other parties would also reach out to them,” says Singh.
“Nobody comes and asks us about our problems. We have always been ignored. We do want a government that hears our voice,” says one Sania while describing her ordeal in finding a rented accommodation and a respectable job. “I have learnt dance from Pandit Birju Maharaj. But I have to do sex work to make my ends meet. I applied to several schools for a dance teacher job. But none hired me,” she recounts with tears in her eyes.
More than the government, the transgenders blame society for the widespread discrimination they face. “Section 377 was scrapped, NALSA ruling was delivered by the Supreme Court, but not much changed for us at ground level. If a private company hire them (transgenders), staff there look at them in a very undignified manner. They face constant harassment. Compelled by these circumstances, they are forced to beg or become a sex worker,” said Kantha, programme coordinator at Mitr Trust.
“Like the Women’s Reservation Bill, a bill for representation of transgenders in Parliament can give voice to this community and improve their life quality,” she added.
‘Flawed’ Election Commission Data
The transgenders also claim that the Election Commission’s data of their electoral strength has many flaws. In fact, most transgenders in the past have been registered either as male or female, and the cumbersome process to change their gender identity forces them to stay out.
“As per the 2011 census, we have 485000 transgender voters. But if you see the electoral list there are only 40,000 registered transgender voters. In populous states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, which have the highest concentration of transgenders, the actual number of listed voters are just around 2000. So definitely there is a need for systematic voter engagement and education programmes,” said Patel.
The biggest challenge, Patel says, is that only ten per cent of the total transgenders is registered as voters. Now, this is an issue of concern as well as issue of data validity because not all transgenders are necessarily registered as transgender voters in the ID card. For example, I am registered as female because all my documents have a female identity. There could be trans people who are identified as male or in the process of transition. The need is to reach out to a large community. If only ten per cent is registered, it means 90 per cent have been left out,” she added.