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Posted by Josephine Varghese

The 25-year-old Ashwathi Rajappan, or Chinju to their friends and family, is the first openly intersex candidate contesting in the Lok Sabha elections. They have filed their nomination from Ernakulam constituency where a high profile contest between major parties, the Indian National Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist), is underway. This is a historic moment for queer-Dalit visibility and representation in India.  

Chinju is well-known among the LGBTIQIA+ and human rights community in Kerala and a vocal Dalit activist who advocates for an intersectional understanding of marginalities. They have been an active part of Sahayathrika, an LBT welfare organisation based in Thrissur and I had heard a lot about their work. It was at the 2016 Chennai pride march that I first met them. Pride marches do play the important role of bringing the queer community and allies together, providing an opportunity to bond and network – at both professional and personal levels. I met Chinju as we marched proudly through the streets of Chennai, chanting, dancing and waving the rainbow flag. Chinju’s political articulation left an indelible mark on me. I was thrilled to receive the news of Chinju’s candidacy. I managed to squeeze some time out of their busy schedule to ask a few questions over a video call.

Josephine Varghese: This is a landmark moment for queer-Dalit politics in India. Congratulations. Can you talk about the circumstance that led you to decide to stand for elections?

Ashwathi Rajappan: So, it starts with transgender policies in the state and at the centre. The Kerala State Transgender Policy (2015) recognises self-identification of gender, and validates other gender identities outside what is traditionally understood as ‘transgender’. However, it does not touch upon the specific challenges faced by intersex people, most importantly intersex children and infants. And the policy has failed to create adequate support and safeguards for the larger gender-minority community. Despite the introduction of this policy, trans-people are still highly marginalised and discriminated against. Think about the recent murder of transwoman Shalu and the response from the public and politicians/authorities to it.

I belong to a very marginalised community that gets little visibility in Indian politics. I am intersex, A transgender Person and Dalit.

At the national level, when the Transgender Persons (Protection Of Rights) Bill 2016 was being discussed, I went to Delhi to present my position before the parliamentary committee. After the presentation, the committee MPs interacted with me in dehumanising and humiliating ways, asking questions such as “Do you have sexual desires?” and “Can you satisfy a woman?”. These are the MPs representing Indian citizens – drafting law and policy – and this is their level of respect for the trans and intersex community. I decided that this had to change.

See, I belong to a very marginalised community that gets little visibility in Indian politics. I am intersex, a transgender person, and Dalit. In my school and college, I presented as a girl, but now I am gender non-conforming. I believe India cannot progress without addressing the issues of its most marginalised and stigmatised communities, such as my own. We are invisible and I feel if I, with my education and experience, do not do anything about this, I would be letting down my entire community. So when the community suggested it, I decided to contest elections.

JV: You have been an activist for the LGBTIQIA+ community for many years now. When and why did you decide to become an open, visible activist for the community?

AR: Ever since I started using social media, I had been looking for people like me, but I couldn’t find any groups or communities. I did, however, find organisations such as Queerala [an LGBTIQIA+ advocacy and support group].

When I was 22 my cousin sister attended a workshop by Sahayatrika, where she was introduced to the term ‘intersex’ for the first time. Instantly she remembered me, and discussed this with me when she got back. I was on the verge of suicide back then. She advised that I go and meet with Rekha Raj, an intersectional feminist, Dalit intellectual and activist who was then based in Kottayam. I travelled to meet her and took part in the Dalit feminist meet up that she was leading, which was an eye-opening event for me. After the event, I stayed back to talk with her, and we talked the entire evening. I felt safe to open up for the first time, and I cried. I became aware of the possibility of self-identification of gender. This was a liberating experience for me. Rekha Raj played an important role in providing strength and support during that time, and thereafter.

My politics, as I mentioned before, is a queer-Ambedkarite politics, which includes a focus on both social and economic issues and understands how these overlap.

I must also mention the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) for my awareness of Dalit politics and other everyday practical soft skills such as self-esteem, English education and smart dressing. I am an Ambedkarite. I believe in the principle ‘educate, agitate, organise’. I am able to access information and opportunities through my education (Chinju holds a bachelor’s degree in electronics). I realise that many intersex people before me, have lived and died without being able to understand their body, identity and place in society. I realise that there are many in that situation currently, and many more yet to be born. I recognise that I have a responsibility towards them. And that is why I joined Sahayathrika for human rights as a program coordinator in 2015. In 2016 February, I came out as intersex at a public event in Kochi, and there has been no turning back. I have engaged myself in grassroots work for the queer community across Kerala, and in many parts of India.

