Decision of Anannyah Kumari Alex, the first transgender person to contest an assembly election in Kerala, to withdraw from the election on account of harassment made national news. There are many reasons for the same. There are only a handful of politicians in India who openly identify as transgender or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Amongst them, only a few have contested elections and till now, queer issues remain neglected in Indian elections.
West Bengal Assembly elections of 2021 continues to be full of drama. Poll violence, misogynist comments, movie stars joining politics – all these are becoming news headlines and social media topics almost every single day of this long 8-phase election period. In the midst of all these, news around LGBTQIA+ issues managed to create some buzz too.
It started when the political parties started bringing out their elections manifestoes. The CPI(M) shared a draft manifesto in their website and asked for comments and suggestions on the same. It mentioned one line on transgender people and many LGBTQIA+ members within the activist spaces and outside showed keen interest to send their suggestions hoping more nuanced understanding of queer issues will be incorporated in same. However, the final draft of the manifesto incorporated one or two new words without incorporating any detailed suggestions.
The BJP too included few lines on queer issues in their manifesto saying they will start gender sensitive training focusing on transgender people’s rights and set up cells to combat sexual harassment of persons from LGBTQ+ community. The Trinamool Congress party’s manifesto, however, disappointed the queer community by remaining completely silent on the same.
Meanwhile a coalition of organisations, individuals, and allies working on issues relevant to the Gender and Sexual Minority (GSM) Rights across West Bengal released the Bengal Trans and Queer Charter of Demands which included demands related to education, healthcare, livelihood, civil and political rights, protection from violence and discrimination etc. Three press conferences were organised by this collective: one in Kolkata and two others at Siliguri and Berhampur. This collective draft jointly created by 21 LGBTQIA+ organisations will be used for advocacy purposes with political parties beyond the current assembly elections. However, the timing of the release of this document selected was the duration of the 8 phase West Bengal elections.
Meanwhile, a meeting was organised where election candidates from CPI(M) party could interact with people from the LGBTQIA community. #LeftForRainbow was the hashtag used to sent out the invite via social media. Though many queer people thought this meeting was hastily called just before elections by a political party that did little work for them, the turnout of participants was quite good. Not just participants from Kolkata, community members from districts like Nadia, Hooghly, Cooch Behar, Howrah were also present in this meeting. It was obvious that CPI(M) was taking this meeting seriously – as many as eight of the candidates were present in this meet and the presence of senior leaders of the party other than these candidates were also noted. Around 30 community members got a chance to speak and interact with the candidates even though many more were keen to take part in it. At the end of this three-hour long meeting, some community members sent hand-written notes for the party contestants as there was no time left for interactions.
The comments from community members in this meeting were varied. Many expressed that it’s a worthwhile effort by CPI(M), though taken up “too late”. Many said they were unhappy that the West Bengal Transgender Board is headed by a cis-woman at present and sought intervention about it. Though some community members said they got relief materials during the lockdown from political parties, it was not adequate. One trans man asked if CPI(M) built a separate toilet for them at the meeting venue which is owned by the party or any of its offices.
Complaints, apprehensions, yet keenness to start a new kind of mass-movement moving away from NGO model – all these were spelt out by community members. The party members on the other hand, said, they came there to learn. They also assured these interactions will not end post elections. The thing that struck me during this meeting is though there were many layers of discussions, when a transgender person talked about how they feel the threat of the CAA and NRC as most of them do not possess proper documents, the CPI(M) candidates, though not all of them were speakers, related to it instantly.
A one-off meeting like this may not bring much required changes in the mindset of any political party. Sustained and active dialogue needs to take place so that LGBTQIA+ people get the attention that they never got from any political party. CPI(M) released many songs during this election phase. One of them, namely, Banglar Meyeder Gaan (Songs of women of Bengal), included dance movements of a trans woman. As soon as the party’s West Bengal Secretary shared it on his Facebook account, people started abusing him, making transphobic comments such as asking him to come out in street, wearing a saree, clapping hands and beg for votes. In such kind of milieu, that one party tried to start a dialogue remains important.
Interestingly, an organisation called Madhya Bangla Sangram wrote to the election commission demanding that apart from men and women based segregations, there should be another queue at election booths for transgender people. Whether the Commission will accept their demand is a question time can answer. One can only hope political will towards this marginalised community gains more ground and queer politicians (either elected or otherwise) do not remain as rare as now in the near future.
Featured image source: The Economic Times