Indian politics has been plagued for a long time with poor representation of marginalized communities, particularly those belonging to non-normative categories of sex, gender, and sexuality. The last few years of strong activism, especially around Section 377, Indian Penal Code and the pending transgender rights legislation, has increased the visibility of queer people and also highlighted their struggles.

Perhaps as a result of such activism, the Lok Sabha elections this year saw an increase in the number of candidates from queer communities, many of them highly articulate speakers. Most contested as independents, but a few political parties also either fielded queer candidates or engaged queer individuals in important political roles. Several parties included concerns of queer communities in their election manifestos; some also included the recognition for queer relationships in their agendas.

Day after tomorrow we will know if any of the queer candidates make it to the Parliament, and in perhaps some months we will see if queer inclusion in the manifestos translates into any meaningful change for the communities concerned. For now, let us take a look at how ‘queer inclusive’ the 2019 elections were (long read alert!).

Inclusion in the manifestos

Four of the seven national parties of India incorporated the rights of gender and sexual minorities in their manifestos, though only two took care to elaborate their plans. As per the Communist Party of India (Marxist) manifesto, the party said it would work towards the welfare of the trans communities by “passing the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014 to uphold the rights of all transgender persons and removing the lacunae present in the current Transgender Persons Bill, 2018”. It also included in its agenda “legal recognition and protection to same sex couples similar to marriage – ‘civil union’ / ‘same-sex-partnerships’, legislation/s on similar lines as Special Marriage Act, 1954 so that the partner can be listed as a dependent, for inheritance, alimony in case of divorce etc.”

The CPI(M) said it would also work towards a comprehensive anti-discriminatory law covering queer people, and would ensure reservations in educational institutions and horizontal reservations in employment. Its manifesto also stated that the party would make certain that crimes against queer persons were treated on par with crimes against anyone else (see also inset below). Measures would also be taken to address bullying, violence and harassment of gender non-conforming and queer students, staff and teachers in educational spaces. The party promised to enforce the University Grants Commission’s anti-ragging policy amendment of 2016 that addressed ragging based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and would work to establish accessible and safe toilets for trans, intersex and gender non-conforming students, staff and faculty.

Inset: CPI(M)’s queer outreach during 2019 Lok Sabha polls: In West Bengal, the CPI(M) set a precedent by organizing several interfaces with queer community members in a number of Lok Sabha constituencies, like Kolkata Uttar, Kolkata Dakshin, Jadavpur and Dum Dum. Though the interactions were limited to the southern part of the state, it was a refreshing step taken by a political party. The agenda in these interactions was not limited to sharing what the manifesto of the CPI(M) had to say on the issues of queer communities. The candidates from the respective constituencies also welcomed suggestions, comments and grievances from the participants. Queer activists stressed that the party should prioritize greater transparency in the party’s dialogues with the queer communities, non-discrimination, security, police reforms, education, and employment for queer people. The CPI(M)’s overtures met with significant distrust and criticism as well. In response to an invitation for an interaction in the Kolkata Dakshin constituency with Lok Sabha candidate Professor Nandini Mukherjee on May 9, 2019, trans and anti-trafficking activist Madhuja Nandi was vehement in her criticism. In several Facebook posts (including those on Varta Facebook page), she narrated how she was physically harassed and publicly humiliated by members of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and Democratic Youth Federation of India, both CPI(M) affiliates. These tragic incidents occurred in Madhyamgram and Barasat in 2006, when the Left Front was in power in West Bengal. All efforts to lodge police complaints had been in vain. Madhuja Nandi and several other queer individuals and their allies refused to attend the meeting till a public apology was issued for the incidents of violence. When Varta Trust representative Pawan Dhall spoke about these incidents at the meeting and noted that there had been an abuse of power based on a nexus between the party cadre and the police, Professor Nandini Mukherjee regretted that such violence had taken place and promised there would be no repeats. Perhaps a clear statement of apology would have been better towards much-needed emotional healing for the victims of violence, and acted as a stronger first step for addressing the wrongs of the past while building bridges for the future – Editor.

