The ‘third sex’ – ready to vote, but want better lives

New Delhi, April 15 (Inditop) Twirling a lock of his shoulder-length hair, Suleiman (name changed) who goes by the name Sulekha stared at a pocket mirror. Checking the lipstick shade twice over, he sighed: “I want to vote – but what good will it do to me? How will it help my community?”.

Sulekha is a eunuch from Seelampur in east Delhi. He is one of the 7,000-odd eunuchs in the capital.

“I do not have a voter card. How can I when I don’t even know my identity? There is nothing that can be done for me or my kind,” he said.

His friend and fellow eunuch Mangala (Mangal), a peer-outreach officer with NGO Sahara’s transgender project, cut in: “What do you mean? We are a part of society!”

Mangala has a voter’s identity card, a ration card.

“Of course the card’s in my male name. In fact when I was waiting in queue to submit my forms last year, there was this man at the counter who quizzed me about my sex. I guess he wasn’t satisfied with my response after he saw my effeminate ways. I assured him that I was indeed a hijra (eunuch) – and that he should do his job and mind his own business,” he said.

Mangala is enthusiastic about voting, and urges fellow community members to vote.

Eunuchs were given voting rights in 1994. Shabnam Mausi was the first eunuch elected from the Sohagpur constituency in Madhya Pradesh in 1998. Her success story as a legislator has inspired many to take up politics and participate in ‘mainstream activities’ in India, giving up their traditional roles as dancers, prostitutes, and beggars, living on the fringes of Indian society.

Several eunuchs have entered the poll fray this time. The All Orissa Eunuchs’ Association is fielding candidates to challenge veteran Congress leader J.B. Patnaik and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Biswabhusan Harichandan. BJP president Rajnath Singh will have Daya Haji Kinnar, a 45-year-old eunuch, as one of his rivals in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Although there is no official data on the number of eunuchs in India, it is estimated that there are 1.2 million of them.

Most of them are either illiterate or semi-literate. At present, Tamil Nadu, which has the highest number of eunuchs, is the only state to recognise eunuchs as a separate sex.

“They need representation in the government, in decision-making to make progress in society; else they will continue to rot on the margins of society – abused and undermined,” said Malti Mehra, who has been heading the transgender community project for Sahara for the past eight years.

Eunuchs want policies that acknowledge their existence, protect them from police harassment, provide health checks in hospitals where they are often denied entry and give job opportunities to them.

Most of them complain of being falsely implicated in crimes and harassed by the police.

“As if people aren’t uncomfortable with our community already. These allegations and implications give us a bad name. We want this to stop,” said Ankita, a eunuch from Kanpur.

“As a community it is difficult to get jobs that suit us. I would like to get more opportunities and maybe some sort of vocational training – based on that I will vote,” said Ankita.

A group of eunuchs had moved the Supreme Court on Jan 20, seeking their right to education, social and political rehabilitation. The petition filed by Sonam Singh, a eunuch from Ajmer, sought direction to the union government to constitute a National Kinnar Ayog or commission on the lines of those for dalits, tribals, minorities and women.

In February the apex court dismissed the plea and directed Singh and her counsel to approach the home ministry, where the matter is ‘under consideration’.

Sonam Singh regretted that the Election Commission has never considered the eunuchs a third gender.

“It is curious that political parties have no clear stand on the issue. The welfare of this million plus community is not looked into – even as an election issue. We hope that after the elections at least there is some action to institute a commission on the lines we suggested. Else we will approach the apex court again,” said Sonam Singh’s lawyer Vishwanath Chaturvedi.