Chennai Floods And The Limits Of Compassion

Photo Courtesy - India Today
Photo Courtesy – India Today

The Chennai floods, two years ago – in 2015 – was a disaster of unprecedented intensity. By this week two years ago, we witnessed a bulk of stories where people risked their own lives to save the others in trouble. The state machinery failed to provide citizens the necessary support. At this juncture with the temporary dysfunction of the State, people were left wondering if the word “Citizen” still holds complete meaning. People got down to perform the tasks traditionally discharged by the State. The State had, in a sense, withered away temporarily. In this condition of “Statelessness”, compassion of fellow human beings mattered more than Citizenship, apparently. What a wo/man owed to another wo/man was to be thought of rather than what the State owed to its citizens. This inter-dependence forced a sense of Fraternity on the people. It is in these historic moments that one gets to see not only the magnanimity of Compassion but its limits too. Compassion came with an asterisk – Conditions apply!

For instance, while most of the people were celebrating the Humanitarian zeal of the Chennai-ites, the sighs of manual scavengers brought from various other parts of Tamil Nadu found very few considerate ears. Volunteerism refused to provide a helping hand to the Dalits who were, thanks to our moral and material filth, worst hit. There were several other communities that were denied Chennai’s compassion. The imigrant labourers who lived on the periphery of the city and transgenders were a few of the “unfortunate” ones. This denial of help was no accident. It was a conscious and insensitive choice.

Politicians were wooing their vote banks for the next election. Since many people didn’t count as “Legal Citizens” (lacking documents like Voter ID, Aadhar Card, Ration card, etc that would testity their citizenship ), it reduced their chances of getting the much necessary help. For instance, a group of transgenders in Saidapet, Chennai were stranded with no support for over ten days. All the help that was provided to the “people”, was denied to the transgenders. If the Political parties didn’t provide the help, it is understandable for the transgenders didn’t have voter IDs and hence weren’t vote banks. But one wonders why the non-Partisan volunteers too were insensitive. For them the question of Citizenship shouldn’t matter, one assumes. Times of crises are perhaps the best conditions to witness Compassion but they also happen to expose the boundaries of our Humanitarianism.

While the State denies many people their right to legal Citizenship, the society denies them the right to Cultural Citizenship. Women, working class, lower castes, sexual minorities and migrants happen to be a few of the groups that are denied cultural Citizenship. In the case of transgenders in India, legal Citizenship was reconginsed three years ago. But culturally they still stand outside the framework of “Human”. A consideration of the various movies that ridicule transgenders would drive this point home. They are not considered a part of the society to be given adequate empathy. Instead, most mainstream Cultural practices disgrace and disrespect their existence. They are, for various reasons, not considered to be “normal.” They lie beyond the normativity put in place by Heterosexual Patriarchy. The binaries of “man” and “woman” are”transgressed” and their refusal to not subscribe to this normativity, renders them “abnormal.” All dominant mainstream Cultural practices work to strengthen this normativity. To make this stronger, all subversive practices are ridiculed, demonized or ignored. Hence, transgenders find no respectable representation in Cultural practices. This is one of the ways in which their right to Cultural Citizenship is denied. Instead of a complex and ennobling portrayal, they are cursed with a stigmatised, flatened and steretotyped representation in Cultural realms. This contributes to the general public’s imperception of them as a part of the Human fraternity.

It is not just the binaries of man/woman that they defy. The binary of Nature/Culture is also subverted. Traditionally, “respected” communities are associated with Culture, Order and Reason. Men, the bourgeois class and Civilization in general are associated with Culture. On the other hand, “disrespected” communities are associated with Nature, Chaos and emotions. Women, tribals and Barbarity in general are associated with Nature. Transgenders happen to be portrayed as bestial and uncultured. But that doesn’t place them in the realm of the Natural automatically, as is generally the case. Their sexual practices are defined as “unnatural.” This ontological positioning outside of Nature and Culture at the same time has further impeded the cognitive possibilities of a meaningful engagement with their identities and “nature.”

The consequence of not adhering to gender binaries is the outcasting from the traditional Cis nuclear family setup. The one major threat to Patriarchy by way of organised thought and protest has come from the Women’s movements. These movements have been vocal about women’s right to education, property, marriage and reproduction. This tends to work inside an altered form of existing normativity. Fight against domestic violence, for reproductive Rights, choice of partner in legalised marriage and inheritance work within the framework of the traditional conception of family. These come across as alien to the transgenders who don’t fit into this conception of family. Even the fight to remove the stigma around non-procreative sex is often garbed under the idea of pre-marital sex. How integral would a transperson feel with regard to discourses of this kind?

Citizenship should ensure one a right to be an active participant in National affairs. The soldier has suddenly become our yardstick for measuring Nationalism today. Armed forces are strictly governed by gender norms of masculinity and femininity. Then one needs to wonder what space a transperson finds in this Version of citizenship, for they don’t necessarily adhere to popular notions and binaries of “masculine” and “feminine.” With Cultural stigma around transgenders not removed, how successful can they be while contesting for elections or to just be an active participant of the Public Sphere?

When Nation as a concept is heavily gendered on a daily basis, the citizenship of a transperson is made more vulnerable . Contemporary Jingoism constructs the Nation as a “Mother” (not just a woman – but a fertile one!) – Bharat Mata, and citizens as dutiful sons (not just men) – the protectors and martyrs who fight to safeguard the mother’s Chastity from foreign intrusion and internal “disturbance”. The transperson is again denied a role in this discourse which is couched in the language of the family setup.

Even as the fight for legal Citizenship and adequate political representation is carried out against this inherently anti-minoritarian State setup, civil society needs to recognise how it also has a role to play in the condition of transgenders. Adequate and ennobling social representation and consequently the recognition of their right to Cultural Citizenship is indispensable. Progressive forces that tend to talk about Democracy and Citizens as though the concepts are inherently inclusive, need to consider the identities of the marginalized to enrich contemporary discourses of accomodative political and Cultural practices.

Kaushik Tekur is currently pursuing his Masters in English Literature from the University of Hyderabad. He has been an active participant and organiser of various Students’ movements. His interest lies in the confluence of class, caste and Gender; and Literature, Politics and History. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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