Push to legalize homosexuality in India

India, operating under colonial-era laws criminalizing homosexuality, appears to be finally joining the debate over allowing privacy in relationships, and with gays campaigning to decriminalize the issue.

The same-sex community in India has been especially bolstered by speeches by federal health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. At the 17th International Conference on AIDS in Mexico city, Ramaoss said, "Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalizes men who have sex with other men, must go."

"Structural discrimination against those who are vulnerable to HIV such as sex workers and men having sex with men must be removed if our prevention, care and treatment programs are to succeed," he added.

The penal code section that makes homosexuality illegal has been a subject of much controversy. It states: "whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine."

The Indian police, infamous for corruption, often raid clinics and victimize health workers seeking to treat same-sex people lovers, who are considered vulnerable to diseases such as HIV and AIDS, charging them with conspiracy to "unnatural sexual acts". That has driven a vast community of Indian gays and lesbians, with estimates ranging from 5 million to 50 million, into the fringes of society.

Among the high profile campaigners for the same-sex community in India is the writer Vikram Seth, himself gay, who has been quoted as saying: "HIV/AIDS in India is exacerbated by our ignorance and shame about sex. We simply don't like to talk about it - even to impart or receive essential, life saving information.''

Seth, along with 16 Indian writers including Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Amit Chadhuri has traveled the country to speak to gays, drug addicts, policemen, vigilantes and sex workers. The result is a collection of essays.

Indian gays have been upbeat about the attention, which was reflected in the annual gay parade last month August 16th celebrating the community.

It was in June 2003 that more than 100 people marched in a gay rights parade for the first time in Kolkata, in a rare public display by the country's most underground cultures. This year too, sexual minorities, comprising lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transvestites, took to the streets of Mumbai and Kolkata to protest against the "socially discriminative" Section 377 of the penal code.

Braving bemused, unsympathetic, and at times, hostile responses from hundreds of bystanders, the men and women - many in loud makeup and jewelry - waved banners, including one saying, "Let us love and be loved." Others waved the rainbow flag, a symbol of the gay rights movement.

Nitin Karani, a gay activist of the Humsafar Trust, told reporters, "It was only when the British came that this law was introduced, Section 377 of the IPC. After so many years when the British have quit India this law is still here. We want this law also to quit India."

Geeta Kumana of Mumbai based lesbian group Aanchal Trust told local media, "It's nice to know people at the top level are speaking for us."

Yet, there are several hurdles to be crossed. The Delhi High Court is hearing public interest litigation (PIL), filed by Naz Foundation, a voluntary organization supporting gay rights, which has sought deletion of Section 377. Naz has argued that due to fear of police action, consenting adult males are not stepping out of the closet, thereby hampering medical intervention in cases of HIV/AIDS.

In the past the government has argued that homosexual practices cannot be legalized since "Indian society is intolerant to the practice of homosexuals/lesbianism."

A few years ago, right-wing protesters forced cinemas nationwide to pull down Fire, a film about lesbianism, made by well-known director Deepa Mehta and starring leading actresses Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi.

The federal ministry of home affairs responsible for the implementation of the IPC has held that the dilution of Section 377 would open the doors for delinquent behavior. A point in contention is that the same section is used to prosecute for child abuse.

``This is a section not merely confined to gay rights, it acts as an effective deterrent against pedophiles and those with sick minds,'' the law ministry has said.

The law commission has, thus, suggested a separate section to specifically criminalize sexual contact with anyone younger than 16. As things stand, the court has instructed the federal government to arrive at a consensus on the issue and submit its reply later this month.

The homosexual community is sensitive to some of the fears. According to Karani said, "Section 377 is needed so that children are not abused. Hence, it should be read down but not abolished."

Arvind Narrain, a lawyer with Alternative Law Forum, told local media that the Indian government needed to reconcile the differing views.

Many gay rights activists quote a well-researched work, Same Sex Love in India, which states that before the 19th century, love between men and between women was never actively persecuted or prosecuted, despite disapproval. Others highlight changes in attitudes toward homosexuality, as well as increasing recognition of the rights of gays all over the world.

They cite a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll which states that a majority of Americans favor legalizing civil unions for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriage. The poll found that 54 percent of those surveyed support civil unions. Gay rights activists in India have been closely following the emotional struggle in the US to balance various opinions.

"At least people should know that we exist," is one comment on the Internet. "Even the United Nations recognizes that being gay is not a disease. We do not want sympathy and we do not want support. All we ask for is our right to live our life the way we want to without hurting others."

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)