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Poll boycott

Murali Krishnan, New DelhiMarch 26, 2014

Most members of India's transgender community are not keen on voting in the upcoming parliamentary elections despite winning the right to vote. Activists say this reflects their lack of trust in the electoral system.

Indian transgender people (Photo: Murali Krishnan/DW)
Image: DW/M. Krishnan

The election fever is high in India these days with various political parties and their candidates trying to reach out to voters ahead of parliamentary elections due in April-May. But Sanjana, a 25-year-old transgender, seems uninterested in the campaign.

"Our existence hardly matters to these politicians," Sanjana told DW. "I recently got a voting card, but I won't participate in the elections. And why should I? Has any political party done anything for us in all these years?" asked Sanjana.

Mallika D' Souza, another Indian transgender, shares Sanjana's views. D' Souza has decided to boycott the polls despite being actively wooed by political parties.

"They want our votes, but do nothing to solve our problems. At the time of elections, these political parties come running to us. We want everyone to recognize and respect our identity first," D' Souza told DW.

Indian transgender (Photo: Murali Krishnan/DW)
Activists say transgender people face social and economic discrimination in IndiaImage: DW/M. Krishnan

A landmark decision

Sanjana and D' Souza are members of India's three-million-strong transgender community called "hijras" in the Hindi language. The term is loosely used for transgender men and women, eunuchs, transvestites, and also for natural intersex people and male cross-dressers. Most of these people are either sex workers or beggars.

In 2011, the Indian election commission decided to allow the transgender people to vote in general elections as a separate group and they are expected to cast their ballots for the first time in the upcoming polls. But election officials say only a handful of them have enrolled in the 'others' category on ballot papers.

"This is not encouraging. We have done our best to go to these people and register them for polls but they don't seem very interested," a senior election commission official told DW on condition of anonymity.

Poll apathy

Activists say a lack of interest in the elections reflects the community's anger at a system which has never treated them as equal citizens and deprived them of a dignified life.

"Transgender people continue to live on the margins of society and are constantly harassed by the police. Also, it seems as if the community means nothing to political parties, probably because of their small population," Anjan Joshi, who works for the non-governmental Society for Peoples' Awareness, Care and Empowerment organization, told DW.

The transgender people's indifference to the elections also stems from the fact that their interests are not reflected in the manifestos of the mainstream political parties. "If we don't figure in their agenda, why should we bother voting for them?" said Flora, another member of the community.

Anti-gay law

Transgender people are also upset about last year's Supreme Court decision which reinstated a British colonial era law banning gay sex. The transgender people say the controversial law exposes them again to police harassment and further ostracizes them.

Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear masks of Gujarat state Chief Minister and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, as they travel in a bus towards the airport to receive him in Mumbai on September 30, 2013 (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian transgender community does not want to see the BJP in powerImage: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Many of them also fear their problems will aggravate should the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power. The BJP supported the apex court's ruling.

"Gay sex is unnatural. We cannot allow it in India," said BJP Vice President, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

In 2002, Shabnam Mausi became the first "third sex" Indian to be elected to the Madhya Pradesh state assembly. But Mausi's story has clearly not restored the Indian transgender people's faith in politics and the electoral system. Activists believe there is a lot more to be done by the government and politicians to win their trust and votes.