The Indian National Congress (INC) manifesto had a section on the rights of queer people where the party recognized the sexual diversity among people and promised “equality and equal protection of the laws to people with different sexual identities”. The INC also promised to ensure the effective implementation of the Section 377 judgment and vowed to protect the rights of the queer communities.

If it came to power, the INC said it would also immediately withdraw the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018 pending in Parliament. In place of that, it would introduce a new Bill that would be consistent with the Supreme Court of India’s judgment in the NALSA case, and which would be drafted in consultation with the trans communities. The party would also direct that “gender sensitivity training, especially for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, be made mandatory in all government departments and organizations, including the Armed Forces and the Police Forces.”

Interestingly, though the INC manifesto proclaimed support for queer people, one controversy regarding this was pointed out in a piece published by the Gaylaxy webzine on April 9, 2019. The article discussed that the campaign video of the party, released by INC President Rahul Gandhi over Twitter, titled Ab Hoga Nyay, erased the word ‘gay’ from a picture used in the video. The video showed people from various sections of the Indian society – farmers, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, the youth, among others, and gave the message that the INC was for everyone. At around 43 seconds, the video showed two people in an embrace. The image in the background when these two people were shown was one from the queer protest marches in India in 2013, when the Supreme Court had recriminalized homosexuality. In the original image (shown in the Gaylaxy article), the poster read, “I am gay, here to stay, even in jail”. But this same picture in the campaign video had the word ‘gay’ edited out. It still remains unclear why it was erased.

The Communist Party of India stated in its manifesto that it would implement legislation for the empowerment of the trans communities and work for adequate economic and social support for the queer communities.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election manifesto for 2019 stated the empowerment of trans communities as one of its agendas. According to the manifesto, the BJP was “committed to bring transgenders to the mainstream through adequate socio-economic and policy initiatives”. The party would also work to ensure self-employment and skill development avenues for trans youth. But no concrete plans or measures of how they would do so were laid out in the manifesto.

The welfare of the trans communities also did not feature among the ‘75 Milestones for India @ 75’ propounded by the BJP. There was no mention of ensuring rights for the other sections of the queer communities.

The manifestos of the Trinamool Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had nothing on queer rights. The Bahujan Samaj Party did not release a manifesto and according to a report in The Hindustan Times, party chief Mayawati made it clear that her party did not believe in releasing manifestos, as they believed in “delivering rather than talking”.

The presence of queer issues, particularly trans issues, in several party manifestos seemed like a mark of progress from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. For example, trans issues did not feature in the manifesto of the BJP in 2014. Though the manifesto of the INC in 2014 stated that the party believed that “society should be more sensitive to the rights of the transgender community” and that “this issue will receive separate and continued attention”, there still was a lack of discussion about the specific measures or steps to be taken. This aspect was laid out more robustly in the 2019 manifesto.

Queer candidature

The presence of several queer candidates in the fray was one of the historical developments these elections (see also the Pink List inset). Chinju Ashwathi, 25, was one such candidate who identified as intersex, trans and Dalit, and contested from the Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala as an independent. In an interview to The New Indian Express on April 5, 2019, they said their aim was to reform societal acceptance of queer individuals and to ensure the rights of queer communities through positive and constructive activism. Their education (a graduate degree in electronics), family members and dear ones provided them with the skill, strength and encouragement to contest the elections.

Born intersex, but assigned female at birth, Chinju Ashwathi lived the life of a woman for 22 years before embracing their identity. An active worker with Sahayatrika, an NGO for human rights based in Kerala, they strongly argued: “Unless we are part of the political power system, we will fail to achieve progress and rights for our communities.”

Chinju Ashwathi condemned the social stigma against intersex persons. One of the motivations for them was the fact that government policies rarely addressed the specific challenges faced by intersex people. They sought to serve all deprived and marginalized communities – the disabled, senior citizens, Dalits, and the queer communities, among others. In an innovative salute to the importance of education and technology, Chinju Ashwathi chose a laptop as their election symbol!

From neighbouring Tamil Nadu, trans woman M. Radha contested as an independent candidate from the Chennai South constituency. A cook by profession, her election symbol was a computer mouse, which she chose to show her commitment towards education. In an interview with The Indian Express on April 11, 2019, M. Radha said that though she had limited funds, with the support of her community, she took part in door-to-door campaigns.

