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India's Eunuchs Run for Political Offices - 2002-02-12

Indians go to the polls this week in state elections being held in four of India's 28 states. Most attention is focused on India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where 98 million eligible voters could cast ballots. Voter dissatisfaction in Uttar Pradesh is high this year, and that is benefiting a traditional group of social outcasts in India - eunuchs.

Politics is entertainment in Kanpur a gritty industrial city about 400 kilometers east of New Delhi. Those demonstrators are calling out "long live Pawa the eunuch." As they pass through Kanpur's narrow dirty streets many residents wave back, signaling their support.

Pawa the eunuch is a 54-year-old leader, or "guru" as she prefers to call herself, of Kanpur's small eunuch community.

Eunuchs are men who are either born without developed sexual organs or who choose to dress and live as woman. Hundreds of years ago eunuchs ran the courts of the Mogul emperors, but today they are social outcasts.

This year Pawa is running for a seat in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly, one of about a dozen eunuchs running for office in the state.

Pawa says like many other voters she is disgusted with what she calls rampant corruption in the state. Pawa says she is also fulfilling an age-old prophecy of the Hindu lord Ram, who once said that eunuchs would rule in India.

Pawa says from the minute she decided to run for a seat as an independent candidate for the Uttar Pradesh State assembly she has received overwhelming support.

Pawa says her neighbors and supporters virtually forced her to run for office, which may show that attitudes towards eunuchs are changing in India. This year there are more eunuchs running for state assembly seats than ever before. Eunuchs rarely get involved in politics in India, although several have run for local office in recent years.

Known as Hijras, or Kinnars, they are often called "the Devil's children." Many make their living by showing up at households where a baby has been born, or at weddings, threatening to disrobe and publicly display their deformities unless they are paid a substantial amount of money. Terrified of the wailing and profane antics of the eunuchs, most Indian families pay up.

But Pawa says many of her neighbors tell her they believe eunuchs are more honest than their politicians. She says most politicians only care about getting jobs for their families, which is not a problem for eunuchs.

Pawa's supporters like Saroj Shrivastava a 26-year-old housewife says the eunuch deserves a chance.

It does not matter to me what she is. What matters to me is that she serves the people and delivers what she says she would.

Other Kanpur residents are more skeptical of Pawa's candidacy. Azad Mishra a 60-year-old transport executive says Pawa and the six other eunuchs running for state assembly seats in Kanpur have no business being in politics. "They are totally illiterate," he said. "They have no knowledge of politics or how to run a government, how to do things for the people. They simply know one thing; to make noise and to clap; that is all."

Pawa's opponent is Haji Mushtaq Solanki, the sitting member of the legislative assembly from Kanpur's Aryanagar district home to 200,000 people. Mr. Solanki who is running on the Samajwadi Party ticket says he is running against 10 candidates, but he is not worried about Pawa winning. "This is a laughing matter," he said. "We cannot think of a eunuch candidate winning elections in the country. If this happens India will go backward."

Haji Mushtaq Solanki says Pawa the eunuch is a freak and has no business being in politics. He says he wants to concentrate on serious opponents like the man running on the ticket of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

But Haji Mushtaq Solanki's boss says he is not dismissing the eunuchs completely. Amar Singh is the general secretary of the Samajwadi Party and one of India's most influential politicians. He says voters this year are in an angry mood. "Conventional politicians - they are being seen with a lot of contempt and hatred," he said. "So the voters are so angry and upset with them they say vote for anyone, including this eunuch."

Amar Singh says Indians are more fed up than ever with political corruption. That issue he says will dominate the voting in Uttar Pradesh and the eunuch candidates and those who back them are taking advantage of the situation.

Indian voters he says are so dispirited they are turning to the country's traditional outcasts for answers and politicians should be worried.