Saturday, September 16, 2006

Leading Indians Urge End of "Monstrous" Gay Sex Law

As reported by Reuters, September 16, 2006

By Mark Williams

New Delhi -- Leading Indian writers, artists, lawyers and academics led by author Vikram Seth have written an open letter urging the government to overturn a British colonial era law that criminalises homosexuality.

Condemning Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code as an attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms, it calls for an "archaic and brutal law" to be struck down immediately.
The law, formulated in 1861 and currently being challenged in the courts, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail for engaging in gay sex.

"It has been used to systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorise sexual minorities," said the letter, released in New Delhi on Saturday and addressed to the government, judiciary and Indian citizens.

"It has spawned public intolerance and abuse, forcing tens of millions of gay and bisexual men and women to live in fear and secrecy, at tragic cost to them and their families."
Section 377 is often misused by police looking for a quick bribe from men whom they catch cosying up in parks or lanes.

"It is especially disgraceful that Section 377 has on several recent occasions been used by homophobic officials to suppress the legitimate work of HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenceless against HIV infection," the Seth letter said.

Other signatories include fellow author Arundhati Roy, a former attorney-general, former U.N. Under-Secretary General Nitin Desai, Bollywood actors, human rights lawyers, leading journalists, academics and filmmakers.

Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen, in a separate letter of support, calls the law a "monstrosity."

Activists say there are at least 50 million exclusively gay men in India, and say a message needs to be spread that India cares about the issue of gay rights.

Past Indian governments have opposed getting rid of the law, saying the country was not ready for such a change.

But Desai dismissed such a defence in the light of a renewed legal challenge: "Minority rights are not at the will of the majority," he said. "Minority rights are absolutely guaranteed by the constitution.

"The issue is not whether the majority of the country is for or against this . . . but whether there is any reason in law for discriminating against these people."

In July, the Indian government's HIV/AIDS control body backed demands for homosexuality to be legalised, saying that making it a crime is driving infections underground and hampering efforts to curb the virus.

The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) filed a statement in the Delhi High Court supporting a public interest petition by a local AIDS charity, the Naz Foundation, demanding that the 145-year-old law be scrapped.

The next hearing is scheduled for early October.

Many of India's homosexuals hide their sexual orientation because of harassment by authorities, although arrests are rare.

"It (the law) can adversely contribute to pushing the infection underground and make risky sexual practices go unnoticed and unaddressed," NACO said in July.

In May, UNAIDS said there were an estimated 5.7 million Indians living with the disease at the end of 2005, more than any other country and ahead of South Africa's 5.5 million cases.