JV: There is a chronic lack of awareness about intersex not only in the general society, but also in the medical community. Doctors are often the ones who mislead families into conducting surgeries on perfectly healthy intersex babies to ‘fix’ them, based on their own determination of the infant’s future gender expression. In such a climate, your parents and family were supportive of you throughout your journey. How important is it for LGBTIQIA+ individuals to get support from family?

AR: My parents’ political consciousness has been a strength throughout my journey. When I was born, 4 out of 5 doctors recommended surgery. My mother’s insight at that time was so crucial. She decided to go by the advice of that one doctor who recommended no surgery. I had a gender-neutral upbringing. My mother called all three of her children – me, my brother and my sister – the same, ‘mone’ (‘beta’ in Hindi). When I suggested that I be called ‘Ashwathi’ instead of the original name given to me, ‘Reshmi’, my aunt supported me, telling my mother Ashwathi was a good name, and that if I grew up wanting to be a man, I could change it easily to Ashok. My aunt is no more [tears up]. I am thankful to her and my parents for their wisdom. When I came out in 2016, my family was supportive of that decision too, and continue to support me- my candidacy and activism.

JV: How do you define your politics? What are the principles you are foregrounding in your bid to become a Member of Parliament?

AR: When one files the nomination, one is supposed to have 10 signatories in the application. In my case, the list of signatories include a differently abled person, a senior citizen, homosexual and bisexual individuals, trans individuals and Dalits. It wasn’t planned that way, but it is a cross-section of the community that supports and encourages me. This demonstrates the politics I represent – it is one that seeks to bring to the forefront the issues of those who are the least visible. To bring to the table the issues concerning the long-marginalised communities who get overlooked during elections.

My politics, as I mentioned before, is a queer-Ambedkarite politics, which includes a focus on both social and economic issues and understands how these overlap. I would like to raise issues of the disenfranchised. For instance, why are there so many colonies of predominantly poor, Dalit people in Ernakulam city, in crowded, low lying areas prone to flooding and pollution? Why do we have so many Dalit colonies? Clearly, the ‘growth’ and ‘development’ has not reached them. Who is this growth for, then?

The police has the responsibility to implement the transgender policy. And that very police is seen harassing trans people and vowing to make Ernakulam a transgender people-free city. Why is no elected representative questioning this contradiction?

JV: What, according to you, are the biggest challenges facing youth in India?

AR: I think the challenges are still fundamental. If you look at the state of marginalised youth, the biggest challenges are still the very basics- access to food, shelter, education, healthcare and dignity in society. Think about the young people who have been murdered in Kerala in recent times. Vinayakan, a Dalit youth was murdered. Kevin was murdered in a so-called honour killing. Shalu, a trans woman was murdered. We need to see the common factors in all these murders. They point to a larger pattern, which needs to be recognised and stopped.

JV: Can you summarise in a couple of points why voters in the Ernakulam constituency should elect you.

AR: I urge voters to carefully consider my body of work, as a queer-Dalit activist. I am not a newcomer to politics. I was active in student politics during college, where I was elected as the women’s representative, and set up many important programmes for the welfare of woman students. I urge voters to compare my credentials- education, politics and activist work with those of my opponents.

Finally, I believe that our generation has witnessed an unprecedented revolution, the IT revolution, in our time. All people should be able to access the benefits of this. As a graduate in electronics, I am hopeful in the potential of technology to solve many challenges we face, and that is why I have chosen the laptop as my election symbol.

Do consider voting for Ashwathi Rajappan and look out for the laptop symbol.

Also read: ‘It Is A Matter Of Right And Not A Matter Of Favour’: In Conversation With Dr. Ranjana Kumari On The Women’s Reservation Bill


FII thanks Ashwathi Rajappan for taking out time to do the interview and we wish them the very best!

The interview was conducted in Malayalam and has been translated into English by the author.

Josephine Varghese is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury. She serves on the advisory board of Queerala. She can be reached at josephinevm@gmail.com

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