Trans People in India Speak Up About Why They Are Unable to Vote This Election

"I earn my livelihood through begging and sex work. Who will give me an income certificate?"

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16 April 2019, 10:28am

From left to right: Madhushri, Madhu, Kanchi

“I have always been curious about what the inside of a polling station looks like,” says 23-year-old Madhushri, a transgender woman residing in Raichur in Karnataka. “But I won’t get a chance to see it during this election either. That’s quite disappointing.” Last year, Madhushri’s application for a voter identity card was rejected. The reason? Insufficient documents.

And she’s not alone.

Madhushri’s problem is a part of a larger one in the south Indian state of Karnataka. Out of the total reported number of transgender persons in the state—which falls between 70,000 to a lakh—only 4,839 transgenders are in a position to cast their vote in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections (Karnataka goes to polls on April 18 and 23). The number is appallingly abysmal considering that the community has taken immense strides: from the transgender voter base rising by 45 percent since the 2014 elections, to a few members contesting for elections this time around.

And yet, stories like Madhushri’s are not isolated cases. In fact, transgender activists across the country have noted that even though there is a significant increase in registered transgender voters since 2014—which stands at 38,325 across the country, up by 15,306 from the last time we went to elections—the actual population is, in fact, reportedly almost 5 lakh (according to a 2011 census, though activists argue the numbers could be more). The gap is a result of not just social stigma but painful bureaucratic processes, that renders the community helpless and exasperated. Even though transgender people have been able to opt for the ‘third gender’ in their electoral roll in a bid to officially recognise their rights, their visibility remains low.

When I speak to a few members of the community in my home state of Karnataka, I find similar stories. Traditionally, most transgender persons in India migrate from small towns, especially at a very young age after being shunned by their families. Many of them, surviving through begging and sex work, barely have any documents in their name. Those who do have a few documents, such as their birth and school-leaving certificates, struggle to get them updated with their trans identity. Then, there are also those who allege that they have been asked to provide proof of their income and their caste in place of the documents they already have.

Moreover, the insensitivity with which officials handle these cases only makes matters worse. "[It] can double or triple the pain of transgender people if not heighten their anxiety, social humiliation and dysphoria. Thus many prefer not to undergo this ordeal,” said Anindya Hajra, a transgender activist with an NGO called Pratyay Gender Trust, in an interview with Economic Times last month.

VICE navigates through a few stories in this state to figure out why, even though the doors have seemingly opened, most transgender people still can’t be a part of the world’s biggest democratic exercise.

Madhushri BR, 23, Raichur

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Can you take us through what happened when you tried to apply for a voter card?
The story goes back to 2018 when members of my community conducted a rally in Raichur to demand voting rights. Many of us had been struggling to get our voter identity cards made since we don’t have many documents that have our new identity—our trans identity—on them. At that time, volunteers from the Election Commission in Raichur assured us that we will get our voting cards soon. However, they managed to give cards only to a few of us. The rest of us were told that we don’t have the required documents and hence are ineligible.

What documents did they ask for?
They asked me to submit my caste and income certificates, and a letter from my neighbours certifying that I am a bonafide resident of the area. Many of us transgenders do not follow the caste system. There is no hierarchy amongst us. Most of us have taken on names of our choice—not the ones that have any relationship with any caste. Where from, then, am I supposed to get a caste certificate when I’ve rejected the very idea of caste? Also, I earn my livelihood through begging and sex work. Who will give me an income certificate?

Did you explain this to the authorities?
I tried explaining all of this to the ward office members here but they insisted on these documents. I even told them I’ll give a copy of my Aadhar card but they said it will not do. I told the tahsildar (revenue officer) that I can get a letter from a transgender welfare NGO, stating that I’m a member and that I volunteer with them. But the ward office wouldn’t accept that too. I have now finally abandoned the entire process.

Did you consider asking your neighbours for a letter?
See, they have to give a letter saying I’m their neighbour and that I’ve been residing in this ward for these many years. They have to also attach a copy of their election cards. It is not like my neighbours are not nice to me. But I’m not sure they would acknowledge publicly that they know me. I feel they might hesitate because a lot of our interaction is very superficial.

Are you disappointed that you cannot vote this time?
Yes. Am I not a citizen of this nation? A voting card is also important for me in other ways. For instance, if I need a ration card, they ask for a voting card and proof of income. I cannot satisfy these bureaucratic procedures. I decided that if they come to ask me tomorrow about why I didn’t vote, I’ll tell them that I don’t have the power to vote.

Rina, 28, Bengaluru

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Why are you unable to vote in this election?
I tried to get a voter identity card made but they rejected my application saying that I don’t have the required documents for it. They asked me for my birth certificate and my school leaving certificate. I don’t have my birth certificate with me because I left my home in Shimoga 15 years ago and came to Bengaluru. I haven’t completed my education and hence there is no school certificate either.

Did you try to make the officials understand your situation?
Yes, I went several times to the office to ask them to consider my case. But they insisted on these documents.

How do you earn your livelihood in Bengaluru?
I earn it through begging. Since I haven’t studied, I don’t have any other skills. But does this mean I don’t have the right to vote? I pretty much grew up here in this city. A voter card would give me the respect that one gets as a citizen of this country. Just like you have a voter card, can I not get one too?

Madhu, 28, Bengaluru

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What's keeping you from voting?
I’m from Gulbarga originally but I migrated to Bengaluru (both in Karnataka) around 12 years ago in search of better opportunities. I underwent my sex-change operation around three years ago. I don’t have documents that have my new identity on them and when I tried to get a voting card made, they said that they need some proof of my new name.

What about documents in your old identity?
I haven’t studied, so I don’t have the school-leaving certificate. There might be other documents with my grandmother back home but I haven’t gone back to get them. I also don’t know how to get them changed. I go to shops and collect money through begging. I don’t have a rental agreement either. I just give some cash as rent each month. I have even tried to go back to Gulbarga and get a voter card made there but they said they need proof of documents in my new identity.

Wouldn't a letter from the doctor or the hospital where you underwent the surgery help?
No. The surgery took place in Mumbai and I don’t have any proof of that either.

Sanjivini, 23, Sindhanur

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What have been the issues in your journey as a potential voter?
I have made several attempts to get a voter identity card made but they have all failed. They asked me to submit my caste and school-leaving certificates. Both are in the name of Sanju, which is my old identity. I don’t know how to get them updated or changed. When I tried explaining this to the officials they promised to make a voter identity card for me. They asked me to give them my photograph and come back later. I’ve gone several times after that but I haven’t found any success in getting them to process my application.

Are you disappointed you cannot vote?
Yes. Don’t they say that it is as good as being dead if you don’t cast your vote?

Kanchi, 27, Bengaluru

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Why are you unable to vote in this election?
I lost all my documents on my way to Bengaluru from Darjeeling which is where I’m originally from. So, I haven’t been able to get a voter identity card made.

Have you tried explaining this to the concerned officials?
Yes, but they say that they need those documents. I said I have a rental agreement but they said that will not do. I’m quite disappointed I cannot vote. Isn’t voting one way to affirm that you exist in this world and that your opinion counts?

Follow Archana Nathan on Twitter.