Imphal, April 18, 2019: A small number of Nupi Maanbis (common Manipuri parlance for trans women) exercised their voting rights today in the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency as part of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. There was considerable enthusiasm among community members as these individuals were able to cast their votes in their desired gender identity (that is, transgender) for the very first time.
At the same time, a number of community members were extremely critical of the fact that these individuals were among only 45 trans persons whose names made it to the final electoral rolls as trans persons, and shockingly none of the Nupa Maanbas (trans men) were included in the rolls in their desired gender identity.
The figure of 45, provided by Maibam Birendra Singh, Assistant Chief Electoral Officer of Manipur in an Impact TV interview, was just about three percent of the 1,343 trans persons recorded in the 2011 Census, itself contested as a gross under-estimation of the trans population in Manipur.
Campaigns for enrolment of trans persons were conducted in October 2018 for the three main valley districts of Manipur, that is, Imphal East, Imphal West and Thoubal. A number of trans community groups and NGOs collaborated with the Manipur State Election Commission for carrying out the Systematic Voter Education Enrolment Participation (SVEEP) campaign at the Deputy Commissioner Complex in Imphal.
Community members pointed out serious gaps in the enrolment process. According to long time trans activist Santa Khurai in an Impact TV interview, “Once again the Election Commission missed out on the inclusion of trans men.” Additionally, many trans individuals were left out as the registration process was complicated – the requirement of residential proof apart from Aadhaar cards was something many trans women were unable to furnish. The campaign activities were conducted in a rush and in the early hours of the day when it was difficult for many people to be present.
Another area of concern was the mismatch of gender identity on the voter identity card and on other identity documents like Aadhaar. Many trans women in Manipur have had their gender identity changed to transgender on their Aadhaar card, but their voter identity card still mentions their gender identity as male. Trans community mobilizers pointed out this issue to the Election Commission officials during the SVEEP campaign. The officials assured them that the voter identity cards would be updated, but this eventually did not happen. As a result many trans women ended up casting their vote as males. As for trans men, given the complete lack of acknowledgement of their desired gender identity, they all had to vote as females.
There was some appreciation as well for the efforts of the Election Commission. Rohit Khumanthem, a trans woman from the Yaishkul Manipur Legislative Assembly constituency in Imphal West district said, “I could cast my vote without any problems inside the polling booth. The Polling Officer at the booth allowed me entry without standing in a queue.” She added that the environment was more comfortable this time as most of the polling agents were women and treated her well.
This writer observed that the Polling Officer at the booth notified the security personnel to give Rohit Khumanthem priority “because the Election Commission of India had given instructions in this regard”. During an interaction, Leitanthem Rohen Singh, the Polling Officer, said that though a separate queue for trans people was supposed to be organized, there was too little space in the polling booth to accommodate a third queue. As a substitute, trans individuals were being allowed to enter and cast their votes without queuing up. He said that there was a strong possibility that separate queues for trans individuals would be a reality from the next Manipur Legislative Assembly elections.
In contrast, in places far off from Imphal city, the situation was not just as positive. The Imphal Free Press reported that six trans women in Kakching district (part of the Outer Manipur parliamentary constituency) came out of the polling booth without casting their vote because there was no separate queue for them. One reason behind this difference could be that the SVEEP campaign did not focus on trans inclusion beyond the Inner Manipur constituency.
A comment from Kanta Pukhrambam, a trans woman voter from Kshetrigao Kendra, Imphal East district summed up the situation aptly: “The attitude of the polling officials was perfect, there was no teasing or harassment inside the booth.” This indicated that such behaviour did occur in the past. “But there must be separate queues for trans people the next time without fail!” she added emphatically.
The Election Commission of India and their state level counterparts have their task cut out if they must ensure meaningful inclusion of trans voters – beginning with a thorough grasp of gender and sexuality diversity, on to the preparation of the electoral lists, and then right down to ensuring that the voters are able to cast their votes to their satisfaction in the polling booths, with their identity and dignity intact.
About the main photo: Rohit Khumanthem from Yaishkul Manipur Legislative Assembly constituency in Imphal West district proudly displays her voter slip – she was among the few trans women in Manipur who could vote in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in their desired gender identity. Photo credit: Bonita Pebam