Don’t be fooled by Sunday’s gay parades in India’s major metros. There is still a social stigma against sexual minorities in our country and the law is there to firm up this taboo. Add to this Law Minister Veerappa Moily’s remarks that the Cabinet would be ‘re-looking’ at Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalises “voluntary carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”, and the picture emerging in 21st century India is not exactly encouraging. The law states that even consensual anal or oral sex between two people — regardless of gender — is punishable by a fine and up to ten years imprisonment. That the government intends to take into account the concerns of all sections of society, including religious groups, suggests that it will be a good long time before this retrograde law is repealed.
A common argument against doing away with this law is that this would enable paedophiles to prey on young children, especially boys. This makes little sense. The protection of all children from sexual abuse cannot come within the ambit of an omnibus law that also governs adults. There has to a comprehensive law dealing with child abuse that includes issues like incest and domestic sexual violence. The existence of this law has driven the majority of the gay community underground. This means that, by and large, they do not have access to either information or healthcare when it comes to safe sex. As it stands, the law has been used to harass gays, transgender people and eunuchs. They are often targeted by the police who take advantage of the law being weighted against them.
Powerful religious organisations have already made it clear that they would oppose any move to dilute or repeal this law. Resistance to changing this law is evident from the fact that not much has moved from the time it was first challenged in the courts in 1994. Issues of sexuality are still very much taboo in India though we pride ourselves on having traditionally been an open society. Arguments that any discrimination on grounds of sexuality amounts to a violation of a person’s fundamental rights have not cut much ice with those opposing it. All governments have been wary of grasping this nettle and the current one seems to be no exception. Many other countries have moved ahead to the extent of openly gay people holding high office. In India, a beginning would be made if, for starters, legal discrimination was done away with.