Last edited: July 15, 2004

Pro-Gay Movement Gathers Steam in India

OneWorld South Asia, July 2, 2004

By Rahul Verma

NEW DELHI—Ahead of a court hearing on a petition to abolish laws criminalizing homosexuality Monday, rights activists in India are also pressuring the government to give citizens the right to choose their partners.

Voices Against 377—a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) working for the rights of children, women and gay rights groups—has asked the federal Minister for Law and Justice Hansraj Bharadwaj to protect those being discriminated against because of their sexuality.

“We hope the new leadership will stand up to the expectations of the people and demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, its stated commitment to protecting the rights of marginalized sections of society, not in the least those whose very existence has been criminalized by law,” states a letter sent to the minister Thursday.

Voices against 377—which includes groups such as Amnesty International, Prism, women’s group Jagori and the New Delhi-based Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI)—was formed in the aftermath of the Lucknow incident.

“We wanted a joint platform to help us raise our voices together,” asserts Ponni, a New Delhi student and a member of Voices Against 377.

Two leading Indian NGOs—the NAZ Foundation, a body working against AIDS, and The Lawyers Collective, a legal rights group, have gone to court asking for a change in section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that makes homosexuality illegal.

The law states, “Whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or for a term that may extend to 10 years.” The petition against it will be heard Monday.

In a demonstration in New Delhi Thursday, Voices Against 377 stressed that it was time the new government—elected in May—steps in to change the law that has been a legacy of India’s colonial rulers, the British.

“We don’t even know how often the Act is used in small towns against those who are not heterosexual,” says Akshay, a member of Prism, a New Delhi NGO advocating the right to sexual freedom. “But we do know that the act is used to threaten gays across the country.”

Activists hold that gays and ‘hijras’—members of a male-to-female trans-sexual community—are often physically abused by police. In the southern city of Bangalore last month, Kokila, a 21-year-old hijra, was raped by ten men.

Voices Against 377 states that the police, instead of lodging a complaint and having Kokila medically examined, tortured and sexually abused her for several hours.

Stresses Akshay, “To the police, she was not a human being. She was a hijra and therefore had no human rights.”

The activists believe that if there is a “reading down” of the present law—decriminalizing same-sex acts between consenting adults—the threat of section 377 can be dealt with.

The Naz Foundation also points out that since homosexuality is illegal in India, most members of the community keep their sexuality under wraps, making it difficult for groups working against AIDS to reach out to large sections of the people.

The government has so far been resisting attempts at decriminalizing homosexuality. At a hearing in the Delhi High Court last year, the then Indian government argued that “Indian society is intolerant to the practice of homosexuals / lesbianism.”

The letter to the law minister, however, points out that India has a rich history of “non-heterosexual desires, practices and identities,” reflected in literature, art and ancient texts.

Proponents of section 377 believe that the law can be used against child abuse, increasingly being reported in India. But Voices Against 377 points out that the groups are only saying that same-sex should not be treated as a crime when it is between consenting adults.

“Section 377, as it exists today, violates equal access to the rights of life, health, property and choice,” the coalition says, adding, “This is a law that affects us, regardless of our sexual orientation, and goes against the fundamental beliefs of this nation—democracy, equality, a belief in human rights, dignity and freedom from violence for all.”

The use of section 377 against homosexuals and AIDS workers was highlighted three years ago when a group of men working for the NAZ Foundation were arrested by the police in the northern Indian city of Lucknow.

The arrested men, who said they were on an AIDS project, were arrested, physically abused and kept in prison for 45 days.

The coalition’s letter to the minister urges him to change the law because it legitimizes the stigma against the community.

“The fear and risk of attracting criminal liability, social discrimination and stigma leads to a lack of safe, social spaces for those belonging to marginalized sexualities—often leading to unsafe sexual practices,” it warns.

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