Hope floats again on Section 377

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:04 pm IST

Published - February 03, 2016 12:13 am IST

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex, reflects only medieval prejudice. A lost opportunity to invalidate it has been dramatically resurrected. Two years ago, the Supreme Court declined to review its retrograde decision of 2013 upholding the validity of Section 377. By rejecting the review petition, the court then failed to make use of an opportunity to revisit the contentious Suresh Kumar Koushal verdict and bring the law in line with its own vision of fundamental rights, especially the idea that equality and dignity cannot be denied to any section. The court has now paved the way for a comprehensive hearing on how to protect the dignity and rights of individuals with alternative sexual orientation by referring the matter to > a five-judge Constitution Bench . The Chief Justice has noted that the case involves questions with constitutional dimensions. The court has indicated that the larger Bench could traverse beyond the limits of a curative petition, which is essentially a limited, additional remedy to aggrieved litigants after the Supreme Court’s final verdict and the rejection of a review. There is new hope that the Delhi High Court judgment of 2009, reading down Section 377 to restrict its criminal import to non-consensual sexual acts involving adults and all sexual acts inflicted on minors, may be restored.

Read: >LGBT rights - The journey till now

The latest challenge to its continuance on the statute book comes in a fresh context where the intervening years have seen considerable legal progress in the jurisprudence of sexual orientation and gender identity. In April 2014, while recognising the transgender community as a third gender entitled to the same rights and constitutional protection as other citizens, a Bench of the Supreme Court subtly recorded its criticism of Koushal . Departing from the Koushal formulation that there was no evidence that Section 377 was an instrument of harassment, the Bench had highlighted the misuse of the provision as one of the principal forms of discrimination against the transgender community. Further, it observed that “even though insignificant in numbers”, transgenders were entitled to human rights. That was obviously a rebuttal of the earlier Bench’s claim that those affected by Section 377 were only a “minuscule fraction of the population”, as though the relative smallness of a group’s size disentitled it from constitutional protection. On the global front, the United States Supreme Court held last year that the gay community was entitled to due process and equal protection in the matter of marriage, thus allowing same-sex marriages. In view of these developments, the time has come for an honest judicial evaluation of where India stands on the issue of homosexuality. Some may argue that it is up to the legislature to remedy the situation. In the backdrop of a provision that continues to have criminal and public health consequences for a section of society, the court has a duty to enforce their fundamental rights rather than wait for the political class to come up with a legislative remedy.

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