It’s been nearly a month since at least a thousand transgender, intersex, and gender nonconfirming people came together at Parliament Street, the space in India’s capital in New Delhi where participatory democracy is exercised through numbers, by way of protests and non-violent pressure tactics. Last month’s congregation was to protest the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill of 2018, which had been introduced by the government of India, which, according to the country’s LGBTQ community, could possibly criminalize them instead of protecting them. Protests reverberated across the country in the previous weeks, and, the community, which has been largely discriminated against by most public institutions, continues to push back against the bill.
The transgender community has always been a part of Indian culture and society. According to the New York Times, eunuchs, who are called “hijras” in Hindi – which meant belonging to neither sex – had “served as sexless watchdogs of Mughal harems.” The sex transition would often be excruciating and sometimes lethal, in the absence of their recognition of their identity. Transgender people continue to be viewed with fear, suspicion, and ridicule. Some, like Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, have assumed a respectable status: She had appeared on one of the editions of the TV reality show “Bigg Boss.” Limited data on the estimated population of India’s transgender people has meant that there is an estimate of about 2 million individuals across the country, based on limited evidence.
Transgender people in India cheered in April 2014 when the Supreme Court of India allowed them to officially identify themselves as a third gender. This followed a directive to central and state governments to recognize them legally and to make provisions for them to access welfare schemes as well as extend reservations – a form of affirmative action – in educational institutions, public appointments, medical care, as well as to create separate public toilets. One could notice, slowly, the option for a third “other” when one’s gender has to be mentioned on various forms across various institutions.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment sought public input toward making a Rights of Transgender Persons Bill more inclusive; it had borrowed concepts from the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2013. This led to the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill of 2016, which was introduced in the Lower House of India’s Parliament, but was devoid of any suggestions from the transgender community. A revised version of the bill, which was passed in the Lower House, was the reason behind the large protest on Parliament Street on December 28, 2018, which was geared toward urging the Upper House of Parliament to refer it to a select committee for amendment before it could be passed and made into a law.
The protest against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill of 2018 is based on various provisions included in the Bill. It mandates that screening committees, comprising district heads, psychologists, psychiatrists, and one transperson, determine whether an applicant qualifies as transgender, and provides for recognition of a person as either man or woman only after mandatory sex reassignment surgery. According to several rights groups, such a process to prove one’s gender violates multiple fundamental rights.
Along with reneging on the 2014 Supreme Court verdict and the subsequent directive of affirmative action, the bill criminalizes begging, sex work, and other forms of livelihood that many transgender people depend on, thus further discriminating and criminalizing them. The discrimination further intensifies with the punishment for sexual violence against transgender people being limited to just two years; currently, the punishment for sexual assault against cisgender women is seven years of imprisonment.
Another way in which the bill stands as a threat to the Indian trans community is through its threat to their access to healthcare. It directs the government to “set up separate human immunodeficiency virus sero-surveillance centres to conduct sero-serveillance for such persons.” According to public health expert Sylvia Karpagam, this measure of separate surveillance would further stigmatize the community, even as some groups are indeed at a higher risk of contracting HIV. “Any targeted intervention for a stigmatizing illness is archaic, traumatizes the individual and his or her family and shows the poor understanding of those who drafted the bill,” wrote Karpagam.
Additionally, the bill attempts to eliminate the unique kinship and bonds that operate within the transgender community, by defining a family as “a group of people related by blood or marriage or by adoption made in accordance with law.” For most transgender persons, the first site of discrimination, ostracism and violence is this idea of family itself.
Perhaps the injustice toward the trans community is best understood by the words of Saransh, a transgender person from Delhi, who had attended the protest in December. “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.”