Can trans woman and AAP candidate Bhawani counter UP's feudal patriarchy with religion?

Bhawani Nath Singh Valmiki, the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, campaigns in a market in Meja tehsil. Neha Dixit
11 May, 2019

Sabko dekha baar baar, Bhawani Maa ko dekho ek baar”—You have chosen everyone many times, this time try Bhawani Maa. So goes the campaign slogan of Bhawani Nath Singh Valmiki, the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from Prayagraj, in Uttar Pradesh, for the upcoming general election on 12 May. Bhawani Maa, as she is popularly known, identifies as a transgender woman. On 11 April, I accompanied Bhawani on her election trail, as she travelled from Prayagraj city to the neighbouring Bara tehsil. “A lot of work will have to be done,” she said, taking in the rocky terrain, the trail of broken mud houses and visible signs of neglect in the tribal-dominated area. As her entourage reached the administrative headquarters of the tehsil, two office bearers from the AAP who were travelling in another car, came up to her. Anjani Mishra, the coordinator of the party’s Prayagraj unit, told her, “Again, no one from the local unit of the party is here.”

This was the fifth time in three days that the local units of the party had skipped Bhawani’s campaign. “We have had enough of you men from the party,” Bhawani told Anjani, upset at this pattern. “Do not think that we are dependent on you. We Kinnars are more capable than you all.” Members of the intersex and transgender community in India refer to themselves as Kinnars—the Hindu mythological beings that excel at song and dance. Roshan, a trans man from Indore who is helping Bhawani with her campaign, explained to me that “the openness of the party leadership, living in metropolitan cities, can never be replicated in the local party units of a city like Prayagraj that is full of stigma.” He is also a Valmiki—a Dalit sub-caste. “Most of them do not want to accept a Kinnar as their leader, forget working to campaign for her," he said.

Bhawani had approached the BJP, the Congress and the AAP for a Lok Sabha ticket. “It says so much about how dismissive the other parties are of transgender people,” she claimed. “Only AAP was ready to take a risk with me.” Hijras, a derogatory term for the transgender and intersex community, have suffered severe socio-economic marginalisation and discrimination since colonial times, partly on account of the British categorising them as a criminal tribe. Bhawani believes that in the feudal and patriarchal culture of Uttar Pradesh, shot through with toxic masculinity, religion is the only tool she has to shut the men up.

The honorific, “maa,” is a testament to the social legitimacy and status she now commands, on account of religion. Bhawani is the mahamandaleshwar—a title bestowed upon the highest spiritual guardians of Hindu sects—of the Kinnar Akhada, or monastic order. The Kinnar Akhada, the first Hindu monastic order of transgender people, debuted at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj this year. It remains to be seen if Bhawani’s status as a head of a religious order will help her navigate the intersections of caste, gender and class hierarchies in the ongoing elections and beyond.

Back at the Bara tehsil, Bhawani and two of her disciples—Praachal, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer and Asha Nath, a 35-year-old singer, both transgender women—walked to the administrative campus. Bhawani was dressed in her trademark style—a short yellow kurta, a wrap-around skirt and a dupatta neatly tied around her forehead smeared with a tilak and sandalwood. As she walked in, the sleepy campus came to life. The lawyers, parked on their wooden chairs and tables, started speculating on her identity. Some of their clients admonished them, “Mahamandaleshwar Bhawani Maa is here. Touch her feet.”

Bhawani went from chair to chair, table to table, a smile on her face, hands folded. While Praachal took down numbers of the devotees who promised to organise meetings for her in their respective villages, Asha kept reiterating, “12 May, press the broom symbol and elect AAP's candidate Bhawani Maa.” One of the people sitting there asked Asha, “Is she the same Bhawani Maa from the Kinnar Akhada in the Kumbh Mela?"

