Efforts by activists to force India's government to strike down a
Victorian-era law banning homosexuality are gaining momentum. It is
another sign that India's deeply conservative society is changing.
Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Bangalore, capital of the southern
Indian state of Karnataka.
At the center of a
series of court challenges in India is Section 377 of the Indian Penal
Code, an 1860 law banning homosexuality. Among gay-rights activists it
is known simply as 377. High courts in several key states and cities
in India are reviewing the law, and activists are hopeful that it will
Arvind Narrain, an attorney for the Alternative
Law Forum, a Bangalore-based human rights group, explains how 377
affects the lives of gays and lesbians.
"What that translates
to, from 'legalese,' is that any forms of sex that are non-procreative
in nature is a criminal offense. What it translates to on a ground
level is it is basically used and enforced against people who are not
heterosexual. So it is used very much against gay men, lesbians and
transgender people in a big way to extort, blackmail and harass," said
Narrain says in India criminal gangs often extort large
sums of money from gays and lesbians by threatening to "out" them to
their families, the community and the police.
Under 377, offenders could face hefty fines and up to 10 years in prison.
gay-rights activist at the Alternative Law Forum, Ponni Arasu, says
gays and lesbians who live together are sometimes charged with other
crimes, such as kidnapping, by disapproving parents.
gone to court many times where we actively cover up the nature of the
relationship between two women because we do not want to complicate the
case. You just want to get rid of the kidnapping charge so they can go
on and live their lives. And that is because of a law like Section
377. If we were not actively criminalized by such a law, then we would
be able to go to court and say, 'They are lovers. They are adults. And
they have the right to live with each other,'" said Arasu.
In their fight to overturn 377, gay activists recently found a strong ally in India's health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss.
at an international AIDS conference this past week in Mexico City,
Ramadoss called on the courts to scrap 377. He said the law tends to
drive gays and lesbians under ground, hindering the country's efforts
to prevent the spread of HIV and treat those with HIV and AIDS.
An estimated 2.5 million people in India are living with HIV and AIDS.
many in India want 377 preserved, among them supporters of India's
Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The party made headlines a
decade ago when its supporters attacked theaters showing "Fire," a
feature film by an Indian director that depicted a lesbian affair
between a mother and her daughter-in-law.
Prakash Jawadekar refused to comment for or against the 'anti-gay' law,
but he downplayed its importance in light of other, more pressing
problems facing India, including rampant inflation and the plight of
"Basically these issues of gay marriages and gay rights
are not very important issues in this country," said Jawadekar. "We
have various other issues for which we are fighting. We are the party
of spreading more Indianness amid families and with regular marriages,
male-female marriages. That is what the order of the day is."
Delhi High Court is set to address a petition filed in the court by the
NAZ Foundation, a Delhi-based non-government organization for HIV and
AIDS prevention. The group is challenging arrests under 377.
Observers expect a ruling later this year.