A large number of transgender people mobbed this shy Member of Parliament as he arrived at the Tiruchirapalli railway station recently. They garlanded him and offered him sweets. The overwhelmed lawmaker was Tiruchi N Siva, DMK member of the Rajya Sabha. On 24 April 2015, Mr Siva&’s Private Member&’s Bill on the “Rights of Transgender Persons” was unanimously passed by the Upper House, making it a red letter day for the long-suffering transgender population.
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A Private Member&’s Bill being passed by either House of Parliament is a development of significance. Normally it means a defeat for the government. But what if such a Bill is passed unanimously with even members from the ruling benches voting for the measure?
The political significance of the passage of the Bill went largely unnoticed in the media. Sensing the acute embarrassment passage of the Bill by division would cause to the government, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu and leader of the House Arun Jaitley persuaded Siva not to press for division (voting by electronic devices). In the event, it was passed by voice vote with even ruling party members voting in favour. The Bill is a legislative follow-up to last year&’s landmark Supreme Court judgment which recognised transgenders as the third gender, declared them as a socially and economically backward community eligible for reservations and other benefits and called upon society and government to take steps to bring them into the mainstream. Though the court&’s ruling is over a year old, steps are yet to be taken by the government to give effect to it.
The Bill has now been listed for consideration by the Lok Sabha. The House is expected to take up the Bill in the monsoon session. The last time the Rajya Sabha passed a Private Member&’s Bill was in 1979 when legislation on amending the Aligarh Muslim University Act of 1977 was passed. It lapsed later.
The 61-year-old bearded, bespectacled and dhoti-clad Siva virtually walked into parliamentary history with the passage of his Bill. R C RAJAMANI spoke to the third-term Rajya Sabha MP.
How were you motivated to take up the cause of transgenders?
I have seen these unfortunate people since my childhood. They are always the butt of crude and lewd jokes in society. There is no effort to understand their feelings and psyche. After all, it is not their fault that they are born this way. I would often reflect on their condition. Yes, it is also my party&’s ideology that motivated me to fight for the rights of transgenders. The DMK believes in social reforms and working for the downtrodden.
We enjoy human rights without discrimination. Without protection of human rights, there can be no democracy or justification of democracy. We cannot afford to be intolerant. Violence based on gender identity still continues.
Have you interacted with the transgender population?
I have long interacted with them. I have often invited them to my home for meals and my late wife, Devyikarani, was a liberal and kind host. After I introduced the Bill, a number of associations and self-help groups got in touch with me. I got to know better how the transgenders have suffered. The Bill is a big step towards ending their centuries-old discrimination.
Do you have definite data on the population of transgenders?
Though official sources put their number at roughly 4.5 lakh, the community itself estimates their numbers at between 20 and 25 lakh. Over the years, some significant measures have been framed to improve the lot of this marginalised group, but these are rarely implemented. For instance, though Tamil Nadu in 2006 became the first state to set up a welfare board for transgender people, it has little to show by way of results. Boards set up by Maharashtra and West Bengal have been similarly ineffective.
How do you think the transgender population should be brought to the mainstream?
First of all, they need education so that the social stigma they face is removed. They also need jobs and legal aid when their rights are breached.
Do they have any special skills?
Yes, they are physically stronger than normal human beings. That is why in old kingdoms throughout India and even the world over they were employed as personal security guards to kings and queens. They were also posted at palace harems to protect royal ladies. It was only the British Raj that declared them a criminal community and discriminated against them.
And they have normal mental faculties. They handle modern gadgets and computers too. They can be trained to be teachers, clerks and even as law enforcement personnel. Only, they need to be treated with love, kindness and understanding. They will respond positively to such an approach.
Now, the Bill needs to be passed by the Lok Sabha for getting Parliament&’s approval. Will the government, in the House where it has a majority, vote in its favour?
I don’t know. But I must say it is really difficult for the government to oppose such a Bill with so much social significance. The Bill is being piloted by three members of the Lok Sabha Rs NK Premchandran of RSP and two others, including one from BJP. Premchandran is the prime mover of the Bill and if he insists on not withdrawing it, there will be voting. But how the government will vote will be interesting to watch.
What are the salient features of your Bill?
My Bill addresses the issues faced by transgender persons. It provides for setting up of a national commission with statutory powers and similar commissions at the state level too. The Bill has 58 clauses and each of them deal with various aspects of a transgender person&’s life.
How do you feel, now that your Bill has been passed?
It is extremely satisfying because I have been engaged with the problems of transgender people for a long time. After all they are fellow human beings. And yet, they face discrimination. They do not even have access to public toilets and their voter I-cards identify them as females. I am very happy and excited. I have seen them, how they are being discriminated against and the way they are abused. I thought the only remedy was by way of legislation.
Did you expect support from ruling party members for the Bill?
It was a Bill that no member would like to oppose personally. But there are political considerations too. For any other Bill with no social content there would have been opposition from the Treasury Benches. But this one was different and I expected most members to vote in its favour. I was doubly happy that even BJP members voted for the Bill. In any case, I was determined to take the Bill to its logical conclusion and was prepared to press for division if needed. I was all the more determined to press the reluctant government for a vote on the Bill after I saw anxious faces of the 40-odd members of the transgender community peering down at me from the visitor&’s gallery. I became emotional when I saw those faces and felt I should not withdraw the Bill.