For M Radha (53), the transgender contestant and her team of fellow trans campaigners, election season meant spending hours in campaigning door to door, distributing pamphlets and interacting with the residents of Mylapore in Chennai. A cook by profession, Radha contested the just concluded elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly on April 6, 2021, as an independent candidate. Her only assets are Rs 10,000 in her bank account as per her election affidavit.
The dire underrepresentation of transgender contestants in both the major political fronts led by the Dravida Muntera Kazhagam ( DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Muntera Kazhagam (AIADMK) political fronts, prompted Radha to file her nomination. These elections, once again, saw a dismal number of women and transgender persons as contestants. Only 11% of the 3559 contestants were women. Two transgender candidates- Bharathi Kannama from Madurai South constituency and M Radha from Mylapore, Chennai contested the elections.
The dismal number of gender diverse candidates is indicative of the fact that Tamil Nadu’s legacy of trans welfarism has failed to reflect in their political representation.
In 2008, Tamil Nadu became the first state in the country to introduce a Transgender Welfare Board under the DMK government, which included members of government departments as well as from the transgender community and related non-governmental organisations. The board has focussed on empowering the community through the provision of the ‘Aravani’ identity card (based on proof of medical transitioning), to secure their livelihood, ration and housing rights. ‘Aravani’, is a region specific title for trangender persons in Tamil Nadu.
However, members of the transgender community said that the board has ceased to carry out its duties and ultimately wilted away by 2016. A Right to Information petition filed by The Hindu found that the Board was last convened in December 2013. While housing pattas, free stay homes and short stay homes were some of the promises under the social upliftment project, the RTI revealed that only 29 houses had been built in Coimbatore.
The state, though, has seen some transgender persons enter the political foray. Apsara Reddy, a transwoman and politician, was appointed the National General Secretary of All India Mahila Congress in 2019, the women’s wing of the Indian National Congress (INC) before she rejoined the AIADMK. Kalki Subramaninam, another prominent transgender activist from the Tamil Nadu and Bharathi Kannama, contested as independent candidates from Pollachi and Madurai constituencies in the General Elections in 2014. Transgender candidate C Devi from Naam Tamilar Katchi, took on J Jayalalitha, the former chief minister and AIADMK supremo, in the 2016 elections from her home constituency of RK Nagar in Chennai.
BehanBox caught up with M Radha on her campaign trail in Mylapore where she opened up about her vision for her constituency amidst growing trans violence, transphobia and absence of trans rights in the manifestos of mainstream political parties.
What prompted you to contest the elections to the Tamil Nadu state assembly this year? Why did you choose to contest as an independent candidate?
While I am contesting the state assembly elections for the first time, this is not my first foray into electoral politics. I contested the Lok Sabha election in 2019 from Chennai South constituency. I decided to contest as an independent both the times because political parties might include transgender persons to work with them, but have never given them key leadership roles or a chance to contest as the face of their party. Secondly, political parties promise a list of welfare schemes for male and female voters but transgender persons and their interests do not even feature in their manifestoes. We are a forgotten lot, and so I wanted to remind everyone that we are also eligible to contest elections and hold political power.
During the Covid-19 lockdown last year, Thirunangais (Transwomen in Tamil) were promised 1000 rupees a month by the state government, which could barely cover their daily expenses. During that period, I was involved with a lot of community service and outreach to ensure that ration reached daily wage and working class people of my locality. I gained a lot of moral support and goodwill, which gave me the confidence to file my nomination for the Assembly elections.
What are some of the major issues in your constituency that you want to address?
Why I stand out from the other candidates in my constituency is because I go to the people and ask them about their concerns directly. While larger parties promise ‘free’ mixers, grinder, television, etc, I am interested in seeing if the basic needs of people ae met. Despite the Kapaleeshwar Temple (a tourist attraction) right in the centre of Mylapore, there is an acute drinking water shortage.
Small scale street vendors are facing increasing harassment from police and Municipal Corporation authorities who are looking to evacuate them. Accessing rations is another big challenge for the locals, especially the poor who have little money to travel. The elderly have no option but to walk to the ration shop despite their ill health. These are problems I would like to solve if elected.
How have political parties in the state engaged with the issues of transgender persons? What more do you think needs to be done?
Initially, former chief ministers Karunanidhi and Jayalilatha showed some interest in transgender rights ,when they announced free housing and provision of cards to access welfare schemes. However, there were many loopholes in the implementation. For example, Thirunangais who were allocated housing quarters by the government at Kannagi Nagar in Chennai, are now required to pay a deposit of Rs 500 per month to claim ownership of their house in 20 years. This was announced without the understanding that Thirunangais have no ancestral wealth and are usually disowned from the families they were born into. How are we supposed to pay this amount for 20 years if our very livelihoods are not guaranteed? If, after our death, this property goes back to the government, what purpose does it serve?
Secondly, we face so many hurdles in accessing the ‘Aravani’ cards which requires medical examination by a doctor as a ‘proof’ of our transgender identity. This is very difficult to access for Thirunangais who are yet to transition. The employment and ration schemes that they promise are designed in such a way that only those in possession of the card can avail its benefits. Where does this leave Thirunangais who do not have the card? Again, we have to depend on risky and unstable occupations like sex work and ‘Kadai Kekardhu’ (asking for money at shops) and people assume that is all we are capable of.
If the government implements the provisions of Supreme Court judgements like NALSA properly, it is more than enough. I believe that if there are more transgender candidates winning in elections, then, one day we will no longer have to clap and ask for money at shops. We will ask for our rights in the Parliament!
Why do such few transgender candidates contest in elections ? What are their challenges when they enter politics?
It is not as though members of our community are unwilling to contest. Rather, we must look into why they are hesitant to enter politics. For example, while several transgender persons are getting educated and looking to be self employed, we still have to combat social stigma and bullying from authorities. This discourages us from pursuing our ambitions.
Lack of political and financial support is another big challenge. My campaigning has been entirely supported by my trans friends like Pritisha Premkumar, a tea shop owner, who has been with me every step of the way. It is not easy for all transgender persons to take up politics while they are struggling with their everyday livelihood. However, I am confident that I can win the hearts of people through my service rather than money.
Tamil Nadu witnessed rising cases of trans violence over the years. In Chennai, Tara, a trans woman was suspiciously burnt alive in a police station in 2016. Why do you think this is happening and what can we do to change this situation?
There has definitely been a surge of cases of violence and transphobia against transgender persons in recent times. I have shown up to protests and demanded accountability. I will not think twice if I have to defend someone’s human rights, transgender or not. Hurting and harassing innocent transwomen is something we will not tolerate.
What are your aspirations for this election?
In every field that transgender persons have entered, we have always proven our success and worthiness. Likewise, I am sure that I will be a helpful MLA if elected and be accessible to my constituents. That is why my election symbol is a telephone- so that I am able to listen to all the concerns of my constituents. May victory be with the people’s mandate!