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India's Anti-Gay Law Set for Biggest Court Challenge

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High courts in several key states and cities in India are reviewing the law, and activists are hopeful that it will be repealed.

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.

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.

A 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.

"We have 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.

Speaking 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.

But 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.

Party spokesman 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 farmers.

"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."

The 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.