Social Justice Matters | Why some transgender groups want horizontal reservation
While there is no question that transpersons face hurdles in accessing education, employment and health care, some community activists are questioning why the government is lumping all transpersons across caste in the OBC category
How pervasive is caste? How does it affect people who are already marginalised by other identities such as gender and sexuality? These questions are at the heart of a churn in India’s transgender communities that offer a new grammar of understanding discrimination and its fallout.
The ferment is over the question of reservation for transgender communities, as originally proposed in the landmark Nalsa vs Union of India judgment of the Supreme Court in 2014. The apex court, while affirming the right of transpersons, also suggested to the government to consider members of the community as socially and economically backward, and provide reservation.
A private member’s bill, piloted by DMK’s Tiruchi Siva, was passed in the Rajya Sabha the next year – the first private members bill to go through the upper house in 45 years – with provisions for quotas for transgender people.
But when the government tabled its version of the bill in the Lok Sabha in early 2016, there was no mention of a provision for reservation – this, in fact, became one of the sticking points with the community that staged nationwide protests against the draft legislation.
The final version of the bill, passed in 2019, amended several controversial provisions mentioned in the original draft but this too steered clear of providing reservation. As late as February this year, the government told Parliament that there was no proposal to extend reservations to transgender communities.
In September, however, the Union social justice ministry moved a cabinet note suggesting that transgender communities should be included in the central list of other backward classes (OBC). If approved, transpersons will be able to avail the 27% quota for OBCs in government educational institutions and jobs.
But what do transpersons want? While there is no question that transpersons are discriminated against, face significant hurdles in accessing education, employment and health care, and are constantly mired in economic and social precarity, some community activists are questioning why the government is lumping all transpersons across caste in the OBC category.
Led by Dalit-trans activists, these groups say that to see all transpersons as one, regardless of their caste background, is erroneous because caste is all-pervasive and affects transgender communities in various ways. They say that for Dalit and Adivasi transpersons to be categorised as OBC, and, therefore, be forced to avail reservation under the OBC category, betrays a lack of understanding of how caste and gender interplay in their lives.
“Dalit and Adivasi transpersons face so many issues that are due to both their caste and gender. Therefore, putting them in the OBC category betrays the constitutional promise of reservation and social justice,” Dalit-trans activist Grace Banu told a press conference in Delhi on Wednesday.
They also say that it will be tough for transgender people to access reservation under a category that already has thousands of communities vying for a share – given the stigma and discrimination they face in even stepping into schools and government buildings.
Their solution: a more targeted reservation dedicated to the transgender community, which can have a fixed number of seats set aside under each existing category. This system, called horizontal reservations, will mean that transpersons will be able to access quotas under their respective caste categories. Trans groups say that this will also translate into actual benefits for the community because, with dedicated seats reserved for them, barriers to education and employment will be drastically lowered.
This may seem like nitpicking but the demand for horizontal reservations has important takeaways. It challenges a growing trend of viewing reservations as a blunt tool to alleviate poverty (think of the economically weaker sections, an essentially upper-caste category) or distribute power (the stirs launched by several communities such as Jats, Patels and Marathas, afraid of losing their longstanding social and economic dominance) and imagines it, as Dr Ambedkar did in the 1920s, as a precise instrument to fight caste-based stratification. It shows us how quotas can be better tailored to include communities that were originally left out of the net.
Crucially, it rejects any simplistic understanding of what marginalisation and hierarchy are – by underlining that caste is pervasive and shapes all experiences in India, even if not immediately obvious. By emphasising that their caste backgrounds cannot be conflated with upper-caste transpersons, Dalit-trans activists are saying that their experiences of caste-based discrimination and bias are just as visceral and important as their experience of gender-based oppression – in line with what Columbia University professor Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 called intersectionality, or the experience of multiple forms of interconnected oppression.
They argue that their caste and gender identities cannot be seen as separate from each other, and that the transgender communities are not casteless; drawing from decades of work by anti-caste thinkers, they are emphasising that being seen as casteless only benefits the privileged castes and any real promise of social justice has to be rooted in the everyday realities of caste-marginalised people. In Banu’s words, “We want rights, not pity.”
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