On the 16th of April we at RAQS (Resistive Alliance for Queer Solidarity), an Allahabad based queer collective planned an event commemorating Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s birthday but as a result of violent shooting the night before, section 144 was implemented and the internet was suspended throwing a wrench in our plans. We ended up having a private event where our guest of honour Disha Pinki Shaikh, a dalit transgender poet and the spokesperson of Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi (VBA) from Maharashtra shared her journey and how Baba Saheb’s teachings have helped her move forward in her life.
After the initial introductions, Disha took us through her childhood days as someone from a ghumantu (nomad) family who had to start working as a ragpicker at a young age to survive. “Mai bahut buri zindagi, bahut acche tareeke se jee rahi thi” (I was living a very difficult life quite well), she says contentedly. She follows it by accepting the vices that she had growing up; conservatism, communalism, patriarchy, etc.
But all of this changed when she met a young man associated with Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism ideology and was close to Comrade Sharad Patil. He had started a study centre in Disha’s area, but she had no interest in it. However, since she was attracted to the guy handling the centre, she began going there just to impress him. When she became a regular at the centre, the guy gave her two books to read, Annabhau Sathe ka Samagra Sahitya (Collected works of Annabhau Sathe) & Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s Majhi Atma Katha (Autobiography of Baba Saheb Ambedkar). She had only read a few pages of the latter when she closed it out of boredom as she couldn’t connect with Dr. Ambedkar. Initially it all seemed alien to her but when she began reading Annabhau Sathe, she was able to finish his book in just two weeks as it talked about people like her, living in the conditions that she did which gave her the clarity to see & understand the problems in her life and living conditions.
This made her go back to Dr. Ambedkar’s autobiography. When she started reading him again, she realized that while Annabhau Sathe was telling her about the problems, Baba Saheb was giving her the solutions. While this immensely comforted her, seeing that neither of them talked about same-sex attraction or the queer community made her feel that that part of her life was still excluded. This sense of exclusion affected her mental health deeply, and she decided to become a saint. She believed that if she goes on the path of sainthood it would help her get rid of such ‘sinful’ attractions. But even this journey was short lived as she soon realized that even saints aren’t devoid of politics, lust, power, money etc. After a fellow disciple of her guru tried to harass her, she asked the guru for permission to leave.
From there she found her way to Mumbai where she came across a pamphlet of Humsafar Trust in a toilet. She visited the Trust with much hesitation & uncertainty, but with time she opened up and received free consultation to understand herself and also made new friends. They helped her come to terms with her gender identity. This newfound understanding of her identity clarified many things for her. But since she wasn’t formally educated, she couldn’t find a proper job. She ended up making someone her guru in the traditional hijra gharana. They soon became close and she started to live her life as a disciple of her guru. As a hijra person, she had to learn to beg to earn a living. The first time she had to beg at a crossing, she looked at the coin someone gave her and cried for hours. It was only then that she realized the difficulty of begging and having to put one’s self-respect aside while doing so.
In 2008, she again fell in love with a man whom she would later describe as a patriarch and who used to treat her “like a wife”. Those days she would feel that everything was going well, and she didn’t feel the need to be involved in any sort of movement. Her happiness came crashing down in 2014 when her partner’s mother started to pressurize him to marry. Initially he tried to resist by saying that he was already married to a woman from a ghumantu janjati (nomadic tribe) but eventually they decided to separate. This heavily affected her mental health which led her to question the lack of acceptance as a ghumantu and a transwoman. That’s when she realized that she doesn’t need to fight an individual but rather many ideologies. This led her to share her thoughts on several personal and political issues on Facebook. Her writings garnered attention and support from several progressives, Ambedakarites and leftists. Eventually, she read Dr. Ambedkar’s Buddha and His Dhamma which gave her perspective and clarity from within which motivated her to carve her future.