As they were about to leave after this 20-minute drill, an old man walked up to her, “You are contesting elections, how will it benefit us?” Asha replied, “Because it is the first time a Kinnar is contesting your Lok Sabha seat.” The man retorted, “But how does it make a difference to us?” This time, Bhawani spoke, “I do not know if you know that it was only in 2014 when the Supreme Court of India recognised the third gender. It took us exactly seven years to mobilise and get our rights constitutionally. If we can win such a huge battle in so little time, we have some political and administrative capability to take up your battles too.” The man nodded and said, with something close to admiration, “That is what I wanted to hear, you spoke like a true politician.”

It was only in 2009, that the Election Commission finally allowed the transgender community to mark their gender as “other” while voting. Five years later, the Supreme Court officially recognised them as “the third gender”—an umbrella term to give legal status to transgender people. Uttar Pradesh has 8,374 registered transgender voters this year. Since the 2014 judgment, these are the first Lok Sabha elections where transgender candidates can contest under the gender they identify with, instead of the male-female binary. Five transgender candidates have filed their nominations for the ongoing elections, four of whom are contesting as independents—Sneha Kale from North Mumbai in Maharashtra, Tamanna Simhadri from Mangalagiri in Andhra Pradesh, M Radha from Chennai South in Tamil Nadu, Guddi Kinnar from Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh—and Bhawani.

Bhawani has been pitted against Rita Bahuguna of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Yogesh Shukla of the Congress, both of them upper caste. Bahuguna is a former cabinet minister and hails from a political family, while Shukla has an established business empire. Bhawani commands no such legacy or resources, except the endorsement of the AAP. “We take out political rallies with 5,000 rifles even for the Allahabad university elections,” Saurabh Singh, a local AAP volunteers and student leader told me. “How will she contest? She does not even have more than three hired SUVs.”

Sambit, a 23-year-old gay man, who is an integral member of Bhawani's diverse team said that, “There are only two ways Indian elections work, money and masculinity. Bhawani Maa does not represent either so there is hardly an incentive for the party members to work for her.” Another party worker, who did not want to be named, told me that the money provided by the AAP was insufficient as political workers charged a minimum of Rs 300 per day for political campaigns. This was in addition to the Rs 1,000 required per booth for the 180 booths in the constituency, just to keep them functional. According to Bhawani's election affidavit, her total net worth is Rs 27 lakh. “Indian elections are not for the poor,” Sambit added, referring to the EC’s cap of Rs 70 lakh as election expenses per candidate. “Unless someone donates to your political campaign, but who would give money to a transgender?”

The lack of resources does not seem to have dented Bhawani’s aspirations. This, the 46-year-old candidate said, is the outcome of the life she has led. Born to a Valmiki family in Delhi, with several siblings, she left home at the age of 14. “When I discovered my sexuality, I was looked at with contempt at home and at school,” she said, recounting the bullying she had to face. “I cannot blame my parents for not standing up. A poor and urban Dalit family in India that has so many mouths to feed cannot fight an added battle of my sexuality and gender.” Soon after running away from home, she joined the Hijra community that operates on a patronage system of gurus and chelas. The guru introduces the disciple to the community’s norms, provides social security and protection. Once accepted into a Hijra clan, the disciple gets access to the community’s communes, and a newly assigned name. Bhawani's guru was Kinnar Haji Noori and her given name was Shabnam. Following in the footsteps of her guru, she converted to Islam in her late teens. The Hijras of the subcontinent practice a syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture.

Bhawani said that she took almost a year to learn and accept the ways of the community. “There were three options to earn a living: badhai,”—a ritual to bless newlywed couples and parents of a newborn child in return for money—“sex work and begging,” she said. “I have done all three to survive, just like most others like me. Have you seen anyone of us getting a job ever?”

