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Trans woman challenges Indian PM in his own backyard

47-year-old Hemangi Sakhi also happens to be a Hindu seer and from Narendra Modi’s home state
Mahamandaleshwar Hemangi Sakhi.

Mahamandaleshwar Hemangi Sakhi. (Photo: Facebook)

Published: April 24, 2024 11:22 AM GMT
Updated: April 24, 2024 12:14 PM GMT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces an unlikely electoral challenge in his well-nurtured Varanasi parliamentary constituency from transgender Hemangi Sakhi, who, incidentally, is a top Hindu seer. This 47-year-old challenger is also from Modi’s home state, Gujarat.

“When will we, transgender people, sit in the Indian parliament?” asks Sakhi, getting straight to the point. It’s a simple query she poses to India’s roughly 970 million electors who will be choosing 541 candidates to represent them in the Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament in the ongoing general election.

And, if that isn’t possible, why not send a representative of the transgender community to the upper house, known as the Rajya Sabha, where businesspeople, sports, and film stars often get nominated by political parties? “Is it because they are rich and famous? Why has no transgender person been nominated to the Indian parliament to date?” she asks.

Transgenders in India are often seen begging on the streets for a living. And even worse, many among them enter prostitution as a means of survival. Sakhi wonders why this is not a matter of concern for her countrymen.

Her decision to enter the parliamentary contest is “not meant to hog the limelight but to make a difference and ensure her community people get some benefits.” However, the choice of Varanasi, which has been the prime minister’s constituency since 2014, is a “well-thought-out, strategic one.”

Sakhi has no desire to challenge Modi, who is seeking a third straight term. But her candidature against him will be noticed, not only nationally but internationally, or so she hopes. Of course, it is an electoral contest, and anything can happen.

Varanasi goes to the polls in the last phase of the seven-phased general election on June 1. The results will be out on June 4.

The announcement of Sakhi’s candidature has aroused much interest among the media and the ordinary masses. It was made by the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha (all-India Hindu Congress), a hardline Hindu group, which intended to field her as its official nominee.

Sakhi told UCA News that the group backed out “under tremendous pressure” from Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

The prime minister is projected by his party as the Hindu Hriday Samrat or emperor of Hindu hearts and to have a Hindu seer run against him would have caused some embarrassment to India’s ruling party, which swears by Hindu nationalistic ideals.

Moreover, Sakhi is a Mahamandaleshwar, which means "head of significant and/or numerous monasteries,” drawing parallels with an archbishop. However, the Hindu religious hierarchy could be both much broader and complicated.

Her journey to the top of the religious hierarchy has been quite interesting.

Sakhi was born in Gujarat and relocated to India’s financial capital Mumbai (previously Bombay) where her father launched himself as a film distributor. Here, she studied in a Christian school for a few years. Her studies were cut short after both her parents died.

A staunch devotee of Lord Krishna, she started her spiritual journey at a young age at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple near her home in Mumbai. She has come a long way since.

A polyglot fluent in five languages, her Facebook page claims she is the “world’s first transgender Bhagavatkathawachak,” or preacher of Hindu religious texts, who travels around the world on her chosen mission.

It was her travels around the globe that made her aware of transgender rights. She got her first cue about contesting elections primarily from Western countries based on her gender identity.

The world is fast changing, she says. The United States alone has 77 transgenders in official positions. Among them is Rachel Levine, the first openly transgender person appointed as assistant health secretary in President Joe Biden’s administration.

Closer to home, Pauline Ngarmpring became Thailand’s first trans candidate for prime minister last year.

“When will we [in India] get the rights, acceptance, recognition, and respect that we deserve?” This question lingers in her mind. Sakhi says she knows well that it may take time.

The latest data made available by the Election Commission of India reveals that 48,044 third-gender voters were registered with it in 2024, up from 39,683 in 2019.

Media reports say the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat has some 1.96 million voters, including only 135 third-gender individuals.

So, where does Sakhi draw her optimism? Of course, from India’s potential to be among the progressive countries, she says.

India’s top court has declared transgender people the “third gender’ and all five judges on a constitution bench in October last year granted transgender people in heterosexual relationships the right to marry under existing laws governing marital unions, including personal laws.

Sakhi sees no problem in the country’s progressive judges and the legal system enabling and empowering the members of the transgender community to hold important positions in the country, including in parliament and assemblies.

“So, what better place to begin with than a parliamentary election?” she asks.

While she would like to see Modi sweat a bit more than usual in the heat of India’s summer election season, Sakhi’s sights are fixed upon “first and foremost, the setting up of a Kinnar [Transgender] Welfare Commission” that will ensure direct benefits including free education and job guarantees for her community members across the country.

“And secondly, political reservations in the state legislative bodies and parliament,” she added.

She intends to highlight this during her campaign in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, her new battleground.

“If I can be accepted as a Mahalandaleswar, why not accept me as a parliamentarian?” she says in her election pitch.

The big fight in Varanasi is just the beginning, she assures the media.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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