I began to understand the true history of India, the true history of exclusion. I realised I wanted to do more. I wanted to fight for inclusion
“The same youth who used to sit on the compound walls, smoking, mocking transgender people, calling us names — today, they work with us,” Akshata K C says, with pride. Over 12 years of unceasing activism and community intervention by Akshata, a transgender activist, have changed the societal landscape in Haveri.
Not only has Akshata, 31, changed how others view sexual and gender minorities but also how transgender people view themselves. At the meetings of the Transgender Coordination Committee in Haveri district, for instance, it was common for transgender people to occupy the back seats, as Mohammed recalls. “Akshata went straight to the front row and sat right next to the Deputy Commissioner, one day. We were all shocked,” says the activist who works with the transgender community, alongside Akshata.
When others questioned her boldness, Akshata answered, “It is a meeting about us and for us. Why should we not sit in front and actually be heard?”
It is this fearlessness that is now reflected in the community. “Since that day, we all walk in and participate with the same courage. Today, I too sit next to the DC without any fear,” says Mohammed.
Over the past decade, her assertive activism has changed the lives of many like Mohammed for the better. Akshata credits this transformation to B R Ambedkar, Savitri Bai Phule and the Buddha, whose portraits line the walls of her home and office.
Their lives and accomplishments have inspired her to lay emphasis on the values of equality, liberty and constitutional rights through her vocal advocacy. Using Ambedkar’s words, the activist has bolstered and led movements for the rights of Dalits, farmers, daily-wage workers, transgenders, pourakarmikas, students, women and children.
Through campaigns and community interventions, her messages on the freedom of expression have brought hope to many. She and her team support vulnerable people in accessing legal remedies and employment opportunities. They also organise rehabilitation and livelihood-building programmes.
Awareness about legal procedures was low, explains Sadiq, a social worker at Sanjeevini Samsthe, the NGO Akshata presides over. “Most people are not aware of the by-laws. We take the judgments and the laws and show it to the officials and get the work done,” says Sadiq.
Documentation and registration have also been major achievements. Obtaining legal documents becomes very difficult for transgenders, as their official names and genders have not been updated.
Through door-to-door interventions, the NGO conducted a survey in the district, registering 1,252 sexual minorities and 350 transgenders.
“Since 350 is such a small number compared to the 16 lakh population of Haveri, transgenders are neglected. But the provisions of the Constitution must reach everyone,” says Akshata.
The impact of her work is not limited to the community level, as government and police officials too have begun to view the transgender community differently. “Historically, the community has not been so involved in administration. But I have seen her, along with others, come to the mainstream. Government officials are more respectful now,” says Sathish Kumar Hosamani, district supervisor at the AIDS Control Office. He also credits their advocacy with faster implementation of schemes and projects, better documentation and greater accountability.
The result of consistent efforts has improved the relationship between the sexual minorities and the police in the district. “Earlier, we faced a great deal of harassment by police, when we stood at signals or even just in public,” says Lakshmi, a transgender person from Ranebennuru, Haveri.
Today, the relationship has become far more collaborative. “If they see a transgender person who needs help, or is in an unsafe situation, police immediately call us,” she says. This has also significantly cut down the rate of illegal activities and crimes against transgenders in the district, Lakshmi explains.
Akshata’s motivation to effect change has been fuelled by the trials and tribulations she has faced. Born into a Chalavadi family, she was subjected to layers of discrimination, paving her journey with pain and exclusion. She explains how society could not digest her, “First, I was born a Dalit. On top of that, I was born a man, but did not become one. Finally, I liked a man,” she says.
“Growing up like this, in a society that deemed who I was as ‘immoral’ and ‘impure’, I did not even know who I was inside,” she adds.
Subject to insults from peers, and worse ridicule from teachers for her ‘feminine’ interests and behaviour, she was abandoned by her family when she was in II PUC. “The words I have heard, the names I have been called. To this day, they burn my skin,” says Akshata. Left to fend for herself in her 20s, she turned to sex work, vulnerable to violence and abuse every day.
It was at a traffic signal that Akshata found hope. “I was at my lowest. I was crying on the side of the road when a judge who was travelling in a car stopped and spoke to me,” she recounts.
The passerby gave her a book of Ambedkar’s writings. She also began to read the works of Basavanna, the Buddha and the Phules. “I began to understand the true history of India, the true history of exclusion. I realised I wanted to do more. I wanted to fight for inclusion,” she adds.
Freshly inspired, she decided to centre her efforts around the Constitution, encouraging people to read it and understand their rights. However, even in the process of building a social movement, the activist fought off double discrimination. “At demonstrations for Dalit rights, other activists would ask, ‘could you not find a man or woman to come?’ They would not even give me a chair to sit on,” Akshata recounts.
“Even last week, when we went to an event, everyone was shocked and uncomfortable to see a transgender coming up to give a speech. However, she spoke only for two minutes on the Constitution, and people flocked around her for hours afterwards,” says Mohammed.
Others who accepted her gender were taken aback when the caste issue arose. “In one house, they used to consider me a blessing and worked very closely with me. One day, I mentioned my full name. When they heard my caste, they were shaken. They hesitated to give me water in their utensils,” she says.
The challenges facing the transgender community, the Dalit community and its intersections in the lives of people like Akshata are many. Bias and discrimination are very much evident in several spaces. “In many cases, they appoint transgenders in committees and policymaking spaces as a token gesture,” says Hanumantha, a local activist.
The road to equality is a long path to tread. This is evident in the scepticism, disdain or confusion found in some eyes, as Akshata and her team walk across Haveri. Yet, the victory is visible too, in their heads held high, in the polite and genuine greetings of local schoolchildren, and in the lives of hundreds of people who, owing to them, know and claim their rights.