Over time, Disha felt a strong resemblance with several political decisions taken by Prakash Ambedkar, and decided to join VBA. Eventually she was appointed as the spokesperson of the party for Maharashtra and became the first transgender person to hold such a position for a political party. She shared an incident that transpired during the 2019 elections. TV9, a Marathi news channel rescinded their invitation to her as the spokesperson from VBA after finding out that she is a transwoman. The party stood with her and demanded that the channel should apologize. The party choosing to stand with her made her truly feel respected. She also mentioned how many bigger parties have people from the LGBTQIA+ communities as members but none of them get the opportunity to put forward the demands of their community or speak for the party on any important issues.
While we had aimed for the event to be a loud and clear message for everyone to understand the importance of Dr. Ambedkar’s politics for the marginalized, and specifically queer community, this was instead transformed into a silent protest amidst forced internet lockdown and section 144. This event, though private, was a public disobedience against the state’s undemocratic and unconstitutional excesses.
Poet and convener of Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh (Progressive Writers’ Association)Sandhya Navodita shared that it was refreshing that finally transgender people are getting the space they deserve to share their opinions and aren’t treated as a spectacle, however as a society we still have a long way to go. Meeting Disha Shaikh was a privilege as she had broken several stereotypes imposed by the society and stated her reality honestly, she narrated her struggles as they were and never romanticised it. Our host, Dr. Nidhi, said that the simplicity with which Disha narrated her experience and how seamlessly she progressed towards the relevance of Baba Saheb in our lives as well as politics was inspiring. Her assertion that her politics included people from all marginalized sections, inspires us to do the same. Our evening ended with her reading her poems of which I would like to mention one which was especially moving:
क्यों रे छिनाल, रेप ही हुआ है ना तेरा?
इसमें कौन सी बड़ी बात है?
रेप ही हुआ है, सबके साथ ही होता है।
दूसरी पूछती है, कितने लोग थे रे? क्या-क्या किया? हैंडसम थे क्या?
अगर मैं होती ना, पार्टी दे देती सबको!
तीसरी बोलती है, ए धंधे वाली रांड कंप्लेंट के बारे में सोचना नही हो।
बहुत मादरचोद लोग है और हमको तो वही जाना-जीना-रहना है।
चौथी बोलती है, चल शॉपिंग को चलते है मुझे कल के लिए कुछ लिपस्टिक और सैंडल खरीदने है।
पांचवी बोलती है, साला झक मराये हमने यहाँ आ कर, इसको समझाना फ़िज़ूल है।
फिर छठी बोलती है, चलो यार यहाँ से।
इतने में वो भी समझ गई के कुछ नही कर सकते, वो उठ के हाथ-मुँह धोती है।
फिर कबर्ड से एक सारी निकाल के बदन पे डालती है और उन छः लोगों से पूछती है, मैं कैसी दिख रही हूँ?
और ये सुन वो सभी शांत हो जाते है और उसको गले लगाकर रोने लगते है।
और उन लोगों ने अपने रोने की आवाज़ उस कमरे में बंद की और निकले बाहर बेपरवाह बन कर, हंसते हुए खिलखिलाते हुए।
अब उनको बलात्कार की आदत हो चुकी थी।
(Translated to English by Chittajit)
Hey, you whore, you’ve only been raped, right?
What’s the big deal?
It’s just rape, it happens to everyone!
The second one asks enthusiastically, how many were they? What did they do? Were they handsome?
If it would’ve been me, I would’ve thrown a party!
The third one says, don’t you dare to even think of filing a complaint.
These motherfuckers, I tell you! and we have to live here.
Fourth one says, let’s go shopping, I have to buy some sandals and lipstick for tomorrow.
Then the fifth said, why on earth did we even come to explain anything to her!?
Then the sixth one said, let’s go, it’s of no use.
She had understood by now that nothing could be done & splashed water over her face and washed her hands.
Then she opened her cupboard, wrapped a saree on her body and asked, how am I looking?
A silence dawned on them and they all hugged her and began weeping.
They trapped the sound of their cries inside that room & came out carefree, laughing amongst themselves.
Now they are used to being raped.