When Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam Member of Parliament Tiruchi Siva’s  Rights of Transgender Persons Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Friday, everyone sat up and took notice. For the first time in 45 years, the upper house had passed a Private Member’s bill ‒ a bill introduced by a legislator who was not acting on behalf of the executive.

The bill, to ensure equality for transgender people, was passed by a unanimous voice vote.

It’s among the highest points of Siva’s four-decade career in politics. Even though he is said to be is well liked by party leader M Karunanidhi and his younger son MK Stalin, the self-effacing 61-year-old politician has never been deemed fit enough by his party to hold a ministerial berth either in the state or the Centre.

The passage of the bill through the Rajya Sabha was also satisfying because Siva has been engaged with the problems of transgender people for a long time. “Are they not fellow human beings?” he asked. “And yet, they face discrimination. They do not even have access to public toilets and their vote I-cards identify them as females.”

Reforming tradition

Siva says it was his party’s ideology that motivated him to take up cudgels on their behalf. “The DMK is a party that believes in social reforms and working for the downtrodden,” he said. Over the years, Tiruchi Siva and his wife Devikarani, who passed away in August, frequently invited transgender people to their home for meals.

Though official sources put the number of transgender people in India at roughly 4.5 lakh, the community itself estimate their numbers at between 20 and 25 lakh, he noted.

Over the years, some significant measures have been framed to improve the lot of this marginalised group, but these are rarely implemented. For instance, though Tamil Nadu in 2006 became the first state to set up a welfare board for transgender people in 2006, it has little to show by way of results. Boards set up by Maharashtra and West Bengal have been similarly ineffective, he said

“They need education so that the social stigma they face is done away with,” Siva said. “They also need to be provided employment. And legal aid if their rights are breached.”

Long career

Siva has been involved in politics since he was a student in Tiruchi’s Periyar EVR College in the mid-1970s.

Having lost his father when barely three months old, Siva was brought up by his mother. Influenced by her brothers, who were active in the DMK, Siva's mother infused him with Dravidian thought and ideology. He was drawn to join the party after he saw leader Karunanidhi deliver a speech. When he was 22, he went to jail for a year during the Emergency under the provisions of the repressive Maintenance of Internal Security Act.

He recalls his widowed mother visiting him in prison and weeping, “When will you come back?” She had hoped he would become an Indian Administrative Service officer. Tiruchi Siva responded, “It could be one month or one year.”  His mother said, “One son for the nation.”

Upon his release, he completed his Masters in English and then decided to take to public life. Siva also took a shot at the civil services exam, though he failed to make it through.

It took him two decades to get a ticket to contest the elections. Though he hadn’t made his way through the Tamil Nadu state assembly, the DMK named him its candidate votes from Pudukottai in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. He won by a margin of nearly two lakh votes, even though the constituency was not home ground for him. He is now a third-term Rajya Sabha MP, one of four DMK members of the Upper House.

Determined to press ahead

He hasn’t allowed the lack of recognition from his party get him down. “I am contented,” he said, “ I have not won anything but also not lost anything.”

When he went to Parliament on Friday, Siva said, he grew all the more determined to press the reluctant government for a vote on the Bill after he saw the anxious faces of the 40-odd members of the transgender community peering down at him from the visitor’s gallery.

“I became emotional when I saw those faces and felt I should not withdraw the Bill,” he said. “After all, they’re taxpayers like us and yet enjoy no constitutional rights.”

Though the minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Thawar Chand Gehlot, said that the government  would introduce comprehensive legislation for transgender people, Siva decided to proceed. “I was not convinced,” he said.  Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said there would be a voice-vote.

Tiruchi Siva is well aware that the Central government can still move its own legislation for transgender people. If it is to become law, his Bill will need to be passed by the Lok Sabha and get presidential assent.