Chapter VIII of the Bill begins by saying: “Criminalization of enticement to beg: Whoever compels or entices a transgender person to indulge in the act of begging, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine.” The activists pointed out that this was one of the several provisions retained from the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016. It had been opposed even when the Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in August 2016 and then late last year, when the central government again sought to table the Bill in Parliament completely ignoring the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee set up in October 2016 to re-examine the Bill.
In the words of the Parliamentary Standing Committee: “The clause is likely to be misused against the other transgender persons, in the garb of protecting them. It is an open fact that most transgender persons are harassed or booked under the begging prohibition laws, even when they are not begging or merely present at public places.” The activists said this draconian clause should be removed as it would criminalize Hijras or Kinners who do traditional badhai toli and mangti and have little access to education and other means of employment.
Another damning fact was that the new version of the Bill continued to assign a role to a District Screening Committee for issuing a ‘certificate of gender identity’ to a transgender person. Applications to the screening committee would have to be routed through the District Magistrate. This went completely against the Supreme Court’s verdict of April 2014 on transgender citizenship rights that had spoken about the right to self-identification in any gender (male, female or third gender). The Parliamentary Standing Committee had also said that “any procedure for ‘identification of transgender persons’ which goes beyond self-identification, and is likely to involve an element of medical, biological or mental assessment, would violate transgender persons’ rights under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution”.
To make matters worse, the new version of the Bill seemed to make matters more complicated for transgender individuals seeking gender transition surgery and identification within the gender binary as male or female. First, like all other transgender persons, they would need to obtain a ‘certificate’ of transgender identity from the District Screening Committee via the District Magistrate, and post-surgery make another application to the District Magistrate for a revision in the gender identity certificate to male or female!
It was equally confounding that the Bill upheld lighter consequences and penalties for discrimination and assault on transgender people compared to other citizens. And then as Aparna Banerjee said, “The Bill also violates our constitutional rights to live where we please. It states that even as adults with the right to free movement and association, we must either stay with our parents or approach a court of law for shelter in a rehabilitation centre if our family is unable to take care of us!”
She argued that the government failed to understand the violence committed against transgender people by family members and in rehabilitation centres. She added that the definition of family should also be expanded to legally recognize families of choice, partnership, marriage, friendship and, as per the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s recommendation, “Hijra or Aravani community elders, who adopt young transgender children and provide them shelter, medical care, and gender affirming inheritance and burial norms”.
The activists said the Supreme Court verdicts on transgender rights in April 2014 (popularly known as the NALSA verdict), right to privacy in August 2017 and most recently the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in September 2018 had all been progressive with the potential for far reaching impact on the lives of transgender and other queer people. But the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018 struck a thoroughly discordant note and could well block the positive impact of the apex court’s rulings.
A media release issued by the activists said: “We wish for the Government of India to withdraw the Transgender persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018, from consideration in the Rajya Sabha and to instead pass the Private Member’s Bill drafted by Tiruchi Siva in the Lok Sabha.” Transgender community representatives have long argued that Tiruchi Siva’s Bill, drawn up on the basis of close community consultations, was the closest in letter and spirit to the vision embodied in the Supreme Court’s NALSA verdict.
The activists also questioned the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 passed on July 26, 2018 in the Lok Sabha. They said several provisions in this Bill, for instance, the one on criminalization of organized begging, were against transgender people’s rights and would compound the problematic aspects of the Transgender persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018.
The media conference ended with shouts of protest and clapping (theekri) by transgender community members against the central government. Slogans like the following rent the air: “Bill to jal ke khaak banega, Modi tujhko hai lagega!”
As the activists and audience trooped out of the conference room, they were greeted with the sight of a silent protest just outside the Kolkata Press Club organized by a men’s rights group (see last photograph above). This protest was not connected to the media conference on the Bill (it was centred around the possible murder of a Calcutta High Court lawyer by his wife, also a lawyer). But as a member of the audience quipped, the larger scheme of things has many a coincidence and irony stored for those struggling for sheer survival!
Contact numbers of the media conference organizers: Aparna Banerjee, 0091 98748 71578; Raina Roy 0091 84206 91695; and Neel 0091 98042 44084.
About the main photo: Protest banners held up by transgender activists at the Kolkata Press Club media conference on December 20, 2018. All photographs show scenes from the media conference, barring the last, which shows the silent protest organized by a men’s rights group outside the Kolkata Press Club on the same date. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall