NEW DELHI - This week, a city in central India’s Chhattisgarh state became the country’s first to elect an openly transgender woman as its mayor.
Running as an independent candidate in the mayoral election in Raigarh city, 35-year-old Madhu Bai Kinnar, a low-caste dalit, vanquished her rival from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by more than 4,500 votes.
Kinnar’s victory comes nine months after India’s Supreme Court, in a landmark verdict, recognized transgender people as gender-neutral or a third gender. The court called on federal and state governments to accord equal treatment to them.
Transgender politicians have won elected office in the past, but their victories’ were later overturned by courts. In 1999 and again in 2009, transgender women who won local offices reserved for female politicians were disqualified when courts ruled that they were not female.
The mayor’s office in Raigarh is not restricted to females, and so Madhu Kinnar does not face any legal challenges, making her India’s first openly transgender mayor.
Kinnar seen as antidote to business as usual
Kinnar's win has sparked a media sensation, in part because she had eked out a living by begging in trains for 15 years before turning to politics. She beat her mainstream BJP and Congress rivals in her maiden contest as an independent candidate.
After being sworn in Wednesday as Raigarh's mayor, Kinnar – wearing a white sari and pink lipstick, with a large red bindi decorating her forehead – was greeted by cheering supporters who placed marigold garlands around her neck, television footage showed.
"There is widespread corruption in the system here. We have to root out the evil. I shall sincerely work so that Raigarh’s development becomes a model across Chhattisgarh state," Kinnar told VOA after taking the oath.
In the run-up to the mayoral election in Raigarh, many citizens alleged that the city's BJP administration was corrupt and that the city had been badly managed.
Kinnar, who was previously known as Naresh Chauhan and has an eighth grade education, said that some aggrieved citizens prodded her to contest the election and she then took the plunge into active politics.
“I have grown up like a child from the families of this town. They consider me as a member of their families. They felt that if one from their families became the mayor they would get better public service. They made me contest the election and now have pushed me to victory,” Kinnar said.
In some regions of India people often complain that elected representatives steal public funds to support a luxurious lifestyle. Many said that they had voted for Kinnar with a hope that she would be different from her predecessors from mainstream parties.
“My family supported BJP in the past. But last BJP party mayor did not work well. Before that, the Congress mayor too was corrupt. The roads have turned very bad. We face severe shortage of drinking water in summer,” said Mahadeb Sen, who runs a garment stall on the street in Raigarh.
Transgenders coming out of the shadows
Social stigma and ostracism force many of India’s hundreds of thousands of transgender women, who are known as “hijras” to abandon their education. To manage their livelihood many turn to begging or resort to prostitution.
However, there are indications that India is gradually becoming more accepting of the transgender community.
Two months ago, the government-sponsored Chhattisgarh AIDS Control Society appointed MBA graduate and transgender woman Amruta Alpesh Soni as an officer for its health camps among migrant laborers.
Chennai-based human rights activist Sudha Ramalingam has welcomed Kinnar’s election as India’s first transgender mayor.
"Hats off to the electorate that has elected the openly known transgender Madhu Kinnar as the Mayor of Raigarh," said Ramalingam, a Madras High Court lawyer. "This is a right step in our march towards creating an equal society. This election demonstrates that people have also accepted a transgender to lead them as their worshipful mayor."
Kinnar’s victory has been welcomed by the transgender community across the country, said transgender woman Noorie Saleem, 65, who runs an AIDS orphans’ home in Chennai.
"We have long faced stigma and ostracism in India. Now, with Madhu Kinnar’s rise to the position of a city’s mayor, we can hold our head high in society. Our entire transgender community is elated at her victory," Saleem said.