The year 2019 has started on a high note for one community of transgender persons at a time when many are anxiously biting their nails over their fate as citizens. Passed in the Lok Sabha, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 8 January.
On Sunday, Kinnar Akhada took their very first Devatva yatra on the streets of the recently renamed Prayagraj (Allahabad). For the first time in history, Kinnar saints of the Vedic Sanatan Dharma have been given a space at the Maha Kumbh mela this year.
Historical Apathy Towards LGBTQ+ Community
In India, governments of all hues – whether colonial, Congress or the BJP – have been ‘less than keen’ to legislate rights for the LGBTQIA+ communities. While the Congress makes the right noises to reinforce their ‘progressive’ values, they showed little muscle when in power. Even governments in states like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have approached the matter only through welfare schemes.
But the times are a-changing. In 2016, BJP’s ideological parent body, the RSS, amended its stance on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, in favour of decriminalisation of same sex relations .
Recently though, while responding to the Supreme Court hearing of the curative petitions against Section 377, BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy said “homosexuality was against Hindutva”. When the act got decriminalised, there was little acknowledgment from the party.
Comparatively, they have taken a more accepting (albeit patronising) view of transgender communities, particularly the Hijras. And in doing so, found a friend in Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.
Lakshmi’s Journey: From Diva to High Priestess
Tripathi has been one of the most enduring faces and voices of the transgender rights movement in India. From starting her own dance school in Mumbai, she quickly rose up the ranks in the entertainment industry – initially as a model coordinator, then as a choreographer, before appearing in a few films herself. She was a star feature in Mumbai’s popular dance bars until the government shutdown in 2005, which paved the way for her activism for the rights of sex workers, particularly those from the transgender community.
As she got involved with the movement against the criminalisation of same sex acts in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, her identification as a Hijra/Kinnar was reinforced into her public persona.
From the first transgender South Asia representative in the United Nations, to a contestant in the popular reality TV show Big Boss, and then as a petitioner in the SC case recognising the ‘third gender’, her journey has taken a more religious turn of late.
In 2016, Tripathi became the first Mahamandaleshwar Acharya (‘High Priestess’) of the Kinnar Akhada. The 13 akhadas of saints, collectively called the Akhil Bhartiya Akhada Parishad (ABAP), have not yet accepted them into their council. However, the Ujjain-based akhada, namely the Akhil Bhartiya Sant Samiti (ABSS), was the first to fight the male hegemony by inviting the Kinnar Akhada for their annual meeting in New Delhi in November 2018.
Laxmi’s Support for Ram Mandir
It was at this meeting that Tripathi’s endorsement for Ram Mandir in Ayodhya made headlines, and drew much ire from sections of the community. The statement signed by more than 183 LGBTQIA+ individuals, and 20 groups said that her position “negates the politics of communal harmony espoused by Hijras and Kinnars, who have historically maintained a syncretic faith of belonging to both Hinduism and Islam”.
Speaking to The Quint, from Prayagraj, where she led the yatra, Tripathi rubbished allegations of being a ‘BJP sanghi’. “My support for the Ram Mandir is in keeping with my faith in the Hindu Sanatan Dharma. I have always engaged with all governments and have closely interacted with the Congress when they were in power,” she said.
Concerns Regarding State Control, Pathologization of Trans People
In 2016, the government disregarded the private member’s Rights of Transgender Persons Bill 2014 passed in the Rajya Sabha a year ago, and introduced their own Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) bill in the lower house. Although it received quick approval from the Cabinet, the bill was sent to a Standing Committee after protests erupted.
Activists and members of the community criticised the bill for its problematic language (‘neither wholly male nor wholly female’ while defining a transgender person).
On 17 December, the bill was passed with 27 amendments leaving out several recommendations that were made by Opposition parliamentarians. Activists are worried that if the bill passes, it will lead to “massive State control and large-scale pathologisation of trans, intersex and gender non-conforming bodies”, among other concerns. The trans, gender non-conforming, intersex solidarity group says that the application to a district screening committee for transgender status, and the need for sexual reassignment surgery for male/female sex, violates their fundamental rights and the NALSA judgment (self identification).
Backlash Against Laxmi
Tripathi lamented the 2018 bill for not recognising the traditional family structures of the Hijra Gharanas. However, with regard to the criminalising of transgender persons found to be begging, she added, “Union Minister Thaawarchand Gehlot has assured me that since voluntary begging is not criminalised, transgender persons will not be affected. We have asked for a circular clarifying this.”
A well-placed official at the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment told The Quint that there was no opposition from Tripathi during the consultation by the Standing Committee on the bill. “When the committee flew down to Mumbai, she seemed more interested in talking about herself than the community,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
However, transgender activist of the ‘Vicks ad’ fame, Gauri Sawant, says the committee did not listen to the community intently. “Only by consulting Laxmi, they can’t say they’ve done their job. They should have spoken to all the senior gurus of the gharanas. Many of us were not even allowed to interact with them,” Sawant told The Quint.
Tripathi told The Quint that “the minister did not seem interested during the consultation,” she had praised him for introducing the bill at the Indic Thoughts Festival, organised by the right-wing think tank, India Foundation.
“Laxmi Has Compromised Fight for Rights”
Several activists, however, believe that Laxmi has compromised the fight for rights and civil liberties in favour of acceptance within the Hindu fold. Theatre artist Living Smile Vidya disagrees with her approach of ascribing ‘unnecessary values’ of being a Hijra. “If you are connecting identity with religion, then you’re getting distracted from the core issues. You’re denying the fact that we’re just as normal as any cis (heteronormative) person,” she told The Quint. “It doesn’t really help us if they only see us as mythological beings”.
Founder of All Manipur Nupi Manbi Association, Santa Khurai says that Tripathi’s framing of transwomen as a Hindu monolith excludes those that come from indigenous cultures. But can Tripathi’s stance on the Ram temple just be seen as hers alone?
“Say, I believe in self-determination and don’t support national integration. But my position doesn’t harm anyone. Hers (Laxmi’s) puts many trans community members at risk,” Khurai said.
RSS’s Take On Trans Rights & Bill
Lawyer and RSS spokesperson, Raghav Awasthi says that the Sangh would support any positive measures by the government for their welfare, and the bill upholding the NALSA judgment in its full spirit. “Even if members of the transgender community do not support the Ram Mandir, it has no bearing on the legislative measures for their welfare or the effectuation of their rights,” he told The Quint.
Refusing to offer any comments on the specific legislative measures, he said, those were “left to the government and the community”.
The trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex solidarity groups, however, disagree, saying Laxmi’s stance on the Ram Mandir has had no impact on the movement since ‘she does not represent them’. “A largely media-driven presence of any single individual should not be mistaken for their significance to a collective and nationwide movement”.
Laxmi’s Support Remains With Trans Community
On many forums and stages, Tripathi has stressed on social acceptance, before laws and legislative measures could be found effectively working for the LGBTQIA+ community. Tripathi’s religious posturing certainly seems to be an effort in that direction. But her Ram Mandir stance has fueled long held speculations of joining politics on a BJP ticket as the next step in her illustrious career.
However, on the bill, she maintains that her support is with the transgender community. “If this bill passes in Rajya Sabha, we will go to the Supreme Court”.
(Makepeace Sitlhou is a writer and journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. She tweets at @makesyoucakes. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)