When democracy discriminates: India’s road to inclusion

Why India is struggling to include LGBTI voters in its ‘Festival of Democracy’

Kaveri Mishra

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

15 May 2019

Trouble voting is just the tip of the iceberg, but reform to get out the vote presents a unique opportunity for India to advance LGBTI inclusion, Kaveri Mishra writes.

Elections in India are an enormous task. In the world’s largest democratic exercise, 900 million eligible voters will participate in a ‘Festival of Democracy’ of seven phases, to be held from April 11 to May 19.

Naturally, the Election Commission of India (ECI) wants to maximise participation in the coming elections, but it is facing a very specific problem with the LGBTI community.

There are no accurate size estimates of the Indian LGBTI population, but in 2012 the government announced that 2.5 million people had self-declared as LGBTI to the Ministry of Health. Of course, it can be assumed that the true number is much higher as many LGBTI people conceal their identity in fear of discrimination.

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In September 2018, India’s highest court rid the country of a colonial-era law criminalising ‘unnatural sex’. This formally legalised homosexuality, and was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era that would bring about broader social and political change. It was a ray of hope among the LGBTI population of India that they may one day have equality.

However, in spite of the verdict, that hope remains unrealised. The LGBTI population is subject to continued discrimination, while regressive attitudes are widespread. The elections have been no different; the LGBTI community continue to be neglected by politicians and the state.

In order to participate in elections in India, an identity card with accurate information is required. However, despite the introduction of a third gender category to identity documents, it remains hard for LGBTI people in India to be recognised as such.

To qualify for third gender status, a medical certificate is needed. This can be difficult to attain due to transphobic attitudes amongst medical professionals and the fear of being outed to society, especially in rural areas where homosexuality remains highly stigmatised. As a result, those of the LGBTI community find it difficult to take part in the voting process.

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In a creative attempt to solve the problem, the ECI is employing transgender Indians as ‘brand ambassadors’ for the first time. The goal is to encourage sexually diverse people to vote.

The initiative marks a positive step for the sex and gender diverse community in India, but the reality on the ground is more challenging and complex. For decades, LGBTI people have suffered discrimination and insults, and have even been forced into prostitution, and excluded from other work.

Leaders in the community have demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Shree Gauri Sawant is a transgender person who has been appointed as an election ambassador in India. She argues that LGBTI people are deprived access to medical care and job opportunities, and that they are excluded from the system more broadly.

Some view the problems faced by India’s sex and gender diverse community as a cultural and religious issue strongly ingrained in society. Regardless of its roots, it is clear that strong stigma against the sexually diverse population remains in India.

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The ECI’s attempts to encourage sexually diverse people to the ballot box are a good start, but India needs to implement basic laws that provide easier access to a legal identity. Even after this is achieved, it will be only the beginning. Strong political will is needed to bring LGBTI people into Indian society in an inclusive way, and making it easier for them to vote in the upcoming elections is a good opportunity to take a step towards this.

To what extent these approaches will change things in India remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. Overcoming laws in India is only part of the story. Combating social stigma in Indian society is a very challenging task and requires assertive leadership that will help combat discrimination wherever it arises.

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