A big red bindi on her forehead and tattoos on both arms, Bhawani Ma or Bhawani Nath Valmiki, 47, looks more like a rocker chic religious leader than a politician. The first transgender candidate to be fielded by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from Prayagraj (Allahabad), she is the North India mahamandaleshwar (head) of the Kinnar akhara, which debuted in the 2019 Kumbh mela in Allahabad. “Nothing is complete without us; we will complete the politics of this country,” she says.
Born into a poor, low-caste Valmiki family in 1972, she has seven siblings. At 13, she left home to join the Hijra community. “Those who are born outside of the gender binaries are abused and I have gone through it all,” she says, adding that she had to beg and even take up prostitution to make ends meet till she found a guru, who gave her shelter. She changed her name from Bhawani to Shabnam, went on Haj in 2012 and then resumed her former name, Bhawani. “I am a scheduled caste, but I don’t need reservation,” she says.
Ten years ago, she had asked the Congress for a ticket to fight elections, but was denied by the party. This time, she had asked both the BJP and the Congress, but it was AAP that gave her a ticket. Bhawani knows it’ll be a tough battle. “But we have fought for our rights for a very long time. I am battle-ready. I am not here to win but to awaken people,” she says.
Bhawani will stay with her community in Prayagraj, where she has already spent nine months leading up to the Kumbh mela. “I want to talk about unemployment during campaigning. That’s the real terrorism,” she says.
In 2015, she says, the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Mahasabha distributed pamphlets saying transgenders or Kinnars should not be given badhaai (ritual payments) since they follow Islamic traditions. This prompted transgenders to start a movement in Ujjain in 2016 called Kinnar akhara to claim their right to Hinduism. “We come from your society and we have a right to religion,” she says. “During poll campaigns, my rivals will call me a hijra; I have heard that my entire life.”
Bhawani says she is a sadhvi like the BJP’s Uma Bharti and Yogi Adityanath. “Why shouldn’t I fight the election like them?” she asks, adding that the Transgender (Protection and Rights) Bill, 2018, mandates that an individual has to submit an application to the district magistrate requesting a certificate of identity as a transgender person. “How can those who are not like us decide who we are?” she asks.