Bengal’s Transgender Poll Officers Make History

It’s been a long, tough fight for rights, recognition and respect but, gradually, the transgender community is finally being given the right opportunities to be included in mainstream.
It’s been a long, tough fight for rights, recognition and respect but, gradually, the transgender community seems to be finding the right opportunities to link up to the mainstream.

Recently, in poll-bound West Bengal, Protima Sharma and Riya Sarkar made quiet history when they were picked out by the State Election Commission to officiate as polling agent and polling officer, respectively.

 Riya Sarkar, a transgender, made quiet history recently when she was picked by the State Election Commission to officiate as the presiding officer at booth number 260 in Rashbehari constituency, Kolkata.

Riya Sarkar, a transgender, made quiet history recently whenshe was picked by the State Election Commission to officiate as the presiding officer at booth number 260 in Rashbehari constituency, Kolkata.

Whereas Sharma, a Commerce graduate associated with a non government organisation for transgender rights, “welcomed the decision of the election body to consciously include transgender people in the poll process”, Sarkar, a government school teacher, was “thrilled” to be appointed as the presiding officer at booth number 260 in Rashbehari constituency, Kolkata, and was “happy that people are addressing me as madam”.

In fact, this election also saw another first – transgender people got to officially cast their vote in the ‘other’ category and not as ‘general’ voters.

Riya Sarkar, a government school teacher by profession, believes that transgender people need to “integrate fearlessly, speak up and become visible”.

Riya Sarkar, a government school teacher by profession,believes that transgender people need to “integrate fearlessly, speak up and become visible”.

Ranjita Sinha, who is the founder member and president of Bandhan, a non government organisation that stands up for transgender rights, feels it was indeed a “historic moment” when Sarkar, 29, and Sharma were selected to become a part of the polls.

 Ranjita Sinha, the founder member and president of Bandhan, a non government organisation that stands up for transgender rights, feels it was indeed a “historic moment” when Sarkar and Sharma were selected to become a part of the polls.

Ranjita Sinha, the founder member and president of Bandhan, a non government organisation that stands up for transgender rights, feels it was indeed a “historic moment” when Sarkar and Sharma were selected to become a part of the polls.

“I see this as a significant victory for our community. For the longest time, we have been at the margins of society and been victims of a discriminatory mindset. Instances like this will definitely have a positive impact on the overall public perception. Another amazing thing that happened this time around was that we could walk into a polling booth and cast our vote fearlessly,” says the woman, who is seen as a leader of sorts among the transgender community in Bengal. Sinha contends that both Sharma and Sarkar were chosen because they are “brave and educated”.

The Election Commission decided to rope in the transgender community because it wanted them “to shed their apprehensions, come out in the public domain and exercise their right to vote”. According to Smita Pandey, District Electoral Officer, Kolkata South, “Transgenders don’t come out in the open due to fear of rejection by society. We want them to come out. This is a message for the entire third gender to come out and disclose their identity in public.”

Despite the initial estimation of greater participation in the officiating process, in the end, their involvement became limited. “Although we had shortlisted 25 names from within the community, ultimately, only Sarkar could be roped in because as per government rules only a government employee can become a polling officer. But I do believe the support of the Election Commission will overall boost the confidence of the transgender community,” adds Pandey.

As Sarkar, a teacher at the Prachya Boys School-Dum Dum, walked into the polling both she was officiating during the sixth phase of the election – the entire process was completed in six phases from April 4 to May 5, 2016 – she couldn’t help feel a sense of pride and responsibility.

“Usually when people look at transgenders like me they point fingers and make fun of our life choices. But on that day, it was as if I forced the very people to acknowledge my presence as a transgender and honour my womanhood,” she says.

