By Ragamalika Karthikeyan and Shivani Kava
EC claims over 800% rise in number of transgender voters in Karnataka, activists say population estimates far from reality
The Chief Election Commissioner of India, Rajiv Kumar, has said that 41,312 transgender persons have registered to vote in the upcoming Assembly elections in Karnataka — which is one of the highest numbers of trans voters reported by a state. In a press conference while announcing elections in the state on March 29, Rajiv Kumar claimed that 41,312 ‘third gender’ persons – out of the ECI’s estimate of 42,756 transgender voters in Karnataka – have registered with the ECI.
While the number of trans voters announced by him is much higher than the number reported by the Election Commission on its website on March 2, transgender activists in the state say that the estimate of the trans population in the state is wrong and that many trans people have been left out of the electoral rolls.
According to data published on the Election Commission of India’s website on March 2 this year, there were 4,468 transgender voters in the state of Karnataka under the ‘third gender’ category. With the EC pegging the number at 41,312 as of March 29, they are claiming an increase of almost 825% in the enrollment in less than a month.
As of March 2, Karnataka had the fourth highest number of trans voters in the country, after Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra. In the 2019 electoral roll (India General Elections), the state had 4,718 transgender voters; in 2018 (Karnataka Assembly Elections), the number stood at 4,552.
It’s important to note, however, that this data reflects only those transgender persons who have an ID card that identifies them as trans — denoted as ‘third gender’ by the ECI — and not as male or female. As per the historic NALSA v. Union of India judgement of 2014, and later the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, trans persons can self identify as male, female or transgender for official documentation. Several states, including Karnataka, also have their own policies for transgender persons to get ID cards and welfare benefits. There is no clear data on what percentage of trans persons have a ‘transgender’ ID, versus how many have a binary male or female ID.
Trans activists in Karnataka have meanwhile said that the EC’s numbers with respect to the total population of transgender persons who are eligible to vote in the state is far off the mark. The Times of India reported that according to Akkai Padmashali, the founder of Ondede — an organisation that works for gender minorities in Karnataka and is part of a larger network of trans rights organisations in the state — there are over two lakh transgender persons in the state. Akkai is a member of the Congress party, and was the face of trans welfare under the previous Congress government.
Another activist, Manjamma Jogathi, who was conferred the Padma Shri award by the government last year, and who has been roped in by the EC as a ‘poll icon’/‘model voter’ to encourage voter participation in the election, also agreed there was a discrepancy in the numbers. Manjamma further told The Times of India that the ECI has not fully reached out to transgender communities in the state, and that bureaucratic troubles with getting names changed on certificates are major hindrances to obtaining a voter ID. She emphasised that the government should simplify the process of obtaining a voter ID to make it easier for transgender people to enrol.
According to Deccan Herald, the state government has promised to enumerate the number of transgender residents in Karnataka.
Non-implementation of Karnataka transgender policy
Karnataka put into place a policy for transgender persons in 2017, on the back of the NALSA judgement of 2014. According to the South Asian Translaw Database of the Centre for Policy and Research, “The policy adopts a three-step approach – (a) enforcement of constitutional guarantees of equal access, non-discrimination, and dignity, (b) identification of responsible State institutions and departments, and (c) defining accountability mechanisms. In line with this, the policy proposes empowerment, enabling, remedial, and sustainability measures.”
The policy gives transgender persons the right to self-identify as male, female, or transgender, and prohibits discrimination in education, employment, housing, and public accommodation. It also promises safe housing for transgender children, and old age homes for transgender seniors. Further, the policy promises scholarships and livelihood opportunities for transgender persons in the state. The policy has been criticised for not including trans communities’ demands for reservation in education and employment. In July 2021, the government announced a 1% reservation for transgender persons in government jobs.
In 2021, The News Minute reported that the policy has not been implemented properly in the state. Community members protested against the non-implementation, and said that mechanisms to implement the policy that were promised by the state had not been put in place. Speaking about the current status of the policy, Uma, executive director of Jeeva, a Bengaluru-based LGBTQIA+ advocacy group, said, “The Women and Child Development Department, which serves as the nodal agency for ‘implementation’ of policies, has shown no progress in the last six years. We urge for the transfer of policy implementation responsibility to the Social Welfare Department and the allocation of a budget for the same purpose.”
Uma explained that the Women and Child Development Department is responsible for implementing several schemes, leading to a shortage of human resources to oversee the implementation of policies specifically for transgender individuals. She also highlighted the fact that no separate budget has been allocated for implementing policies targeting trans persons under the Women and Child Development Department.
According to Uma, since 2017 there has been a lack of progress on creating awareness and implementation of the transgender policy. Furthermore, there has been a frequent change of Principal Secretaries in the state government within the last two years, hindering budget allocation and implementation of policies.
Including trans persons in election activities
According to The Hindu, only 9.8% of the registered trans voters had exercised their franchise during the 2018 Assembly election; the turnout was only slightly higher – at 11.49% – for the 2019 General Elections. The appointment of Manjamma Jogathi as a poll icon is part of the effort to encourage voter turnout among transgender communities in Karnataka.
In another initiative to include trans persons in the election process, the EC office recently got a makeover by trans artists as part of the Aravani Art Project.
A note on language
‘Third gender’ is a derogatory term that implies there is a ‘first gender’ and ‘second gender’ — thereby ‘ranking’ people on the basis of their gender. Similarly, ‘transgenders’ is also a derogatory term. The right terms to use are transgender persons, trans persons, trans women, trans men, etc., depending on the context. Refer to The News Minute and Queer Chennai Chronicles’s glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms here.