Last edited: August 29, 2004

Gays in India and an Antiquated Law

Fear of the Law Hampers Work to Help HIV/AIDS Patients, August 26, 2004

By Ranjit Devraj, Inter Press Service

NEW DELHI—Homosexuality is illegal in India and public reaction to the sensational murder this month of a gay project officer with an international aid agency has exposed the limited social acceptability in India for alternative sexual preferences.

It has also brought into focus an archaic law that treats homosexuality as a crime.

Police in New Delhi are trying to figure out why 38-year-old Pushkin Chandra, an officer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) and son of a career bureaucrat, was stabbed to death in his posh residence along with Kuldip, his young male companion, earlier this month.

All that the police have been able to ascertain was that robbery was not the motive considering that expensive items were lying around the house undisturbed.

Meanwhile, media reports of the murders and television talk-shows have shown that this conservative country is a long way away from accepting sexual orientations that are considered not “normal”.

In the past, Hindu fundamentalist groups took it upon themselves to burn down cinema halls that dared to defy warnings against the screening of films that touched on homosexuality and lesbianism.

Father Dominic Emma-nuel, spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, said homosexuality “creates revulsion in people” and that he considered it to be “basically against human nature”.

Mr Ashok Row Kavi, India’s best-known campaigner for gay rights, said gays and lesbians seem to have become more visible in Indian society but he doubted very much if these Indians are accepted by society.

Much of the media coverage of the gruesome murder bordered on sensationalism and were focussed on his sexual preferences. Reports tell of pornographic material which was found in his bedroom, including an X-rated video that was still playing while the police walked into the murder scene.

“Newspapers are suddenly full of stories about homosexual life—and not in a celebratory way,” said gay rights activist Pramada Menon at a meeting convened in the Indian capital last week to discuss the adverse media reporting.

The meeting focused on the special vulnerability of gays in India to crimes like extortion and blackmail because they lack legal recourse since they could find themselves booked under a 141-year-old law that declares oral, anal and other non-procreative sex as being “against the order of nature”.

That law, Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, is the subject of public interest litigation being pursued in the Delhi High Court by the Naz Foundation, a voluntary organisation that works for the welfare of HIV/Aids victims.

It seems strange in this day and age that this law is still in the statute books. There may not have been too many arrests of gays or lesbians made. But the law gives some members of the police and social bigots a handle to intimidate gays and lesbians with. Coupled with the social stigma they have to endure, the law forces homosexuals to perpetually live in fear.

Naz chief Anjali Gopalan said the law hampered the work of organisations in working with HIV/Aids victims. “It is constantly being held over our heads,” she said. Consenting adult gay males were prevented from coming forward to disclose their problems because they feared the law, she said.

Mr Anand Grover, project director of the HIV/Aids unit of the Lawyers’ Collective, a co-petitioner in the public interest litigation with Naz, said the action is aimed at legalising consensual sex between adults.

The previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was against homosexuality. The BJP was defeated in the April/May elections by a coalition led by the Congress Party.

During hearings, counsel for the BJP government argued that the disapproval of homosexuality by the Indian society “is strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offence even when adults indulge in it in private”. The counsel argued that the law was rarely used against homosexual partners but was found handy in punishing sexual abuse of children and in supporting other laws against rape.

According to Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad, a former Cabinet minister and spokesman for the BJP, doing away with Article 377 could have the effect of increased sexual abuse of street children—a sensitive subject in India.

Last month, the weekly, Tehelka, in a special investigation story, revealed that paedophiles from several European countries were swarming the beaches of Goa—the sea and sand resort on India’s west coast—following the crackdown on child-sex tourism in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

More recently, newspapers have reported the withdrawal of patronage by the actress Felicity Kendal for a street shelter run by the British voluntary agency Grant’s Homes for children in Mumbai that was allegedly used by paedophiles.

Meanwhile, police are swooping down on dozens of male prostitutes and transsexuals in the capital. “Most developed nations do not treat us as criminals. It is not sympathy we are looking for, but understanding. People need to accept things as they are,” said a gay activist.

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