In 2014, following the Supreme Court judgment, she decided to reconvert to Hinduism and reclaim her religious identity. The judgment also allowed benefits for transgender people under the Other Backward Class category. “I wanted to live as a normal citizen without having to change the religion I was born with to survive,” Bhawani said. After her reconversion, she worked with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a trans activist, to set up the Kinnar Akhada, first in Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh, and then at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. Owing to their role as the guardians of Hindu sects, akhadas wield significant political influence in Indian politics. In fact, in December 2018, Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, sought the support of the All India Akhada Parishad, the apex council body of the 13 akhadas in the country. The Kinnar Akhada would have been the fourteenth akhada, but the AIAP has refused to include them.

Bhawani said that she decided to contest elections after witnessing the popularity of the Kinnar Akhada during the Kumbh. “You can only fight for your rights when you have conquered the fight for food,” she said. “I am now past it.”

The acceptance of Kinnars within the Hindu fold has sparked an internal debate in the transgender community. Meera Sanghamitra, a trans woman who is an activist with the National Alliance of People's Movement—an umbrella organisation of civil-society movements—said that many in the trans community view this move as a shift towards right-wing politics. “The establishment of the Kinnar Akhada and the reconversion to Hinduism fits perfectly well in the ghar wapsi and purification framework of the Sangh,” she said. “That is why they have been accepted.” Ghar wapsi is a campaign run by Hindu right-wing political groups to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism. “It helps the Hindutva narrative where instead of endorsing all religions which the Hijra community did, now they just have to endorse one religion—Hinduism,” Sanghamitra told me.

Similarly, Karthik Bittu, a trans man who is an associate professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University, said that “among gender and sexual minorities, just like any other community, there is contestation when it comes to religion and right-wing politics.” He said that a lot of trans people are opposed to Hindu right-wing politics. He also highlighted the fact that an immediate ramification of joining the Hindu fold has been that caste has crept into the Kinnar Akhada. During the shahi snan—the royal bath of saints—at the Kumbh, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who is a Brahmin, took the holy dip in the Ganga in the morning, which is considered the most pious time. On the other hand, Bhawani, who as a Dalit is considered an outcaste, only took the dip in the evening.

Bhawani, however, defended the turn to Hinduism with arguments drawn from her life. “These men, who would not even let me stand in front of their gates when I asked for badhai, now, they touch my feet,” she said. “They come running with their families and women to get my blessings. Religion’s validation helps in shutting up all these men.” When I questioned her on the caste divisions thus created and her continuous use of her caste surname, she asked me, “When Pragya Thakur can use it, when Laxmi Narayan Tripathi can use it, then why should Dalits feel ashamed of their surnames?”

The game of resistance, acceptability and arguments continued throughout her campaign as I travelled with Bhawani. The articulate and acerbic Bhawani thrived in the face of all the biases thrown her way. The patriarchal prejudice against transgender people was exemplified during her morning walks at Khusro Bagh, a historical Mughal garden near the Prayagraj railway station, as part of her team’s ideas to campaign amongst people. Once, when Mishra, the AAP city coordinator, handed a flyer to a middle-aged man, he was told, “What are you handing me? Talk about someone who is worth being a candidate.” On the sidelines, Bhawani smiled.

On another occasion, an old man admonished Bhawani saying, “If you are serious about elections, walk around in a saree, not ghaghra. Then you will be respectable enough to be worth engaging with.” Bhawani responded with a smile yet again and said, “I have been told to wear this by men like you after I became a sadhvi. Now you are giving me another dress code.”

One day, another man called her up to say that he was waiting under a tree to speak to her in the park. When she walked up to the spot, there were several old men waiting for her. Syed Aamir, a retired postmaster, asked, “You are a Hindu monk. How will you protect Muslims who are being killed and marginalised so much under the current rule?” Bhawani responded, “I am a Haji and I am a monk. When a transgender child is born to a family, they abandon them regardless of whether they are Muslim, Hindu, or Christian. We are the ones who raise them regardless of their religion. How do you ever think the Hijra community can set religious boundaries?”

