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Indian Court Decriminalizes Gay Sex in New Delhi

An Indian court has ruled that gay sex is not a crime, overriding a 19th century law dating back to the days when the British ruled India. Gay activists have welcomed the ruling, but several religious leaders have opposed it, saying homosexual relationships violate Indian culture.

Gay activists in the Indian capital erupted in joy when the Delhi High Court ruled sex among consenting adults of the same gender is not a crime in India's capital city.

The ruling came after a nine-year legal battle waged by gay advocacy groups, who had challenged an 1861 law that called homosexual sex "against the order of nature", and made it punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Homosexuals have long complained the colonial-era law exposes them to harassment from the police.

The High Court ruling says the existing law is discriminatory and a violation of fundamental rights under the constitution. It emphasized the need for equality, dignity and inclusiveness of all individuals.

Anjali Goplan is executive director of the Naz Foundation, a sexual health organization, which filed the petition. She says they could not have asked for more.

"I think it is historic," she said. "I think we have finally taken baby steps into the 21st century."

While the ruling is a gigantic step forward for the gay community, the battle may be far from over.

The ruling is only applies to the Indian capital, although gay activists hope it will set a precedent for the rest of the country.

Activists are also bracing for a possible appeal to the Supreme Court either by the government or religious groups.

Several leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities have staunchly opposed any changes to the old law, saying homosexual relationships violate Indian culture.

The government says it needs to study the ruling. It has firmly rejected petitions to change the law, but in recent weeks some officials have indicated the government may be prepared to discuss the subject.

A lawyer for the Naz Foundation, Tripti Tandon, says gay activists are prepared to fight on for their rights.

"We hope that they will not go in appeal, but if they do, then it means another long drawn legal battle which we certainly do not want, but we will be up for if the need arises," said Tandon.

Gay sex has long been a taboo subject in a country where even kissing and hugging between men and women in public is frowned upon. But in recent years, hundreds of activists have come out in the open to lead the battle for the rights of the gay community, and homosexuality has slowly gained acceptance in big cities.