December 28 was like every other day at Jantar Mantar road. A litany of protests lined up the roadside - the Left Democratic Manch Assam was protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the Akom Premi Yuva Chatra Samaj agitating for such a Citizenship Bill to stop “illegal” migrants. Police barricades, green uniformed men, red flags and a steady flow of slogans, all led to an onslaught of colours and sounds.
But the brightest spectacle of them all was to be found in the corner of the street, right at the intersection of Jantar Mantar Marg and Tolstoy Road.
Hundreds of transgender persons had gathered to protest the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018, which was passed on December 17 in the Lok Sabha. With sarees, posters, lipstick and bindis of all shades and sizes, the protestors had come from across India, including the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal.
“The government of India is saying that this bill is towards the welfare of the transgender communities, but there is no mention of education, health, benefits, employment, livelihood programme inheritance law. These are required. Why are they being denied? Our fight is about this,” trans-activist Aparna Banerjee told News18.
Aparna is a board member of the West Bengal Transgender Development Board and the secretary of Amitie Trust, a platform for sexual minorities that focuses on their health and livelihoods.
With long flowing hair, a brown saree with golden lining, and big red bindi, Banerjee’s loud, hoarse voice filled the street as she urged the members of her community to keep fighting till their deaths.
The transgender community has been agitating against the Bill ever since it was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016. “The Bill that was introduced in 2016 was a pathetic bill,” Deputy Director of Lawyer’s Collective, Tripti Tandon exclaimed. “It betrayed a complete lack of understanding for the transgender community, their concerns, their problems. That’s when community objected.”
The primary concerns the transgender community has raised about the present form of the Bill (which wasn’t so different from the 2016 version) were the Screening Committees that would attest an individual’s “trans–identity”, decreased sentencing for violence upon transgender persons and imprisonment of those who “compel/entice a transgender person to indulge in the act of begging”.
“If you, a cisgender person, are not asked to strip before anyone to prove your gender, why should I? I am a man, and have identified that way since childhood, and I should not have to prove this to anyone,” said one of the speakers at the event.
A survey of 918 transgender conducted in 2016 by the State Literacy Mission under the Government of Kerala found that almost 50% earned an income of less than Rs.1000, and as many as 20.35% were unemployed. Almost 14% of the group surveyed were either illiterate or had dropped out by class seven.
Grace Banu from Tamil Nadu said "Without reservation, we have no opportunities. No one is ready to offer us the chance to work,” anti-caste trans-activist Grace Banu addressed the crowd. Grace is the founder of the Trans Rights Now Collective and was the first trans-person in Tamil Nadu to get admission in an engineering college in 2014.
Another problem the transgender community highlighted was the bill’s insistence on keeping the transgender persons with either their families or in rehabilitation homes.
“I knew I was male when I was in the second grade. I liked male things,” said 35-year old Saransh Pathak. But, Saransh didn’t realize what these impulses were till he was 17-years old. “It’s been ten years since I’ve been trying to explain it to my family. It became very difficult to live at home. I have had to stay away for some time. They thought this was a phase but it wasn’t, I couldn’t tell them that,” he said.
Members of the trans-community are often forced to flee their homes to escape mental and physical abuse at the hands of their families. Many of them find their way to gharanas, which are essentially communities of transgender persons.
These hijra communities follow a strict hierarchy with a Naayak as the primary decision maker, followed by a number of gurus (literal translation is teacher) who then have many chelas (disciples) below them. The gurus in these gharanas initiate a person into the network. Essentially, these gharanas become a place of refuge, an almost non-biological family for innumerable transgenders who face social exclusion.
The bill however, restricts the definition of a family to a group of people “related by blood or marriage or by adoption made in accordance with law.”
Members of various gharanas from Delhi, West Bengal and Telangana were present at the protest.
“From childhood to adulthood to old age, no one ever asked up if we had eaten (no one ever cared). This ancient tradition that taught us to breathe and live of guru-chela cannot be forbidden by the government“, Aparna Banerjee told the crowd in her impassioned speech.
The meeting was also attended by several members of the parliament, namely Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’ Brien and Kakoli Ghosh, Congress’ Amee Yagnik and Rajeev Gowda, CPI (M)'s Elamaram Kareem and DMK’s Tiruchi Siva.
It was Tiruchi Siva who had introduced the first ever legislation regarding transgender rights in the country, only a few months after the landmark Supreme Court judgement that declared the right to identify as either "male", "female" or "third gender"
The Rights of Transgender Bill, 2014 that followed from Siva’s Private Member bill contained provisions for reservations in jobs, unemployment allowances and protection against discrimination in workplace,
The bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2015, but was never tabled in the Lok Sabha.
Meanwhile, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister of the Bhartiya Janata Party led government, Thaawar Chand Gehlot introduced the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill.
Although, the house is not allowed to take up bill which contain topics that are similar to a pre-existing bill, it was argued that the 2016 bill was addressing very different issues.
“The government bill is a totally diluted one and is not an alternate to my bill,” Siva told News18 shortly after addressing the crowd.
Listing the provisions for jobs, statutory commission which the earlier Rajya Sabha bill includes, Siva rued, “ Instead of serving or addressing the issues which are concerned about the community it is trying to criminalise the people.” He blamed the government for intentionally leaving the 2014 bill pending, saying that it was a result of their ego.
The drums had started to sound by now, trans-women were coming together in a circle. They flayed their hands and swung their hips with a kind of gaiety, markedly different from the angered, sombered air that had filled the gaps between the speeches earlier.