The panel discussion was going at full throttle when Justice Altamas Kabir walked in. A hushed silence fell over the room as the participants realised that a Supreme Court judge had just joined the debate. With a swish of his hand, a visibly embarrassed Justice Kabir gestured for everyone to resume the discussion.
At the end of the session here on Saturday, the judge had a number of questions to ask and suggestions to make.
Such was the support that the national seminar on ‘Transgenders and the Law’ received from the higher echelons of the judiciary that it was hard to absorb that it dealt with the plight of one of the most invisible minorities in India.
Justice Kabir, who inaugurated the seminar, jointly organised by the National and Delhi Legal Services Authority and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), spoke of the need to treat the transgender community with respect and dignity.
“The Constitution affirms equality in all spheres but the moot question is whether it is being applied.”
Earlier, delivering the keynote address the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, M.Y. Eqbal, enumerated the steps taken by the Tamil Nadu government to integrate transgenders into the mainstream community.
“The progress made in fostering public health systems and affirmative action policies for transgenders in Tamil Nadu should be replicated at the national level.”
Highlighting their problems, Justice Eqbal said there was no space available for them in hospital wards.
“The authorities do not admit them in the women’s ward because women do not feel comfortable or free in their presence, and in the men’s ward they face sexual abuse. Besides, there are no separate toilet facilities for them.”
Echoing Justice Eqbal’s sentiments, the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Dipak Mishra, who presided, urged the mainstream society to draw strength from “the compassionate ethos” of the Constitution.
Justice V. Vikramajit Sen of the Delhi High Court, in his opening remarks, said the judiciary needed to enable the transgender community’s right to social inclusion.
It came to light at the seminar that neighbouring Nepal and Pakistan had remarkably progressive laws that dealt with the concerns of transgenders. In fact, the Supreme Court of Pakistan recently delivered a landmark decision upholding the rights of the community to access all public schemes.
Caitlin Wiesen, Country Director of the UNDP, said it had documented ground realities in India, and it was clear that many concerns of transgenders had not been addressed.
The opening segment was followed by two technical sessions at which resource persons attempted to “unveil the truth” about the transgenders and elaborated on the medical, health and legal issues faced by them.
“We have faced innumerable hurdles, right from getting a job to adopting a child,” said Kalki Subramaniam, who heads the Sahodari Foundation in Chennai.
“And it is time that society realised that being transgender is not about begging or sex work.”