Before Sarkar, Sharma, a resident of 7 Tanks, Dum Dum, Paikpara, in north Kolkata, had been selected to be the polling agent at Kumar Ashutosh School booth that falls under Belgachia constituency in the of third phase of the elections. Essentially, a polling agent not only acts as a representative of a candidate but also assists the election authorities in the smooth conduct of the polls. S/he takes part in the mock drill to test the working of the Electronic Voter Machine (EVM), helps the Presiding Officer to detect and prevent impersonation of voters and oversees the proper sealing and handing over of the results to the Returning Officer at the close of polls.

Sharma, who is a commerce graduate and works for a multinational Company, was incredibly pleased at being appointed polling agent and wanted to “contribute towards facilitating voters in the area to freely exercise their franchise”.

Protima Sharma, who was appointed as a polling agent at Kumar Ashutosh School booth in Belgachia constituency, “welcomed the decision to consciously include transgender people in the poll process”.

Protima Sharma, who was appointed as a polling agent at Kumar Ashutosh School booth in Belgachia constituency, “welcomed the
decision to consciously include transgender people in the poll process”.

Of course, ever since the Supreme Court has officially recognised transgender people as the third gender, there have been many instances where they have tried to “integrate fearlessly, speak up and become visible” but these attempts are not yet rid of rejection and rebuke. Even Sharma and Sarkar had to contend with the usual stares and not-so-subtle derogatory remarks.

“It was not easy to sit at the booth and get started at. It was as if I was a circus animal. People were more interested in coming and staring at me instead of casting their vote. After a while, it was humiliating and it did affect my self esteem,” Sharma remarks, adding, “However, I do understand that by merely a passing a judgement or a law one can’t change the way people think and react. In our case, more visibility will effectively improve the acceptance in society.”

Sinha, too, reveals how she had to face “awkward moments” when the presiding officer at the Gokhale Road polling station, which, incidentally, falls under chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s constituency, categorised her as a general voter even though she wanted to cast her ballot in the ‘other’ category. “Being a polling officer he should have know the electoral rules. The Election Commission needs to train their polling personnel better. I had to insist several time before he conceded,” she shares.

For Sinha, Sharma or Sarkar, who were born male but “discovered their inner woman as they grew up”, so far, the struggle for an identity has been a long and rough one. “It’s not just a fight for legalisation of our rights or the repeal of Section 377; at a larger scale, it’s to bring about a positive transformation in the way we are perceived and treated socially. We are aware that long-held beliefs and prejudices can’t alter overnight so we are trying to do our bit to make it happen,” says Sinha.

Indeed, in Kolkata, the transgender community at large is ready to do what it takes to transform attitudes. To make their presence felt in the mainstream and engage with the public, they regularly organise events such as musical programmes, plays, film screenings, discussions on the transgender experience, and even special Durga Puja celebrations.

Last year, a Puja organiser in an otherwise conservative north Kolkata locality broke the mould and openly included transgender people in the rituals.

In Kolkata, to make their presence felt in the mainstream, the transgender community regularly organise events such as musical programmes, plays, film screenings, discussions on the transgender experience, and even special Durga puja celebrations

In Kolkata, to make their presence felt in the mainstream,the transgender community regularly organise events such as musical programmes, plays, film screenings, discussions on the transgender experience, and even special Durga puja celebrations.

As per Anidya Hazra, one of the members of the trendsetting Puja committee, a queer activist and the founder of Pratyay Gender Trust, “We want to establish ourselves as what we are and acceptance is necessary for that to happen. We are not from another planet; we are very much a part of the human race and expect people to understand our feelings and perspectives as well. Anything new or out of the ordinary is hard to acknowledge so we are making the effort to reach out ourselves.” For now, optimism is what they are all holding on to.

Concludes Sinha, “The rules and regulations, the behaviours won’t change till we can change the way everyone thinks – and that’s what we are all endeavoring to do in our own ways.”

Cover Image: Anidya Hazra, an activist and founder of Pratyay Gender Trust asserts that the LGBT people “want to  establish ourselves as what we are and social acceptance is necessary for that to happen”.

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About the author: Written by Dipanjana Dasgupta for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.

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