CGAP South Asia
Deconstructing Queer Representation in Indian Politics
In 1998, Shabnam ‘Mausi’ was elected as India’s first trans-woman MLA in Madhya Pradesh. Twenty years hence, while Anannyah Kumari Alex was famed as the first transgender candidate to fight the Kerala Assembly polls in March 2021, she withdrew her candidature soon, charging her party of gender discrimination, stigmatisation, and harassment. She was found dead in July 2021. Despite multiple court judgments, policies and promises favouring the LGBTQ+ community, discrimination persists, and politics seems to provide little relief.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, “third-gender” voters rose by 45% since 2014 when the Election Commission (EC) first initiated the category. However, their representation remains dismally low. After Shabnam’s 1998 victory, Madhu Kinnar, an independent Dalit candidate in Chattisgarh, won the 2015 municipal elections to become the first transgender Mayor – the courts had declared two transgender people’s victories invalid in 2009 and 1999 as they had won on seats reserved for women.
In the public domain, transgenders are invariably caught within “hijra/kinnar” labelling, a stereotypical lens that often limits others from accepting them as social equals capable of positions of power, and a constant pushback to their traditional jobs of dancing or begging or sex work. Lack of relative caste and class privilege must make matters worse. Judicial changes have enunciated a somewhat optimistic approach to the LGBTQ+ community, be it the NALSA Judgment 2014, The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 or the latest slew of judgments by the Madras HC, among others. However, the impact quotient of these proclamations on public opinion is yet to be seen.
While discrimination persists in the political battleground, several candidates have braved this and managed to succeed, and their experiences become very telling. Shabnam witnessed the most prolonged, eventful political career. She was twice denied Congress party membership, and in her words, was disrespected and belittled for her gender identity. She later contested in assembly elections from Kotma on RJD ticket, claiming that the promised financial support and presence of Lalu Prasad Yadav in her campaign never came about, and hence she lost. She fought again in 2012 from Kanpur, but lost. Her inspirational story reflects dark undertones of deficient political will to support trans candidates.
Similar patterns exist in activist-journalist Apsara Reddy’s story – initially a spokesperson in AIADMK, she later shifted across the Congress, BJP and AIADMK. In 2019, her appointment as the National General Secretary of All India Mahila Congress was pioneering for other trans politicians. Joining AIADMK in 2020, she campaigned vigorously for the 2021 elections, but never contested an election herself. She is descriptive about the absence of wider political vision to pitch transgenders, project them competently and invest resources on their candidacy for all moral, representational reasons.
Independent M Radha had contested from Mylapore, Chennai in 2019 Lok Sabha elections and then 2021 assembly elections, but lost. Supporting her campaign through crowdfunding, she expressed her intent to work on her concerns regarding the stigma experienced by her community and the dormancy of Transgender Welfare Board in Tamil Nadu. She witnessed financial challenges which affected campaigning and visibility, and outlined the lack of political support or guidance for transgenders.
Besides Radha, five others like Chirpi Bhawani (Aam Aadmi Party) and Kajal (Bahujan Samaj Party) contested polls in 2019. Several others obtained positions in political parties but didn’t contest. They’re staunch activists working in various capacities for the welfare of transgenders, and their foray into politics was backed by the hope of changing cultures for trans candidates in mainstream politics. None went on to pursue full-fledged political careers. In the past, several gender-queer persons doing exemplary work took a shot at politics but left it early.
While there is a universal inconsistency that itself speaks volumes about the hard-to-cross political barricades and the inadequate assistance from political parties. Yet many continue to fight for de-stigmatisation, humanisation, acceptance, and recognition of their rights. The rights considered central to human existence, as entitlement to basic necessities, dignity, and socio-political inclusion, are consistently denied in the status quo. With its power of public visibility, enhanced access to resources, influence, and heightened propensity to be heard, political representation becomes crucial for trans-persons. Hence, it is critical to expand the discourse around gender and politics at this juncture and reflect on the value of representational politics in that light.
Consequently, the following questions merit attention –
what kind of political support/assistance is needed,
why do parties lack the political will for fielding queer candidates,
the role of trans rights in enabling political visibility, and
how to sensitise people towards acceptance.
Beyond these, the most pertinent question remains – are we raising the right questions with enough vigour?
The numerical vote-bank fault lines push the LGBTQ+ community off the appease-worthy political brink. This is primarily why parties don’t field queer candidates and avoid providing resources for a successful candidature. While they’re willing to include transgender welfare in manifestos, they’re reluctant to pursue their political representation enthusiastically. Hence, as several scholars argue, social acceptance and inclusion (within health-&-education systems, housing, economic opportunities) remain central to demanding rights and representation for them. The Transgender Welfare Boards must be activated to urgently look into the obstacles facing trans-persons in their political journey, both as voters and candidates. Legal and financial assistance should be extended to independent candidates for sustaining their campaigns. Active efforts must be made to provide them employment opportunities to prevent compulsive recourse to conventional jobs. Booth-level monitoring is important to ensure that trans-voters aren’t discriminated against.
Beyond this, sensitisation at institutions must come about both morally and materially. In this respect, the EC’s moves to rope in trans-activist Gauri Sawant and trans-model Bishesh Huirem to spread awareness in 2019 elections were very welcome. However, the absence of long-needed reforms for trans voters and candidates – provision of self-identification of gender, de-emphasising the need for documents in case of transgenders and the likes – hint at tokenism and complacency in such attempts as the EC’s. Stressing on sensitisation, there is a need to augment systems (eg. LGBT+ support cells for basic assistance, tackling sexual harassment at public workplaces, doing away with linguistic gender binaries in particularly official works) and infrastructure (eg. separate toilets, overcoming gender binaries in architecture in terms of colour choices, workspace designs etc., creating more trans-friendly spaces) to make spaces more gender-receptive; government offices and buildings need to pioneer this change.
Acknowledging the privileges of presence in electoral politics, we need targeted provisioning of legal, financial and social support to transgenders, to leverage the gains made by the many trans-persons who are already in the fray.
Riya Gangwal, an Economics student at the University of Delhi, identifies as a reader, writer, poet and a research enthusiast. Her focal interests are gender, caste, inclusive development and welfare economics.
She can be reached on LinkedIn here.