She said that the striking down of Section 377 was a good step in changing the attitudes of people towards trans people. But a change in the law was not the end of the struggle – there must be equality in terms of education, legal heirship, marriage and related issues. If elected, she said she also aimed to raise issues of unemployment, sexual abuse, and under-representation of the trans communities in different fields. In her locality, she identified water scarcity and lack of proper drainage as the main issues she would address.

Inset: Queer innovations in 2019 Lok Sabha polls: The 'Pink List', developed by Anish Gawande, Devina Buckshee and Smriti Deora, is a list that records politicians across political parties who support queer rights. A work-in-progress, it has four categories: ‘Trailblazers’, ‘Changemakers’, ‘Outspoken Allies’, and ‘Allies’. ‘Trailblazers’ are political candidates from the queer communities who are contesting the 17th Lok Sabha elections and have included greater rights for the queer communities as one of their campaign agendas. ‘Changemakers’ are politicians contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections who have been vocal about queer rights in the past, whether it is on the Parliament floor or on various media platforms, and have actively taken tangible steps to ensure trans and queer inclusion. ‘Outspoken Allies’ are those who have gone out of their way to show their support for queer rights, either through public statements on social media, or via interviews, or through comments in the Parliament. The fourth category, ‘Allies’, are politicians who have silently supported queer issues either through small statements or actions within Parliament, primarily those who supported Shashi Tharoor’s Private Member Bill to scrap Section 377 in the Lok Sabha in 2016. The creators of the 'Pink List' clarify that though some candidates support queer rights, this does not imply that their political parties are necessarily supportive of these rights. Neither does support for queer rights means that the candidates are supportive of all marginalized groups in society. Still, the creators believe that this list will help gender and sexual minorities mobilize around them and advocate for greater social inclusion. The group hopes to facilitate interactions among the people included in the list and build a network of queer supportive politicians who will make queer issues a political imperative. Source: 'The Hindu', April 17, 2019

Click here to access the ‘Pink List’.

Further up north, from the western coast of India, 27-year-old commerce graduate Sneha Kale, another independent candidate, was one of the two trans women to contest the national elections from Mumbai. According to a news report published in The Hindu on April 8, 2019, she said she found it difficult to use her education for employment because of discrimination. She decided to run for the Lok Sabha elections (from North Central Mumbai) to secure policy rights for the trans communities, who, according to her, were denied a voice since independence.

Sneha Kale’s agenda included employment reservation for trans individuals in both public and private sectors, compulsory education, and pension and health care for ageing trans persons. She emphasized that the abuse and harassment that trans people faced gave her the motivation to contest the elections, though she lacked funds and did not have the backing of any political party.

Jatin Mummy was another independent trans candidate who contested from Mumbai city (Mumbai North East seat). She said she wanted to represent the Jogati Kinner community in the Parliament to make people aware of the problems faced by them. She also wanted to work towards implementing the NALSA judgement for the welfare of the Kinner community. Interestingly, both Sneha Kale and Jatin Mummy were among the poorest candidates to contest from Mumbai, and their participation was supported by Durbal Ghatak Aghadi, a city-based group that worked with the disadvantaged.

A report in the Outlook magazine published on March 29, 2019 said Bhawani Nath Valmiki was the first trans candidate fielded by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – they contested from Prayagraj (Allahabad), Uttar Pradesh. Bhawani Nath Valmiki, North India head of the Kinnar Akhada, a Hindu monastic order of trans people, said they entered politics for social good and sought to address the issue of unemployment, especially among the trans communities. In a telling comment, they said, “I believe that when trans people can fight hunger, they can also fight elections.”

