‘Govt Has Abandoned Us’: How Are Kashmir’s Trans People Coping?
Since the revocation of Article 370 in J&K and then the COVID lockdown in 2020, the trans community has suffered.
‘Narre tchatten ti zang watten” – a Kashmiri proverb which means to live or fulfil your needs with a meagre sum of money – is how 44-year-old transgender person Shabnam Subhan from downtown Srinagar survived the one year of lockdown in Kashmir since August 2019.
Subhan said that she has not faced such difficult times in her 25-year-old profession of matchmaking. The situation has only gotten worse over the past year for the entire transgender community of Kashmir.
“It’s very difficult to run the house and make ends meet because of the situation here in Kashmir since 5 August 2019 and then the COVID-19 lockdown,” Subhan told The Quint.
On 5 August 2019, the Government of India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two union territories — Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. Fearing protests, the government imposed a military and communication lockdown. The lockdown continued for several months, severely crippling the region’s economy. Low wage daily workers and small-scale businessmen were among the worst hit.
‘Our Families Have Rejected Us And We Have Nowhere To Go’
For the transgender community, the 5 August lockdown coincided with the marriage season. The community has been without work since the past one year, and the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown has added to their economic burden.
For their livelihood, the community largely depends on arranging marriages (locally known as mazemyaraz) and singing and dancing at weddings.
Subhan said that over the last one year of lockdown, she was only able to arrange only a few weddings, which is not enough to run her household.
Subhan hails from North Kashmir’s Sopore area, some 50 kilometres away from the summer capital of Srinagar.
She had to leave home over two decades ago as her family refused to accept her transgender identity.
She now lives in Srinagar’s Basant Bagh area and works with other transgenders in the city on a partnership basis.
“I shifted to Srinagar and got together with the transgender community who helped me to earn a living,” she said.
Subhan, along with other members of her community, work in the matchmaking business, and perform in marriage ceremonies by singing local Kashmiri songs.
She says they would earn good sums of money and live a decent life in normal times.
But the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent lockdown in Kashmir came as a big blow to them.
Subhan said that since 5 August 2019, many transgenders have been sitting idle at their rented lodgings, and many have been suffering from depression due to lack of work.
“Our family members have rejected us and we have nowhere to go. The ongoing lockdown is taking a toll on our mental health,” Subhan told The Quint.
‘Where Will We Go If We Get COVID? Who Will Look After Us?’
The transgender community in Kashmir feel dejected and demoralised by society. They say complain of not enjoying basic human rights and say that the government has done little for their welfare and upliftment.
“You won’t find a single member of the transgender community working in government departments, ” says Babloo, 46, another transperson from Dalgate area of Srinagar.
The newly-created UT administration, on 28 May 2020, accorded sanction to the extension of coverage of J&K Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS) to transgenders, by including them as beneficiaries under the scheme.
Under the scheme, a monthly financial assistance of Rs 1000 is provided to destitutes, the elderly, widows, divorcees, orphans and orthopedically-challenged persons who either have a meagre income or no source of livelihood.
However, the transgender persons said that Rs 1000 was too little for them to sustain themselves and wouldn’t cover even the bare minimum.
“What can we buy for Rs 1000?” questioned Babloo, adding that the government should increase the monthly financial assistance to at least Rs 7000.
Sahiba, 27, another transperson from Srinagar, stated that the government has ‘abandoned’ them and that they feel completely isolated.
The transpeople expressed apprehensions that if any of them contracted COVID, no one would take care of them.
“Where will we go?” they worry.
“We don’t know anyone in hospitals and how to approach them. These things are out of our hands and most of the time people don’t take us seriously and we are being discriminated against at hospitals too,” Sahiba told The Quint.
‘No Basic Education For Transgender People’
Transpeople often face discrimination while accessing health care; they are called names and even bullied.
“In a place like Kashmir, which is a conflict zone, there is no place, space or room for these (transgenders) people. Politics and conflict has dominated everything,” said Dr Fowzia Afaq, a researcher and lecturer from north Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
Afaq says society needs to accept them and believe that they (transgenders) are part of the mainstream.
Afaq says in Kashmir, transpeople only work as matchmakers and perform at weddings.
“They haven’t been encouraged to educate themselves and work in the government sector,” she added.
“You don’t have any transgender option while submitting forms in higher education; they don’t get even primary education in the first place,” Afaq said.
The months of July to November are considered to be the peak season for weddings in Kashmir, given the pleasant weather conditions.
The matchmakers said that they had lost two consecutive seasons of work – first due to the abrogation of Article 370, and then due to the COVID lockdown.
The matchmakers said that they need to travel to different places to fix marriages. The use of mobile phones remains the most important means of communication for them. However, since the revocation of Article 370, the government imposed a complete blockade of communication with a total media blackout for months, leaving them in distress.
Babloo, a trans person, however said that some people came forward to help them survive through the year, with food and other essentials.
“Everything got stuck — marriages, engagements and performances. We are living a miserable life now,” Babloo said.
The ‘Only Hope’ For Kashmir’s Trans People
Aijaz Ahmed Bund, an LGBTQ+ activist in Kashmir, who runs an NGO called Sonzal Welfare Trust to support gender and sexual minorities in Kashmir, is the “only hope for trans people”.
Since 2019, Bund has helped them with food and other essentials. He also raised money through crowd-funding to assist trans people during the lockdown.
Bund has extensively worked for the upliftment of transpeople in Kashmir. His first book about the transgender community titled ‘Hijras in Kashmir: A Marginalised Form of Personhood’ was published in 2017.
“We were able to cater to around 120 families of transpeople during lockdown. The target was more but unfortunately I had to suspend my operation,” Bund told The Quint.
In 2013, Bund approached the State Human Rights Commission with his plea. The case lingered on for the next four years without any results.
In June 2017, Aijaz moved a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The PIL seeks to create programmes ensuring social, economic, and political inclusion and rehabilitation for this community. It also seeks a provision of social security, including a monthly welfare fund, for transgender people.
“The PIL had many interim judgments as well but nothing was executed on the ground,” Bund told The Quint.
An Uncertain Future, Full Of Trials And Tribulations
On 5 September 2018, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court ordered a fresh census of transgender community in J&K. The court directed the state government to conduct a fresh census of transgenders in the state within a timeline, specifying their geographical distribution, so that they could be brought into the mainstream.
The directions were passed by a division bench of the court after the court was informed that as per the 2011 Census over 4000 transgender persons lived in Kashmir and faced marginalisation, and were disowned by their families.
For Subhan, Babloo, Sahiba and many others like them, the future is full of uncertainty, more trials and tribulations.
“What has been written in our fate, we shall meet it. But for the first time now, we are also feeling the heat of the Kashmir conflict,” Sahiba told The Quint.
(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist and tweets @AuqibJaveed. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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