No 6 India’s Supreme Court Re-criminalises Homosexuality

One of the more disappointing developments of the year was also one of the last in terms of LGBTI rights. On 11 December, India’s Supreme Court effectively re-criminalised homosexuality in the world’s second most-populous nation.

They did so by overturning the Delhi High Court’s July 2 2009 decision in Naz Foundation v Govt of NCT of Delhi, which had found that section 377 of India’s penal code was unconstitutional in so far as it applied to sex, including gay sex, between consenting adults.

While the Supreme Court did find that section 377 was discriminatory and that gay sex between consenting adults should not be criminal, it nonetheless decided that the matter is one for Parliament to resolve, rather than the Courts, and consequently ‘revived’ the application of section 377 to homosexuality.

For its part, the Indian Government has expressed its disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision. Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress Party, described section 377 as “an archaic, unjust law”, while Finance Minister P Chidambaram is reported as saying that the ruling had taken India “back to 1860” (the year the law was first introduced).

In the past 24 hours, the Indian Government has filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking it to review its decision to reinstate section 377, on the basis that it “violate[s] the principle of equality.”

The Law Minister, Kapil Sibal, has tweeted that “[t]he government has filed the review petition on Section 377 in the Supreme Court today. Let’s hope the right to personal choices is preserved”.

What they haven’t done is commit to introducing legislation to overturn section 377 themselves, instead preferring to hand it back to the judicial branch of government to resolve. Which means that, for however long the petition takes to resolve, consensual sex between same-sex attracted adults will remain a crime in India (after the all-too-brief 4 and a half year era of decriminalisation).

The decision not to legislate at this stage is obviously a tactical one. A national election is due before 31 May 2014, and with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adopting a more hard-line conservative position in response to the decision, there is the potential for them to use the issue as a pre-election wedge.

However, if the BJP and its Coalition parties do form government next year then, as well as making it unlikely that legislation to decriminalise homosexuality will be passed by parliament, it will also throw the status of the current Government’s petition to the Supreme Court (assuming it hasn’t been heard) into doubt.

In short, the situation is a bit of a mess.

But, before we judge too harshly the efforts to date of India’s Parliament on this issue, including those of the Congress Party-led Government, it is important to remember where the original blame for section 377 lies.

After all, we are expecting the current Indian political (and judicial) system to clean up the mess left by the British imperial Government of the 19th century. Just like other European ‘colonial’ powers, the British left a legacy of legal – and cultural – homophobia in its wake.

In fact, the British were especially talented at spreading homophobia around the world. More than half of all countries where homosexuality is illegal in 2013 are current members of the Commonwealth of Nations (more on that topic in the next post).

Indeed, the actions of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries place a special burden on the United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand) to do whatever they can to assist fellow Commonwealth countries along the path towards decriminalisation.

Nevertheless, despite the original blame for section 377 lying elsewhere, the people with the power to finally abolish it are in India – either on the judicial, or parliamentary, benches. Here’s hoping they find the courage to do so shortly, and allow millions of LGBTI people to return to living their lives free from the threat of prosecution, or police intimidation.

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