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Can NCP’s LGBTQ+ cell change the rules of Indian politics?

Touted as a first-of-its-kind initiative for an Indian political party, is the NCP’s LGBTQ+ cell a transformative move or mere tokenism?

The 12th Queer Pride march in 2019 in Delhi. (Hindustan Times)

On a balmy October morning, a motley bunch of youngsters walks into the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP’s) headquarters in Mumbai. In the large, crowded hall, they form two lines, holding up freshly printed appointment letters, welcoming them as NCP members. Behind them is Ajit Pawar, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, sitting on a dais and leafing through some documents. Someone tells him to look up. He does, ever so briefly. But it’s good enough for the party’s photographers to frame the money shot. Click.

This concludes the group’s initiation into the NCP’s newly formed LGBT cell. Minutes later, they are ushered into a conference room for a cup of tea and an interaction with Priya Patil, member of the hijra community and the Maharashtra cell chief.

It’s a rather tame sequel to the ceremony held the previous week. At the time, party leader Supriya Sule, daughter of party chief Sharad Pawar, had held a press conference to announce the formation of this NCP cell. It was a first-of-its kind effort by any political party in India, Sule had said, adding the party would strive for an “inclusive society free of prejudice, homophobia and transphobia”.

The cell is part of a slow but definite shift towards inclusivity of sexual minority communities in Indian politics. An early such instance can be traced to 1998, when Shabnam Bano, an independent candidate, became the first transgender person to be elected as an MLA from Madhya Pradesh. More followed: Kamla Kinnar (“Kamla Bua”), who was elected as the mayor of Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, in 2009; Madhu Bai Kinnar, who became the mayor of the Raigarh municipal corporation in Chhattisgarh in 2015. Both contested as independent candidates. The 2019 election saw five transgender persons contesting around the country: one from the Bahujan Samaj Party, one from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and three independents. Many more have contested civic body elections over the years. Yet, the political representation of the LGBTQ+ community remains negligible.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Pink List, a compilation of politicians who publicly support LGBTQ+ rights, featured 76 candidates. Parties like the AAP and Congress included resolutions for the community’s rights in their manifestos too. But none of these parties has any elected LGBTQ+ representative holding a public office. Only a handful of parties have office-bearers from the transgender community—like Apsara Reddy, the general secretary of the Congress’ women’s wing or Disha Pinky Shaikh, spokesperson of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. It’s especially telling given what observers suggest: that those who have contested elections from the transgender community over the years have largely been independent candidates.

It’s a phenomenon that Anish Gawande, an LGBTQ+ rights activist and curator of The Pink List, calls “pinkwashing.” “Queerness challenges patriarchy,” he says. “It challenges the way conventional politics operates. There are lots of politicians speaking for trans rights, just as there are for women’s rights. In their positions of power, they might support it as lip service. But relinquishing power is something to be fought for.”

At the inaugural press conference, the NCP had announced that it would take up issues of societal discrimination and jobs. Members of the cell are tasked with expanding their network across Maharashtra, starting with setting up chapters in every city where the NCP holds sway. “It’s definitely an indicator of an access to the state,” says Gawande. “I won’t think of it as a grand formation that will revolutionalize the LGBT movement. But I hope it can serve as a pressure point to ensure marginalized groups within the community get the support they need.”

Today, say observers, hijras constitute the bulk of the politically visible people from the LGBTQ+ community. The reason, says Gawande, is that it is the only organized community owing to the gharana system. “Take a look at their election campaigns, like that of Sneha Kale, who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Mumbai. Her cadre was her gharana—it was the trans people who had come out to campaign for her.” She didn’t win.

It was only in 2019, when Mumbai-based gay rights activist Harish Iyer joined the Congress, that India saw the first openly gay person entering politics. Soon after he joined the Congress, Iyer recalls, he had to endure relentless trolling on social media. “We in India have very little understanding of gender minorities. But despite the trans phobia, the hijra community is also revered in equal measure. There are some who think, yeh bhagwan ka roop hain. (they are a manifestation of god). But if I am standing there, they would say yeh toh g***u hai.”

This is perhaps why the struggle of those from the LGBTQ+ community in politics seems more personal than political, as was the case with Priya Patil. Patil was abandoned at the age of 13 after her family discovered that their only child didn’t identify as a cis-gender heterosexual. After living on a suburban Mumbai railway platform for a year, she was taken in by a hijra group in Thane. For years, she would beg on trains and go for badhai (a ritual of blessing straight couples on their marriage or after childbirth). One day in 2012, one of her friends from the community was electrocuted by an overhead cable at a railway yard. She was hiding from the police, who were looking to arrest her for begging when the accident happened.

NCP leader Supriya Sule with Priya Patil (right).
NCP leader Supriya Sule with Priya Patil (right). (Hindustan Times)

“I kept thinking, who was responsible for this?” Patil recalls. “Was it her family, who turned her away; the cops, who chased her; society, which didn’t accept her; or the government, which did not give her her rights.” She decided to stop begging, resumed her studies, and became an advocate for trans rights. A chance meeting with Sule in 2018 began her association with the party she joined a year later, hoping to effect change for her community. “I joined because of Sule,” says Patil. “She has always had progressive views about our community.”

In recent years, the LGBTQ+ community has seen a growing number of advocates and greater visibility. There are Pride parades in over a dozen cities every year. In Parliament, Congress MPs Shashi Tharoor and Priya Dutt had argued for the decriminalization of Section 377 (a provision penalizing sex “against the order of nature” which was frequently used to harass members of the queer community) long before the Supreme Court struck it down in 2018. MPs like Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar of the Trinamool Congress, Sule of the NCP and Tiruchi Siva from the DMK have batted for the rights of the queer community during Parliamentary debates on the surrogacy Bill, human rights Bill and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill.

So far, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been hesitant in openly supporting the rights of the community. At a hearing for same-sex marriage in the Delhi high court in September, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, representing the Union government, said such marriages were neither part of “our culture” nor the law. India also abstained from voting in favour of LGBTQ+ rights at the UN Human Rights Council last year. Even the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill was met with protests across the country, with many describing it as a watered-down version of the Supreme Court’s orders to allow transgender persons to decide their gender identity.

So, is the NCP’s move mere tokenism? After all, the LGBTQ+ community is estimated to constitute 12% of Maharashtra’s population, including those who haven’t publicly come out as queer. Will the cell offer a semblance of inclusivity without really offering it?

“Political parties are always keen to find out new social segments they can attract,” says Suhas Palshikar, a Pune-based political scientist. “Though LGBT as a political faction is not mobilized, the NCP might be vying for them. The only way it can stop the cell from remaining ornamental is if the party takes a major political decision to educate the cadre. It can’t remain the initiative of one person (Sule). It has to be wholeheartedly supported by leaders who enjoy voter confidence in rural Maharashtra as well.”

“In matters of social change, some of it happens from the grass roots, some is imposed top-down,” says Palshikar. Even small measures, like the Maharashtra election commission’s appointment of Gauri Sawant, a trans rights activist, as a goodwill ambassador during last year’s assembly election, can be useful in sending a message. “I would thus not undermine any of these efforts. But, at least in the immediate future, I would not expect any dramatic changes either.”

It’s going to be a long haul.

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