By: Our Correspondent


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)