Another man in the group asked, “Kejriwal said that he will get rid of corruption. Now, he wants to have an alliance with the same corrupt political party, Congress. How are you different?” Bhawani responded, “A corruption-free India was also a promise of Narendra Modi. What did he do? Demonetisation that killed over 100 people?” She told him that as Hijras, they saw “how poor fathers could not marry their daughters because of demonetisation,” but how the wedding of Isha Ambani, the daughter of industrialist Mukesh Ambani continued with ease.

There were umpteen occasions when people would walk up to her to ask for religious solutions to their problems. “My daughter is not getting married,” one such person said, while another wanted a solution for a failing business. Bhawani told both of them to go “plant neem trees.” She explained that people “just want some psychological therapy and they think the answer is religion.” When they plant a tree, she said, “their attention is diverted and so they manage to get some peace of mind.”

A number of Bhawani’s interactions on the campaign trail often bordered on the combative. One such instance occurred on 10 April, at the administrative campus of the Meja tehsil, the largest tehsil in terms of area in Prayagraj. Ram Pratap Singh, a lawyer in his sixties, told her, “You came to our city, you set up the akhada. We let you be. Now stay away from our politics. That will be best for you.” Some young boys sitting around him nodded with a collective hum of agreement. “Then why have Yogi Adityanath as your chief minister? He is also a mahant of a math”—monastery, Bhawani replied. “You want to compete with him with your team of Hijras?” Singh said, with an air of disdain. “For the record, Hijras earn their living by blessing people; we never eat out of someone's death. Cannot say the same for your Yogi,” Bhawani replied with her customary smile and walked away.

Yet, for all her quick-wittedness, Bhawani lacks a serious poll plank for her campaign. One of her few poll promises is centred on the revival of the factories and tanneries in the Naini Industrial Area, a twin town of Prayagraj, known for its manufacturing units. A combination of faulty policies, environmental concerns and the global recession of 2008 led to the shutdown of a majority of these units since 2009. In 2016, several young men, who had been left jobless due to the closures, were arrested for posing as transgender people and begging in trains. “You have to give a thought to the desperation of these unemployed young people,” she said. “If I am elected, I would like to revive the Naini Industrial Area.”

The other change that Bhawani seeks to bring, at a policy level, is to amend the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018, which was passed by the Lok Sabha in December last year. One of the many criticisms of the bill is directed towards a clause which entails jail time of up to two years for anyone who “compels or entices a transgender person” to beg. Bhawani wants this revoked and said, “When transgender people are not given jobs, how can you arrest them for begging?” She also wants to change the disparity in law and punishment for sexual crimes against the transgender community. Apart from these, separate prison wards and separate hospital wards for trans people, are also on Bhawani’s agenda.

Bhawani’s focus on the community, despite its miniscule voter base, comes from the fact that despite legal rights, the transgender community is still far away from egalitarian treatment. “A woman like you”—she said, referring to cisgender women—“may think you are being discriminated against. You can just empathise with a trans woman, never actually experience the humiliation we suffer every single day.” She said that the reality of trans women is different from cisgender women. “I keep telling her [Praachal] not to ever think of herself as a cisgender woman. Even when she is educated as a mechanical engineer, she will never find a stable job.” Bhawani was of the view that it is imperative for young trans women to “always keep one foot in the traditions of the Kinnar society. Eventually, that will never let them starve.”

Many in the trans community, in turn, support her candidature, despite the shift to the religious fold. Sanghamitra, the NAPM activist, told me that “the fact that Bhawani has to still struggle for her political campaign reflects that she does not have any clout in spite of acquiring a religious head's position” and the AAP ticket. “The marginalisation is so intense.” Bittu, the professor, on the other hand, said, “I do not believe in electoral processes but I welcome all trans people in electoral politics to take up leadership positions that are removed from Hindutva politics.”

An unfazed Bhawani declared that she does not believe in such complex articulations. “Women have been waiting for 70 years for reservation,” she said. “We managed to claim our legal rights only in seven. Tell you what—members of our community learn very early on to seize the opportunity to survive. We are better off with that strategy.”