Amid the heat and dust of India’s elections, transgender woman Sneha Kale from Mumbai is making history
By Kunal Purohit
Published: 5:35pm, 27 April, 2019
Sneha Kale is contesting one of the six parliamentary seats in Mumbai – the first transgender person to run in the city’s parliamentary elections
Sneha Kale, a 28-year-old transgender woman who is running for office in Mumbai. Photo: Chandni Gajria
In eastern Mumbai’s Ramabai Colony, a densely-populated slum settlement with a mainly Dalit population, young boys smirk at the mention of her name. The narrow lanes leading to her two-room house bear no sign of the colour and chaos that accompany an Indian election. There are no crowds, no curious onlookers, no party flags or banners advertising the candidate.
But, this isn’t your average election campaign.
Sneha Kale is a 28-year-old transgender woman who is contesting one of the six parliamentary seats in Mumbai, the Mumbai North Central constituency, when the city goes to the polls on April 29. In doing so, Kale is making history.
She is the first transgender person to run in the parliamentary elections for Mumbai and one of the first, nationwide.
"I had to grow long hair and shape my eyebrows. My family disliked it immensely."
Kale’s agenda is social welfare – she is promising a pension for older transgender people and widows of farmers who have committed suicide due to agrarian distress, cheaper cooking gas and better controls on inflation.
“I am contesting the polls so that some traditionally neglected sections like ours can benefit,” she explains.
But the biggest chunk of her poll promises is reserved for her community, the Hijra community, known locally as Kinnars. There are good reasons for this – the community has been waging a long battle for equality, both before the law and with society.
It was in 2014 that the Supreme Court recognised the third gender status for the community. However, its members continues to suffer ostracisation and discrimination.
Employment, formal and otherwise, is hard to come by and so is education. Hence, people like Kale, despite being a commerce graduate, have to beg on the streets or do sex work.
Sitting in her yellow-walled, two-room house which has just two pieces of furniture – a cupboard and a chair – Kale gives short answers, her eyes watery from a lack of sleep.
The chair is overflowing with clothes and documents, so Kale sits on the floor and talks about her battle to gain acceptance.
Growing up as a boy named Sagar, Kale soon realised she was “different”.
“My mannerisms, my body language, my habits, all these were different from boys my age,” she says.
Fond of dancing, she secretly started cross-dressing and performing lavani, a regional dance form, on stage in front of a largely-male audience. “I had to grow long hair and shape my eyebrows. My family disliked it immensely.” But Kale continued. She started inventing excuses to stay out.
“An extra class at school, a friend’s birthday – I would try everything in order to hide my dancing from my family.”
She kept getting better at it and gained fame, even won awards, the biggest being an award she was given by a regional language newspaper.
The morning after the glittering award ceremony, her luck ran out. She was woken up by her parents – the newspaper had published her photo on the front page. “That’s when they realised that I had been secretly dancing all these years.”
Ever since, the family started distancing themselves from her. As soon as she turned 19, Kale left home. “That’s when reality hit me – there were no jobs for transgender people. I was capable, I had a graduate’s degree, but everyone judged me for my sexuality.”
Sneha Kale is seen in Mumbai. Photo: Chandni Gajria
For a while, she had a job at a charity that worked on transgender issues, but that barely covered her expenses.
She quit and has since been on the streets, begging. But it wasn’t easy. Once she was nearly raped by a man armed with a knife. “Some people abuse us, others taunt us, asking why we aren’t working,” she adds.
She has carved the city into seven parts, one for each day. “I go to fixed areas each day, visiting shops and businesses. Each shop gives me one rupee (US$0.014).”
Hijras are a common sight on Indian streets, seeking alms at traffic junctions, marriages, inaugurations. The stereotype follows her during the campaign as well, when she goes to the doorsteps of voters, holds small public meetings and walks around in different neighbourhoods.
On one of the first days of the campaign, a person handed her a 10 rupee note, thinking she had come to seek alms. “I returned it with a smile and said, this time, I am seeking votes, not alms.”
The political arithmetic, though, is loaded heavily against her. Kale is up against two heavyweight candidates, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of parliament Poonam Mahajan and a former, two-time lawmaker Priya Dutt from the Indian National Congress. She neither has the money – her assets total US$21 – nor the electoral machinery to reach her 1.6 million voters.
Hence, Kale says she does not count electoral success as the only parameter. “For me, each vote is a sign of acceptability, of one more person accepting me and our community.”
The campaign is also deeply personal. When she came out to her family members, they cut off all ties. Slowly, her parents started talking to her, but her brothers still do not.
That is why, the fame and adulation she has received as a candidate is a validation of her life choices, she says.
“Today, when I see my name in the newspapers, I feel glad I made the choice to live life my way. The world knows me for it.”