“Democracy in India,” B.R. Ambedkar had noted in a speech in the constituent assembly, “is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.” The prescient quality of Ambedkar’s observation was underscored, yet again, by the Election Commission when it published data related to the general elections. The figures show that in an electorate comprising 81.5 crore members, there are only 28,314 transgendered voters. In 2011, transgendered people were accorded a separate category in the census. Yet, of the estimated 500,000 transgendered people, only a few thousand have voting rights.
India’s undemocratic disposition that Ambedkar alluded to indicates failures in two crucial aspects. First, one of the pivots of a democratic set-up is equitable political representation across creed, caste and community. The electoral insignificance of India’s sexual minorities provides ample evidence of a persistent faultline in this respect. Second, even in a democracy characterized by selective, and not universal, representation, the onus of securing the rights for marginalized communities should lie with the segments that have been granted political representation. In India, majoritarian groups of every conceivable order — Hindu, Brahmin, affluent, male, heterosexual, and so on— have denied not just sexual minorities but every other underprivileged group their fundamental rights. The discrimination against sexual minorities is attributed to a myriad reasons: the colonial experience that led to collective puritanism and apathy towards such universal rights as freedom and equality. But the moorings of the prejudice can be traced to a society’s anxiety with ambiguity and deviance.
Two unedifying inferences can be drawn on the basis of the political invisibility of sexual minorities. If universal adult franchise, as opposed to institutional enumeration, is considered to be an attestation of citizenship, sexual minorities continue to remain Stateless entities in democratic India. There is also a direct, and disturbing, correlation between political emancipation and numerical strength in the Indian context. An electorate basket of merely 30,000 votes of the transgendered community is unlikely to force parties to adopt an inclusive political charter.
Ironically, the queer movement in India appears divided when it comes to widening the scope of political participation of sexual minorities. Some activists point out that electing transgendered politicians — Shabnam Mausi won the assembly elections from Madhya Pradesh’s Sohagpur — is not enough to fight entrenched discrimination. The path to equality lies through sustained sensitization of State institutions. They point out that their campaigns with the police, civil society, educational institutions and employers are setting small, but significant, precedents. India has had its first transgendered television host; some multinational organizations are recruiting LGBT members as well.
But political representation is imperative to not just sensitize the State but also bring about meaningful interventions from sexual minorities at the policy level. The State remains ignorant of the layered nature of the LGBT community and of its distinct, but seemingly overlapping, needs. State policy remains obsessed with viewing welfare for sexual minorities within the prism of health, employment, and crime.
Political representation could also widen the scope of debate and dissent within the LGBT community itself. For instance, the near absence of the voice of intersexed people — the ‘I’ seems to have dropped off from the acronym, LGBT(I), in India unlike in Nepal — remains unacknowledged.