“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.”