Are the winds of change that seemed to be blowing through the corridors of the central government on the issue of ending legal discrimination against gay sex petering out? Hope that the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code would be either quickly repealed or suitably amended — raised when the Union Home Ministry boldly described it as an “absurdity in the present day” — have receded with the Law Minister, Veerappa Moily, announcing that the Centre was in no hurry to take such a step. Calls for a parliamentary debate to reach a ‘wider consensus’ on a basic issue of human rights and equal justice are nothing but an excuse to put off a hard decision on ending an obnoxious colonial-era provision that has absolutely no place in the statute book of a modern democratic and secular state. Section 377, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with imprisonment up to 10 years, is not specifically targeted at homosexuality. But by criminalising any penetrative sex that does not lead to reproduction, it has become a weapon in the hands of the police to harass those who have alternative sexual orientations. It also stands out as a symbol of 19th century intolerance.
Suggestions that Section 377 would be reviewed coincided with hundreds of members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community dancing and marching through the streets of five Indian cities last Sunday to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings in New York, now a universal symbol of gay resistance to obscurantist oppression. What is clear is that the gay rights movement is slowly coming of age in India — emboldened by such developments as President Barack Obama’s promise to bring the “full spectrum of equal rights to LGBT Americans” and his administration’s decision to endorse a United Nations resolution calling for the worldwide decriminalisation of homosexuality. In an age where there is growing acceptance of the idea that LGBTs must be allowed to live in dignity and respect, it is shame that India cannot bring itself to legalise gay behaviour. It is time the United Progressive Alliance did the right thing by either repealing Section 377 or (as some social activists have proposed) amending it so that it excludes consensual sex between all adults, whether of the same sex or otherwise. Having promised to review this provision, the government must not give in to the pressure of religious fundamentalists, moral obscurantists, and others who argue that Indian society is not ready to accept such change. Especially on non-negotiable social issues, governments must lead public opinion — not tail its least enlightened strands or go for the lowest common denominator.