Without her parents’ knowledge, at age 21, Swati Bidhan Baruah booked her flight from Guwahati, Assam state, to Mumbai in 2012. She had saved enough money from her part-time job of tutoring schoolchildren and was now ready to take the big step: get her gender confirmation surgery. “I grew up with gender dysphoria and it was alienating,” she says. Having suffered estrangement and discrimination, Baruah made up her mind to make life a little easier for other transgender people in her home state.
Now Baruah is Assam’s first transgender judge, and the third in all of India. In recent months, she’s been consumed with fighting the Supreme Court of India on behalf of at least 2,000 trans people who were left out in the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) list. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently demanded people of the state — which sits in the country’s far northeast and has a heavy Muslim presence — provide documentary proof that their ancestors were living in India before 1971, and then submit another set of documents establishing a relationship with those ancestors. “The entire NRC exercise is non-inclusive,” says Baruah, 28. “Transgender people are shunned by their families. Where will they get any documents or proof?” She’s filed an intervention before the Supreme Court — using her prominence and legal acumen to lead a fight that has been largely overshadowed in the heated debates.
Protests are rising across the country against Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — which promises a swift path to citizenship to undocumented Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Sikh and Buddhist immigrants, notably excluding Muslims — along with the NRC in Assam, which the government plans to implement throughout India. Experts say Muslims, women, orphans and more can be disproportionately excluded. Baruah is alarmed and concerned for the transgender community, which according to the 2011 census is at least 11,000 strong in Assam, though she estimates it has grown to 20,000. “Imagine, if they are not on the list, they will be expelled from the country,” she says. Assam, in fact, has already started building detention camps for those not on the NRC list. Baruah is now demanding the Supreme Court make changes to the NRC to include the trans community, such as allowing “other” as a gender category.
She faced a lot of struggles but today, look at her, she is fighting for us.
Zina Kinnar, childhood friend of Baruah
Anas Tanvir, a lawyer and founder of Indian Civil Liberties Union, says that if 2,000 transgender people have been left out in the Assam NRC, “imagine the magnitude of the problem.” Baruah’s fight might be on a smaller scale and in a smaller state, but “the fight has to be led on a nationwide scale,” Tanvir adds.
After earning a law degree at Assam’s Gauhati University, Baruah became a well-known legal advocate in the trans community. One day out of the blue in 2018, she says, she received a call and when she reached court, she was informed that the government had appointed her as a judge in Lok Adalat. It was a history-making move for a government that wanted to appear progressive, but Baruah says she feels like a token and has been largely sidelined compared to other judges: She only was given two cases in 2018, and none since. “I am educated. I am in this position, but others don’t talk to me [because I am a transgender woman],” she says. “Imagine someone who is not educated, has no family to fall back on. Imagine their fate.”
As Zina Kinnar, a childhood friend of Baruah who is also transgender, puts it: “She faced a lot of struggles but today, look at her, she is fighting for us.”
Growing up, Baruah always loved wearing women’s clothes and makeup, and would look in the mirror admiring herself. Her family did not approve. She says she was kept inside the home and asked not to mingle when guests came to visit. “They were ashamed of me,” she says. Baruah is no longer in touch with her family.
In a country where LGBTQ activism is often seen as limited to their specific demands, Baruah is also fighting a broader battle for all people who might be disenfranchised. She is challenging the law as a Supreme Court stacked with Modi appointees appears unwilling to question its constitutionality. (Meanwhile, several retired Supreme Court judges have questioned the law.) For any judge — much less a young, local judge — to take on her professional seniors in what many believe is a fight for Indian secularism is big in itself.
But the challenge is extremely unlikely to succeed at the highest level, and Baruah’s local fight might not count for much once the register is implemented nationwide.
Still, her friend Neha Kinnar — transgender women in India usually take on Kinnar as their second name — says that Baruah is determined and has a never-say-no spirit. “She is also very funny,” Kinnar adds. And she’s willing to joke at her own expense. Baruah recalls the time when she was taking her first-ever flight to Mumbai for her gender confirmation surgery. She had no idea how to buckle her seat belt when asked by the flight attendant. “I just tied a knot instead,” she says. And when the flight landed, she was unable to untie it and “I had to wriggle out of it.”
Besides the fight for her community, Baruah is also looking for love. One thing she can’t live without, she tells me, is “love and acceptance.” In the end, it’s the same thing she is seeking for the transgender community.
OZY’s Five Questions With Swati Bidhan Baruah
- What’s the last book you read? Can Love Happen Twice? by Ravinder Singh.
- What do you worry about? Being single in life.
- What’s one thing you can’t live without? Love and acceptance.
- What or who inspires you? Mohini Avatar.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? [Getting a] proposal [from] someone who wants to be my life partner.