Apart from the queer individuals who contested the elections, several others participated in different integral ways. Disha Pinky Shaikh, trans writer, poet and activist was appointed as spokesperson by the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi for Maharashtra. Mumbai-based trans activist and Project Manager of Kinnar Maa Ek Samajik Sanstha, Priya Patil was appointed by the NCP as a member of their state working committee. The NCP also inducted social activist Chandani Gore as Vice President of its women’s cell in Pune. At the national level, earlier in the year, the INC appointed trans activist Apsara Reddy as National General Secretary of the Mahila Congress. According to a news report in The Hindu, she became the first trans office-bearer in the party’s 134-year history.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) on its part appointed queer activist Gauri Sawant as their first goodwill ambassador in the state of Maharashtra, who sought to create awareness among the trans populations about the elections since voter registration among trans people continued to be abysmally low.

Trans voters in 2019 Lok Sabha polls

The number of trans voters enrolled in the ‘others’ gender category in the electoral list saw some increase since the 2014 general elections. The ECI started the process of registering trans individuals as trans persons in 2009. According to a news report in The Economic Times published on March 17, 2019, 25,527 voters were registered as ‘others’ in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. This number went up to 38,325 this year, an increase of nearly 50% in the last five years. However, when compared to the total trans population of a little less than 4,90,000 in India (as per the 2011 Census), the number of trans voters was still far from ideal. The total trans population figure is itself considered a gross under-estimation by queer activists.

Quote: The number of trans voters enrolled in the 'others' gender category in the electoral list saw some increase since the 2014 general elections. The ECI started the process of registering trans individuals as trans persons in 2009. According to a news report in 'The Economic Times' published on March 17, 2019, only 25,527 voters were registered as ‘others’ in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. This number went up to 38,325 this year, an increase of nearly 50% in the last five years. However, when compared to the total trans population of around 4,90,000 in India (as per the 2011 Census), the number of trans voters was still far from ideal. The total trans population figure is itself considered a gross under-estimation by queer activists.

Some community level attempts at increasing the enrolment of trans voters were commendable. For example, the efforts of Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, a community-based organization (CBO) that advocates for the rights of gender and sexual minorities, particularly Hijras and other trans women in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal, deserve a mention. Joyita Mondal, a trans activist who founded the CBO and heads it, informed Varta Trust representatives during a legal aid consultation in Islampur on April 27, 2019: “In the last West Bengal Legislative Assembly polls, there was only one trans voter registered in our area. But we persisted in our advocacy with the ECI and that helped raise the number to 89 for these Lok Sabha polls.”

However, according to trans activists, many of the community members still refrained from enrolling themselves in the voter list as ‘others’. Social stigma and the tedious process of furnishing documents to validate one’s identity were some of the reasons behind the community’s low enrolment in the voter list. Gauri Sawant, ECI’s goodwill ambassador and who also runs CBO Sakhi Char Chowghi in Mumbai, said (as reported in The Economic Times): “Paperwork, hostile attitudes of the bureaucracy, and the tiresome procedure of changing names and genders are the key reasons for the poor levels of trans voter registration.”

In the same news report, Anindya Hajra, a trans activist at Pratyay Gender Trust, Kolkata said that furnishing the documents required to prove one’s identity while enrolling in the voter list became a difficult process for members of the trans communities as many of them did not possess these documents. Often medical certificates were sought despite the 2014 NALSA verdict that stated that self-identifying as ‘transgender’ was not necessarily linked to any form of medical transition.

Gauri Sawant also noted that many trans people ran away from their homes at an early age and did not possess birth certificates or address proof. Housing discrimination and refusal of landlords to sign an agreement with trans persons also made it difficult for them to provide an address proof.

This brings us back to where we started. While the ‘queer quotient’ of the 17th Lok Sabha polls may have gone up some notches, will it be able to impact on the gross inequalities that Chinju Ashwathi, Anindya Hajra, Gauri Sawant and others commented on? What also about a wider representation of the queer spectrum in the political circles? For instance, openly bisexual, lesbian or gay political functionaries are still not quite visible, not even after decriminalization of queer people.

Here’s wishing that the process of queer inclusion in the Indian political arena will become irreversible, not become tokenistic, and connect with other causes to uphold the constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.

See also this Varta report on trans participation in the electoral processes for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Manipur – Editor.

About the main photo: Chinju Ashwathi, who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from the Ernakulam constituency in Kerala. Photo courtesy Keyboard Journal.