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India’s LGBT Community Dares to Hope After Health Minister’s Comment on Gay Rights

Categories: South Asia, India, Citizen Media, Governance, Human Rights, Law, LGBTQ+, Youth
An Indian gay rights activist holds a placard denouncing a Supreme Court ruling criminalising gay sex in Bangalore, India. Image by Abhishek Chinnappa. Copyright Demotix (11/12/2013) [1]

An Indian gay rights activist holds a placard denouncing a Supreme Court ruling criminalising gay sex in Bangalore, India. Image by Abhishek Chinnappa. Copyright Demotix (11/12/2013)

A recent comment by India's health minister that gay people are entitled to human rights just like anybody else has rekindled hopes among the country's LGBT community, which has fought a long battle to convince the government to decriminalise homosexuality and uphold social justice.

The minister was speaking to journalists on the sidelines of an event organized by the health ministry in Delhi. When asked about his views [2] on gay rights and decriminalization of consensual gay sex between adults, Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan [3] said that everybody has human rights and it is the job of the government to protect them. Though he refused to elaborate further on the topic, the statement was widely read as supportive of the LGBT cause and widely welcomed — both by the LGBT community as well as on social media.

News anchor Gargi Rawat tweeted [4]:

Indian journalist and writer Minhas Merchant told [8] his more than 42,000 followers:

LGBT rights activist Tushar M reacted [10]

However, some within the LGBT community continue to be skeptical [15] despite the minister's positive comment.

Four years ago, the LGBT community in India had broken into celebration when in a landmark judgement the Delhi High Court decriminalized consensual homosexual relationships between adults. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code or IPC (adopted into the Indian Constitution by the Imperial British empire in 1861) which considered gay sex “unnatural” or “against the order of nature” was debated and annulled for the first time by any court in the country.

Even though it was considered a huge leap forward by many, there were many others who were severely critical of the judgement. Some complained “Western” culture was gaining ground over traditional Indian societal norms. In fact, Dr. Harsh Vardhan's predecessor had courted controversy [16] in 2011 for referring to homosexuality as “unnatural” and a “disease” that had come from the West and was unfortunately spreading fast in the country.

Consequently, several appeals were filed with the Supreme Court of India, challenging the Delhi High Court judgement. To the surprise of many people and groups across the country, the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court's judgment on 11 Dec. 2013, ruling [17] [pdf] that the High Court's judgment stating that Section 377 lacked constitutionality was incorrect and leaving it for lawmakers to decide whether gay sex between consenting adults ought to be legalized:

While parting with the case, we would like to make it clear that this Court has merely pronounced on the correctness of the view taken by the Delhi High Court on the constitutionality of Section 377 IPC and found that the said section does not suffer from any constitutional infirmity. Notwithstanding this verdict, the competent legislature shall be free to consider the desirability and propriety of deleting Section 377 IPC from the statute book or amend the same as per the suggestion made by the Attorney General.

Like other issues in India, contrasting opinions [18] from across the country poured in as soon as the judgement went public. In the midst of all that debate, the LGBT community which had thought that they had won the battle against the law in 2009, was back to battling social stigma and fighting for equal rights.

Shortly after the health minister's positive comment, the government clarified [19] that the Supreme Court was currently hearing a curative petition [20] on the matter and that the government had no plans to take up the matter of amending Section 377 until the Supreme Court gave its ruling.

While the issue remains suspended, caught between court and parliament, Global Voices spoke to a few members of the local student community in Bangalore and found an almost unanimous response: “Live and let live!”

Shraddha Shivraj, a 22-year-old student of telecommunication engineering, at BMS College of Engineering said,

I feel that India is turning into everything I’ve ever dreaded the most. To call ourselves liberal and tolerant is a far-fetched concept which will never be realized. And to see that in a society where Hindus, Muslims and Christians who are the majority, all of whom oppose a person’s rights to freely choose who he/she loves without being harassed by the society, is such a pitiful sight. What happened to uniting under Secularism now? What about the right to freedom? Have the Human Rights disappeared from the face of this country? If this medieval mindset does not change soon enough, I don’t think I will be a proud Indian anymore. Immediate action by lawmakers and human rights organizations is needed and homosexuals deserve and are entitled to the same rights as straight people.

Shreea Sharma, a 22-year-old student on an internship at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) located in the city, echoed this sentiment:

I just feel that it is disgusting how people can put a limitation on who you can love and who you cannot. Homosexuality has been observed in other animals too, then why call it unnatural? When nature has accepted it, what rights do we humans have?

Shreea's 20-year-old sister Ashna added:

Love knows no boundaries; Everything is fair in love and war; True love knows no nastiness. Denying someone’s love is completely antithetical to this very concept. You love whom you love, and you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to. Why should that be anyone else’s business?”

Akshay Nelakurti, a 20-year-old student also from BMS College of Engineering, said he felt the anguish and disgust too:

I believe this is a huge set-back for the largest democracy on Earth. Instead of giving people the freedom to live the way they want to they are teaching us not to be accepting. Why do the majority of people in India think that every change is a weapon of destruction? Be it gay marriage, gay rights, pre-marital sex, or live-in relationships, the last two aren’t illegal but still frowned upon.

Sabreesh Sekar, a 19-year-old student in the city and an active member of the Rotract Club in Bangalore, seemed skeptical about the government's promises to bring justice to the community. According to him:

The new Parliament will not table this issue because of its proximity to many right-wing organizations

The anger and frustration at the current state of gay rights in India appears evident among both the LGBT community as well as a large section of the youth. As is happening in many other parts of the world today, let's hope that India too will honour the human rights of its LGBT population and give them the freedom to be themselves without shame and indignity.