Even a statepolicy is unable to ensure safety for Kerala’s transgender community
20 November 2016 was thought to be a watershed moment for transgender rights in the southern state of Kerala. From being a pioneer in the country in evolving a Transgender Policy in 2015, that Sunday morning in November, the state was waking up to yet another landmark –aState Transgender Justice Board, the first of its kind in India.
The aim was to find a solution to all the problems faced by the transgender community, a group that has been severely marginalised in the state.
Over a year later, the transgender community in the state is in the midst of a fear psychosis as images ofthem being attacked on the streets of some of Kerala’s busiest cities keep rolling out on a regular basis. What makes it worse is that the perpetrator in most cases has not been the common man but the law enforcers themselves, even as a Transgender Policy and a Justice Board are items thatremain on paper. The Transgender Policy was aimed at assimilating transgenders into the mainstream community and empowering them for a better life. While the Policy clearly outlines the need to protect the community, their right to freedom and expression and right to dignity of life without violence, the Justice Board which has toimplement the policy on ground has only had one sitting in the last year and a half since its formation. It is yet to even formulate an action plan on such issues. There is not even a website for the Board which could help the transgender community reach out to them.
Over the past seven months alone, ten such alleged attacks have frightened the community spread across various parts of the state with one evenresulting in murder.
38-year-old Susmi is a transgender performing artist from the northern city of Kozhikode. But today the same artist who is well known for her skills of expression on stage is afraid to assert herself. The horrors of the night of 28 December, 2017 have still not left her. She and her colleague Jasmin, another transgender, were brutally beaten by policemen while they were returning from a late night performance.
The team led by the Kasaba police station inspector made one remark, “You are not to be seen on the streets at night,’’ before thrashing both with lathis for questioning the cops’ stand.
Susmi says that this mindset is the biggest bottleneck that is slowing the process of theirassimilation into the mainstream society. “You may have a Transgender Policy but the policeman on the street still thinks we are just sex workers, nothing more than that. That’s why they even deny us permission to travel at night, which is our basic right and which every individual enjoys except us. Yes, we agree that prostitution was indeed a profession that many of us were forced to do. But then when we are trying to come out of it to lead a respectable life, why not give us a chance?’’ asks Susmi.
Though the usual media and activists’ outcry had finally got the administration to file cases against the cops, counter cases have also been filed against Susmi and her friend on dubious grounds. Susmi now says that she does not want go for a legal fight with the system, fearing the obvious.
In July 2016, hardly a year into the Transgender Policy’s creation, the police in Kochi had started what the community calls an attempt to drive them out of the city. It all started when in similar circumstances two transgender individuals who were waiting to catch a late night bus were thrashed by cops on patrol duty in the heart of the city.
In May 2017 the ugly scene repeated itself and this time in the state’s cultural capital of Thrissur. Here again the perpetrators were the men in uniform who mercilessly caned a group of transgender individuals while they had stopped to have food at the bus station on their way to Bengaluru.
Aneesh Roy is a social activist and health worker and has been working among the transgender community in north Kerala for a long time, spreading awareness about the HIV virus. He says that there is a definite mindset with which most people, especially the police, look at transgenders and that has been at the heart of the entire issue.
“See it is so very evident even now. I have been to police stations a number of times when individuals from the community get into some trouble. The attitude of the cops has always been so mean. They even tell me – why are you breaking your head over this, these people are always like this and will never change,’’ Roy told The Lede.
The police force is unwilling to come on record as they are suffering a backlash over this issue. In 2017, when the Thrissur attack happened, a senior police officer admitted to The Lede that there is a lack of sensitivity among the cops on the issue and that there was a need to seriously look into it. When contacted, the police refused to comment on record.
As far as mindsets go, the men in uniform are not the only ones who need to undergo a change, if Kerala’s dream of assimilating transgenders into the mainstream is to bear fruit.
