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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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