By Poornima Bansal*
It was in the year 2014 that the State of India bestowed upon a unique gift to a community that has long been fighting for the rights of their very being – the gift of identity. National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India, 2014 is a historic decision by the Supreme Court of India recognizing transgender people as ‘third gender,’ affirming equal applicability of fundamental rights granted under the Constitution of India. While this was a major step in the direction of a more gender-equal ‘Bharat,’ has the ground reality really changed for the transgender community even after seven years since the law was passed? In a candid chat with transgender activists Ms. Meera Sanghamitra and Ms. Rachana Mudraboyina, the harsh truths and the struggles of the community were unearthed.
“Need is the mother of invention” – that’s how Ms. Rachana describes her journey of finding identity as a transwoman and venturing into the profession of a sex worker. Life wouldn’t be a cakewalk; that was something she had realized in her early years itself. But you know the State has failed you when despite having double post-graduation degrees, there is no access to equal opportunities or equal pay in the country’s formal sector because of gender discrimination. In her profession, she realized the blatant gaps knitted in the very framework of society. Whether it was related to getting access to the health facilities and seeking protection against STDs for the trans sex workers or the very fundamental level of awareness on what it means to be a transgender person. That is how TransVision was founded – India’s first transgender YouTube channel to provide people with a basic knowledge of transgender people. The vision here is to not only represent the community on social platforms but also to do it correctly.
For Ms. Meera, it was at the tender age of four when she had the first epiphany of ‘feeling like a woman.’ But it wasn’t until adulthood that she identified herself as a transwoman. Educationally qualified as a lawyer, Meera Sanghamitra is an independent human rights activist and has been associated for more than a decade with the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), a pan-Indian collective of mass movements of adivasis, dalits, farmers, workers, fisher people, and other marginalized communities. She has also been active in the struggle of the Narmada dam outsees. She is presently one of the National Convenors of NAPM as well as convenor of NAPM Telangana. She is also an active member of many women’s rights & transgender movements and initiatives at the state and national levels.
Together as members of the Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti (THITS), Ms. Meera and Ms. Rachana spoke about how despite the success of NALSA vs UoI (2014), the life of transgender people in India remains marginal. The intention behind the act for reconstituting the gender stereotypes is a step in the positive direction, but the issue of exclusion is much deep-rooted. The fundamental problem here is the stigma attached to the third gender. While the act does so to some extent, how can the law ensure access to equal employment opportunities and equal pay without peripheral frameworks such as protection against sexual harassment, reservation in educational institutions, or public sector jobs.
In the last census, merely 4.5 lakh transgender community members were part of the tally. The low figures are partially due to the resistance of coming out and a general lack of focus on this minority group by the government. This has translated to broader issues that lead to further marginalization. The civil liberties of transgender people are compromised when it comes to reaching out to the protectors of the law. Domestic violence against them goes unreported. Health facilities such as subsidized sex reassignment surgery and regular check-ups for sex workers are still a distant dream. There is no provision of issuing a ration card for accessing basic food supplies at rates for below poverty line population. In the wake of the pandemic, the situation worsened to the extent of abject hunger and homelessness.
Both Ms. Meera and Ms. Rachana are proud of the activist efforts that have helped initiate a dialogue in the larger society. While this hasn’t been an overnight feat, the activists say there have miles to go before they sleep. The recent Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, is the new battleground. Members of the community have been vehemently rejecting the bill for its non-alignment with the NALSA act. The bill constitutes clauses that criminalize begging and enforcing any minor trans person to cohabit with their natal family, among others. On the face of it, the bill furthers the cause of human rights for the community. But the protests are justified because with no guarantees to opportunities for livelihood in the formal sectors, the ways to remain self-sustainable remain limited to begging or prostitution. Despite having the talent and the will to create a difference, an entire community has been left to resort to sub-par means of earning bread. The activists are standing up against the state and national authorities for ground-up implementation of NALSA, provision of collateral-free small loans to startup businesses, and just the very basic right of representation. The decriminalization of 377 is a definite welcome move in this direction and has fortified the cause of the community by opening doors to global platforms of inclusivity.
The four Varnas of Hindu mythology recognize the paradigm of binary genders with roles and responsibilities defined for men and women. But what about transgender people? This history of callousness has been carried over from one yuga to another. Waiting for Lord Rama in the woods for 14 years until his return from exile earned space for the third gender in the sacred ancient Hindu texts. But the wait to get dignified recognition in modern Indian society still goes on. We, the people, take great pride with news flashes of the first-ever transgender judge in the country or the first-ever trans doctor. But even after 70 years of independence, isn’t it a pity that something that should have been normalized years thence is still considered a novelty?
*Student, IIM Bangalore