When the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) took in 23 transgender individuals into its fold in 2017, and empowered them with jobs, it was hailed as a revolutionary move. But hardly a week into the operation, eight of them quit for the simple reason that they could not find a place to stay, because the local population in Kochi would simply not rent out a roof for them. Unable to bear the costs and risks of traveling daily from the city’s suburbs to their job sites and the fear of being picked up by the cops accusing them of prostitutionif they stayed at cheap lodges, the eight thought it wiser to leave the jobs than battle the hostility.
Though the KMRL had been trying its best to provide makeshift accommodation, the attrition at the Metro continues. “Even when you give us jobs, empower us with a livelihood, which is all great, you are not addressing our basic problem which is the need for a roof above our heads. Why do you think a number of them go into sex trade? It’s simply the circumstances. What else would you do when you are forced to be out in the street through the night?’’asks Renjini, a transgender who works with Kochi Metro.
Two weeks ago an alleged prostitution racket was busted by police at a lodge in Kochi. Along with the culprits, three transgenders were arrested because they happened to be staying at the same lodge. They allege that the police did not even give them a chance to explain their stand.
“The moment they saw us, the cops concluded that yes, you people are also part of the prostitution racket. But in reality we had been staying there for quite sometime as we do not get any other accommodation after work. Police just want to get us out of the city. I don’t know where this hatred comes from,’’ says Jomol, one of the transgenders who was picked up that night.
The State’s Police Complaints Authority had been receiving such complaints on a regular basis and the Authority had been advising the police department on the need to sensitise the force on a war footing. But little has changed on the ground.
“Let’s be very clear on this. Not just with transgender people but gender sensitivity as a whole is a major issue with the police force and that can only be changed if we ensurea human rights centered approach to policing, which needs to be taught to the new recruits and those already in the force, especially in the lower rungs. It is a certainly a big challenge,’’ Justice VK Mohanan, Chairperson, State Police Complaints Authority told The Lede.
The Justice Board too since its formation in 2016 involving six members from the transgender community and headed by the Health Minister, has neither had an office space nor a formally chalked out plan of action. But the members say they are doing their best and the results will show over time.
“All government bodies move at a slow pace and Transgender Board is no different. But we should understand that there are a number of plans for the community in the pipeline. District-wise shelter homes are now being built and more empowerment plans will follow. But all this will be successful only with active participation of the community and a parallel change in the mindset of the people,’’saidSurya, a well known transgender actor -and Member, State Transgender Justice Board.
Perhaps there is no one who can throw better light on the changing mindset thanReshma Thomas, a young artist who had been using her work to championthe cause of the transgender community.
One of the pioneers in the state to bring the community into the limelight with her painting brush, Thomas says a lot has changed for the community after they themselves started expressing their desire to come out of their cocoon.
“When I started working with them initially people were surprised and shocked. Some even thought that I am a transgender and that is why I am doing it, because the idea of a woman standing up for a transgender did not go down well with many. But times have changed now,”ReshmaThomas told The Lede.
Thomas goes on to add that inspite of hurdles, the transgender policy has certainly given the community a sense of acceptance to start with. “Atleast now they have gathered the courage and will to dress up in the way they want and walk among us freely which was a taboo for a long time. So the change has arrived even though the challenges are high. Now they feel that they need to be educated and stand on theirown legs. These may be small steps towards assimilating them. But they are in the right direction,’’added Thomas.
The State’s Social Justice Department under which the Transgender Board falls feels that the assimilation is painfully slow since the ice between the community and those having the power to assimilate them is yet to break.
“At this moment we are trying to understand their problems. It is not as easy as it seems. None of us in the department actually knew what their problems were. So the primary part of this assimilation is to understand their issues and find a possible solution. This is an ongoing process and we need to be very patient. Sensitisation is also a key issue and a lot of awareness has been happening and that’s why the community is atleast finding acceptance unlike before,’’ Biju Prabhakar, Secretary, Department of Social Justice, told The Lede.