By Rituj Jain*
“Although the UoI vs. NALSA judgement of 2014 did create a historical landmark, we still have long ways to go before we achieve true equality.”
Transgender people have always been discriminated against. Not only that, historically, they have been deprived of fundamental rights too, which as per the Constitution, are applicable for all citizens of the country.
National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India (2014) was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of India, which declared transgender people the ‘third gender,’ affirmed that the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution of India would be equally applicable to them, and gave them the right to self-identification of their gender as male, female or third gender. However, the reality on the ground is very different, say trans-activists, Ms. Meera Sanghamitra and Ms. Rachana Mudraboyina.
I had the good fortune to chat with them one evening, and the conversation was pretty eye-opening. Even though the SC passed the law granting the transgender community fundamental rights seven years ago, the situation is still not conducive. Transgender people are still treated differently, and opportunities are lacking.
About the Activists
Ms. Meera says that she knew on some level that she identified as a female since her childhood. Her journey started there. She was trained as a lawyer and has had an abiding interest in human rights, environmental and social justice issues since college years, when, along with a few like-minded friends, she co-founded a small group called Grassroots and got associated with different collectives and campaigns in (then united) Andhra Pradesh. As a human rights activist, she 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 oustees. 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. She is a proud receiver of the Girish Sant Memorial Fellowship and Gorrepati Narendranath Memorial Fellowship. She is also a recipient of the Bhasha Memorial Award for Best Social Activist, 2019, and Born2Win Social Activist Award, 2019.
Ms. Rachana has a different story. Although she is a double post-graduate, she couldn’t find any work. So, she had to resort to petty jobs to sustain herself. Even there, she wasn’t paid fairly. Hence, forcefully she had to become a sex worker. She has been doing the same for the past 20 years and has herself been the victim of abuse, violence, and attacks. However, she fought through it all and today is a vocal transgender rights activist and well-known for her contribution to the Indian Trans movement. She is one of the founding members of Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti (THITS)- an unregistered and unfunded collective which has been working for the marginalized trans groups mostly dependent on begging and sex work as their livelihood. She has been doing sensitization and advocacy with both government and non-government stakeholders regarding the implementation of the Supreme Court judgement of 2014. She has also founded her own YouTube channel, ‘Transvision,’ which clears the myths & misconceptions regarding transgender people in society and gives a proper scientific, historical and legal framework to the community’s issues. She is the recipient of the Women for Secularism, Democracy, and Justice award and Born2Win award. Her YouTube channel also won the Laadli National and International award in the field of gender sensitization.
Takeaways from the Interview
Conditions for the transgender community weren’t friendly even after India gained independence. Although the Constitution came into force in 1950 and gave some fundamental rights to all citizens of India, transgender people were still not considered for the same. They had no options for earning a rightful livelihood and had to figure out how to fend for themselves. Therefore, they were forced to beg or become sex workers. Although some choose to be sex workers, there are thin lines between choice, compulsion, and making peace with the compulsion to turn it into a choice. However, becoming a sex worker meant that they had to forego whatever little rights they had.
Even if they somehow managed to stay away from this life, there were other hurdles to cross. Most of the time, people didn’t understand or accept their choices. The few who did, told them to undergo surgery to change their gender. Very few understood that even though they were born as part of a specific gender and wanted to live their lives as another, they didn’t have to undergo surgery for that.
Although the UoI v. NALSA judgement of 2014 gave a legal recognition of the third gender to the trans community, we still have a long way to reach some semblance of equality. The current government hasn’t been very supportive or proactive regarding the implementation of this judgement. Even though the law clearly stated that gender affirmation surgery isn’t necessary, the government keeps that as a pre-condition for creating any proof of identity. After the enactment of the law, trans people got the right to complain to the authorities, but any crime or violence against them was institutionalized. Any complaint lodged was manipulated and recorded as an accident or suicide.
Additionally, even if somebody was found responsible for conducting a crime against them, the punishment ranged from 6 months to 2 years. For a similar crime against any other gender, the incarceration can extend up to 7 years. This gives a clear indication that the government doesn’t consider them as equal citizens. The people in power are also actively trying to convert many people from the community to Hinduism.
Both the activists agree that it is time to take substantive and proactive actions to uplift the trans community. Time for tokenistic and small steps has long passed. Even after the 2014 judgement, livelihood opportunities in private and public sectors haven’t opened up for the community. Hence, it is time for a systemic change that the state must take up. Change at such a large scale cannot happen just through communities or self-help groups.
The first step towards this should be proper identification and recording of people who identify as transgender. Till today, owing to the negative stigma, many people don’t openly identify as transgender. Secondly, communities should be sensitized and educated about gender fluidity. It is time that we move away from the binary classification of gender. The male privilege that has been prevalent for so long needs to be abolished to reduce crimes against the community. The media should play an active role in educating people. They should break stereotypes about trans people, and journalists should be trained to cover transgender stories.
On top of educating and sensitizing people, there are additional tangible steps that are required. Provision of valid government ID proofs without forcing them to undergo gender affirmation surgery is the first step. On top of that, issuing ration cards so that they can get basic amenities is an urgency. Healthcare facilities should be expanded to include gender affirmation surgery and hormonal therapy for those who want to undergo the same. Employment opportunities need to be created to let trans people be self-sufficient. Loan schemes can be designed to allow people from the community to start their own businesses. State and Central governments need to work together to create institutional change for the transgender community.
The activists also say that the present student community can play a massive role in improving the conditions of the transgender community. Basic things like having an open discussion in the college and calling panelists from the community to present their views can go a long way in sensitizing the community. More research can be done in the area so that more people can become aware.
Both the interviewees were incredibly gracious to take the time and help me understand the realities that the transgender community faces and how we as individuals and society can help improve their conditions.
At the end of the interview, I realized that even though I considered myself pretty educated, I didn’t know many things. For a community that has had no proper word throughout history in any language to identify itself, we can’t expect things to change just because one favourable law has been passed. It will take the state and society’s hard work and proactive efforts to wipe out even a fraction of injustice and oppression that the transgender community has faced over the years and create some equality.
*Post-graduate student at IIM Bangalore