India’s elections could seal the fate of its LGBT community—for better or for worse

Cause for celebration?
Cause for celebration?
Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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The Indian queer community has never been so invested and watchful of national politics as it is right now in the midst of the general elections.

Not only are a large number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, and allies (LGBTQA+) combing through party manifestos and posting online comments on them, many are even suggesting who to vote for and who not to.

These elections are historic for the community as it is the first time that queer people are contesting elections as independent candidates or on the ticket of a political party.

However, what has hogged the minds of the community at large, are manifestos—a search for a political party that claims it is ready to go the whole way in providing queer people with equity and equality. In other words, completing what is left to be done after the reading down of section 377 of the Indian penal code last year and the 2014 supreme court order on transgender rights providing them with fundamental rights—commonly referred to as the NALSA judgment.

BJP’s dubious record

In the context of queer rights, by just about any measure, the BJP has said little on what it would do other than empowering transgenders through policy initiatives such as skill development. Even this promise hardly cuts ice given how the party tried to push the Transgender Rights Bill which was trashed and opposed by those the government claimed were the beneficiaries!

Notably, as many point out, after the quashing of section 377, prime minister Narendra Modi, who commonly tweets on any “historic” order from the courts or development in the nation, remained silent. His party, instead, took over with some members expressing their aversion to civil rights—the next logical step for the community. No wonder, the government ignored and failed to build an awareness and sensitisation campaign around the verdict as stated in the judgment.

However, NALSA is where the BJP and all other parties seem to look the same—sluggish, if not reluctant. After all, till a few weeks ago, a handful of states had moved forward by setting up boards and drafting policies.

According to L Ramakrishnan of SAATHII—an organisation that works in the area of accessible health, rights and education for queer people and those discriminated due to their HIV status—states such as Chhattisgarh have initiated several measures, but are kinnar focused and therefore do not include the transgender community as a whole.

Kerala, Manipur, and Gujarat are the only states with boards that are inclusive of trans men and trans women. “Kerala, Karnataka and Odisha also have inclusive transgender policies, at least on paper, but a lot more needs to be done,” Ramakrishnan pointed out.

Tamil Nadu which was the first state to set up a transgender welfare board, way back in 2008, “remains problematic in its exclusion of trans men, and existence of verification procedures to ‘certify’ transgender identity,” he added.

Support for Congress

However, even as the principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, is guilty of laxity in the case of NALSA, it still tops the BJP in its promises and seems to have a growing support from the community. There are many reasons for that.

For one, it made references to the LGBTQ community in its 2014 manifesto and worked with the Naz Foundation to file a curative petition against the supreme court’s 2013 ruling criminalising homosexuality.

Then, in the past few months, the party has reached out to queer groups and individuals and now has visible activists such as Apsara Reddy and most recently, Harish Iyer, in its fold. They’ve followed that up with claims that they will implement NALSA and therefore will withdraw the contentious transgender bill and replace it with a bill drafted in consultation with the community.

The Congress has also said that gender sensitivity training will be imparted across government offices including the armed forces and the police.

However, the party falls short in committing to a larger social awareness campaign, partly mirroring the BJP’s silence.

Where the Congress is absolutely vague is in its implementation of the supreme court’s September 6, 2018 order decriminalising homosexuality.

“Effective implementation” of the order, as stated in the party’s manifesto, is a hollow term particularly since there is no reference to same-sex marriage, inheritance rights, anti-discriminatory laws and all that falls within civil rights and equity.

Ironically, the Congress had been very vocal and specific about these rights last July when the hearings began and later after the verdict.

Additionally, in the party’s “election song video”, the word “gay” has been erased from a placard from an LGBTQ protest, which originally said ‘I am gay, here to stay…’

The blank space was later filled with the word “nyay”, only a few days ago, a reference to the party’s proposed Nyuntam Aay Yojana scheme, which promises a minimum income to poor families, if it comes to power.

Supporters of the Congress believe that the ‘erasing’ of the word was merely to win votes, and that the party is, at its core, secular and inclusive.

But not everyone is buying that argument.

The Left’s promise

This is among the reasons why the Communist Party of India (Marxist) makes the Congress’ promises look wishy-washy.

The left party in its manifesto has sought to remove the lacunae in the current Transgender Bill. They’ve supported legal recognition to same-sex couples with similar rights to marriage and an anti-discriminatory bill covering LGBT.

They speak of crimes against queer people, treating them on par with crimes against anyone else and have included bullying and anti-ragging among the areas they would want to focus on. They’ve talked of inheritance rights besides health and safe bathrooms for transgenders.

The CPI (M) is said to have organised focus group meetings in different parts of the country, engaging in detail with the community. This may explain why their manifesto resonates with the demands of the queer community.

There was probably a hope among many to see a Trinamool Congress (TMC) come forward and spell out its agenda for LGBT. There was perhaps limited or no expectation from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Both of them have ignored the community altogether.

There are, of course, expectations from parties such as AAP which had once referred to LGBT in 2014 but forgot after coming to power in the state of Delhi.

One has to wait and see what the AAP manifesto will ultimately say.

Even as political parties have “displayed” their queer party workers, it ultimately comes down to the larger stage of national politics and, of course, where we stand as a visible vote bank and are monied enough (the ugly reality of politics) to throw influence.

According to the noted lawyer Anand Grover, who has worked on queer people’s rights since 2001, leading the Naz Foundation petition, “given the political scenario, the community may once again have to turn to the courts as groups or as individuals.” That may be the reality if the BJP returns to power or if the Congress leads a coalition that is not in synch with its manifesto.

The difference, however, some hope, is that the Congress may still step forward as it did after the December 2013 ruling that upheld article 377, even though it was part of a coalition.

If we vote for a party that has complete disregard for queer people’s rights, morally we can’t make them accountable for promises they haven’t made. After all, we would have supported their hate for us in any case. There are some supporting such a choice, believing it is a “sacrifice” (as said in many LGBTQ groups on Facebook) in the interest of the nation.

But really, are fundamental rights and the constitution—both which define the nation and our liberties—to be sacrificed? If one has such a belief, then the idea of the nation itself is under question and we are signing off to a path of silence and a censored, “abnormal” existence.

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