Progressive Modi? The PM speaks on transgenders, Dalits and Kashmir

Dhrubo Jyoti/New Delhi (Pahichan) August 12 – 

Many transgender rights activists fear that the prime minister’s outreach might not translate into real change on the ground. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

 After cows, Dalits and Kashmiris came the turn of transgender people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his party MPs on Tuesday to reach out to the transgender community in their respective constituencies, setting them a target of meeting 500,000 people from one of India’s most marginalised sections.

This is possibly the first time that the BJP leader has reached out to the transgender community, often ostracised by society and shut out from jobs and education opportunities.

“Humanity is not confined to male or female. Go and meet them. Have meetings and rallies,” Modi told his party members, hailing a bill conferring rights to transgender people as a “great step for social reforms”.

Modi’s comments aren’t surprising though he leads a party that has been in the news for its deeply conservative views. It is in line with the views of new progressive Modi – a 2.0 of the Hindu Hriday Samrat if you will – who lashes out at once-patronised cow protection vigilantes, asks people to attack him instead of Dalits and loves Kashmir.

For the past four days, the prime minister has sprung a surprise–indicating to the world that he is alert to mounting international criticism of his administration as a tech-savvy but culturally intolerant regime that is hostile to minorities and dissent.

His paean to Dalits came shortly after the United States expressed concern over rising atrocities against the vulnerable community. He spoke on the spiraling violence in Kashmir more than a month after the first clashes and it came after his image as a pan-India leader was questioned in national and international media because of his silence.

Every single of these messages appeared carefully tailored for an international audience and aimed at giving out the message that India is ruled by a global leader with progressive views.

This is a sea change from the prime minister’s earlier responses, when he chose to be silent and bulldoze through a torrent of criticism following Hindu hardline ghar wapsi conversion programmes, vitriol against alleged cases of “love jihad” and especially the mob lynching of Mohammad Ikhlaq over rumours that he slaughtered a cow.

Even this January when India was rocked by protests over the death of PhD student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad after alleged casteist hounding by university authorities, Modi chose to keep silent – making a short statement that further infuriated anti-caste activists and opposition parties.

Most commentators attribute this change-of-heart to upcoming polls in a clutch of states where the desertion of the Dalit vote can sink the BJP. But apart from poll compulsions – after all transgender people aren’t a significant vote bank — the statements hide a leader who has begun to realise that vitriol by constituents might give election dividends but doesn’t play well in high diplomacy.

Transgender rights activists say that the new bill may curtail government benefits for them. (Praful Gangurde/ HT file photo)

 Of course, this comes at a cost – the undying love of hardline Hindu elements, who are already grumbling that the new “secular” Modi isn’t the leader they voted for. The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have had a troubled relationship with oppressed communities of all hues – be it religious minorities, backward castes or the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.

Hindu hardliners have attacked couples out on Valentine’s Day, have been accused of peddling violence and patriarchal norms that shackle women, and have called homosexuality an abomination – India’s home minister Rajnath Singh called it a mental illness last year. Modi’s overtures might further rupture his relationship with his core constituency.

But a more pressing concern is whether the statements will inspire any real change. Dalit activists have already said they’d prefer stricter implementation of anti-atrocity laws to impassioned appeals. Kashmiris have unequivocally rejected the prime minister’s professed love for the Valley and his offer of development, saying they’d rather see some real political change on the ground.

The same questions abound over the issue of transgender empowerment. Some members from the community have welcomed the new transgender rights bill.

But a host of others have raised questions about the bill, which they say dilutes Supreme Court guidelines from a historic verdict two years ago.

Many activists say the bill in front of the Lok Sabha mutilates the definition of transgenders, erases important provisions for quotas and initiatives in employment and education, and crates an elaborate arrangement that will most likely makes things more difficult for transpersons to get government benefits.

“The terms, phrasing and wording of the bill, – very ignorant, ill-informed and inadequate – are things to worry about, and may hurt the transgender community more than it helps,” said Nadika N, a non-binary writer from Bengaluru.

On top of that is the question of Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalises homosexual lives and love and is used primarily by police to harass transgender people on the streets. The government has barely moved to remove a law that puts India in dubious global company, choosing to take shield behind judicial proceedings. Before coming to power, the BJP batted for the law. Till today, it appears hostile to the LGBT community.

Modi himself received widespread flak two months ago, when he expressed solidarity with the victims of the Orlando club shooting in the United States, without mentioning that the victims were gay or putting in a thought about the millions of similar Indians who live precariously.

If the prime minister is serious about his transgender outreach, it will not remain confined to mere words. His government will consult trans activists and amend the bill, bat for stricter implementation of benefits, and induct transgender leaders in his party.

He will also follow through on his promises to other minorities – because transgender people can be Dalits, Muslims or women – and violence against one community touches all. His government will come out against section 377 and end this shameful law once-and-for-all. Anything less may soar the prime minister’s international reputation and make for good headlines abroad, but will do little to help the people he is elected to serve.

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