Indore: Should Shabnam Mausi be using the men’s restroom or the women’s? That’s the rather discomfiting question administrators at the Madhya Pradesh state assembly wrestled with on the day Mausi attended the legislature for the first time in 2000. Mausi made her own choice: She decided to use the women’s.
Mausi, the first enunch to get elected to a state assembly, trounced opponents from all major parties in a by-election she contested as an independent candidate that year. After being unseated in 2003, the 48-year-old is back seeking votes for the 27 November polls, this time on a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ticket.
Mausi, who contested the election on an anti-corruption plank in 2000, hopes to win votes this time on her promise to work for all sections of the electorate in her constituency. Madhya Pradesh’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is highlighting the government’s economic development and public welfare initiatives and the Congress party counting on an anti-incumbency wave amid corruption charges against some state ministers.
In action: Shabnam Mausi. S Shiv Kumar / HT
But she is no longer a curiosity in a state where five eunuchs have been elected to various public offices since 2000. There are at least 10 eunuchs, popularly known in the subcontinent as hijras, contesting the polls to the 230-member state assembly this year, according to election officials.
Strangely for what is known to be a close-knit community, some eunuchs say Shabnam being one of them wouldn’t count as a factor in the way they vote. And the candidate herself is emphatic that she wouldn’t be partial to the eunuchs.
“I do not think people from our community should contest elections,” says Seema, who heads a group of eunuchs in this Madhya Pradesh town. “We are the people who live on others’ goodwill. So why should we upset anyone (other candidates)?”
India is home to an estimated 500,000 eunuchs, who swear by their non-male identity. Members of the community have traditionally lived on the fringes of society, earning a livelihood by gatecrashing family events such as marriages and childbirth, where they offer blessings believed to bring good luck.
Legend has it that Hindu god Ram, while leaving for the forests where he was banished from his kingdom for 14 years, turned to his followers and asked all the “men and women” to return to the city. Only the eunuchs stayed back, and pleased with their devotion, Ram sanctioned them the power to confer blessings on people. That legend is behind the custom of badhai in which eunuchs sing and dance and bless people.
In recent years, some of them, like Mausi, have aspired for public office after eunuchs were granted voting rights in 1994. But most members of the community are content to play the role of entertainers, applauding, dancing and singing, adding colour to poll campaigns.
Charan Singh, head of Development, Advocacy and Research Trust (DART), a Delhi-based non-governmental organization that has been working for the welfare of homosexuals and eunuchs, says there is no visible change in public attitude yet towards the eunuchs.
“Although there is a more visible presence of eunuchs in the state election scenario, it is not helping the community,” he says. “There is not much happening afterwards (after their election as representatives). They themselves are not able to do much for their community...their presence just adds to the glitter in the campaign.”
Mausi, who won the byelection in 2000 from Sohagpur constituency of Shahdol district, is contesting the Kotma assembly seat this time around.
Apart from Mausi, another eunuch, Kamla Jaan, was elected mayor of Katni town in 2001 and in the same year Meena Bai became president of the Sehora town municipality—both in Madhya Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur also elected a eunuch, Asha Devi, as its mayor in 2000.
For Seema and 50 other eunuchs living under one roof, “whoever is doing something for our locality will get our votes”.
“We do not have special demands for ourselves,” Seema said. “We have not got any benefits (due to election of eunuchs). Shabnam has not done anything for us.”
Although a school dropout, Mausi claims to be able to speak in 12 languages, and said in Tamil that she wouldn’t treat the eunuchs any differently from other people.
“They (most eunuchs) do not wish for the welfare of the entire society. But I want to work for the people and my constituency,” she said in Tamil.
“Why should I promote people from my community as most of them are trying to exploit people’s goodwill? I am supposed to take care of the interests of my voters, and not my community people alone,” she said in a phone interview from Kotma.
Khairati Lal Bhola, who is the founder of the All India Hijra Kalyan Sabha (eunuchs’ welfare society) and has worked to earn the eunuchs voting rights and the right to hold passports, has turned into one of their worst crtics and is dismissive of their political aspirations.
“They cannot do anything other than singing and dancing for other candidates,” Bhola says. “They are neither concerned about the people’s welfare nor are they united. They are interested only in making money. Most of them are very rich.”
In the national capital, where eunuchs number 30,000, they are scattered and don’t have any influence in any particular constituency, Bhola said.