India’s reputation as a liberal democracy is getting dented on a regular basis lately. The NDA government did not help the country’s cause in this regard this week when it voted in favour of a Russian-drafted resolution at the United Nations which proposed removing benefits for same-sex partners of UN staff. In so doing, India was going against UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s drive to universalise benefits to UN staff regardless of sexual orientation, overturning the earlier practice of making them subject to local laws.
The vote justifiably provoked criticism, which the MEA tried to deflect by suggesting that its vote was more about expressing disagreements with the process of extending benefits rather than reiterating its stance on gay rights. Officials suggested that Mr Ban extended the benefits of his own accord without consulting member states, and therefore there was a serious issue of precedent involved. The US notably had an entirely different view, arguing that determining staff benefits was very much a prerogative of the Secretary General under the UN Charter. The resolution was defeated 80-43. The company that India kept in this vote is particularly telling. It voted along with countries that criminalise homosexuality — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar. It is unlikely that these countries see the issue only in procedural terms as India apparently does.
The government has regrettably missed an opportunity to allow international norms to drive domestic discussions in a progressive direction. The continuing criminalisation of homosexuality in India is a national disgrace. In 2013 the Supreme Court overturned a Delhi High Court ruling and reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law that criminalised gay sex. Curative petitions against the ruling are pending before the apex court. But the government and the political class ought to articulate their stance clearly and consistently to counter regressive social attitudes. They must either take proactive steps to repeal the provisions of Section 377 or back the curative petitions when they come up for hearing. The ruling BJP has discouragingly sent out mixed messages on the issue. The party welcomed the apex court’s 2013 decision, terming gay sex ‘unnatural’ but it has, more recently, indicated that it would support decriminalisation of homosexuality. This is a human rights issue that the government and the political class should not ignore.