(Posted below are editorials from The Hindu and The Telegraph)
Editorial: An embarrassing stance
Earlier this week, India voted alongside China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in favour of a Russian resolution limiting benefits to same-sex couples. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, an outspoken defender of the rights of sexual minorities, had extended benefits available to spouses of UN employees to same-sex couples. Russia moved a resolution that would allow national law to override this extension, and India supported it; the resolution was, however, defeated. On this occasion officials have been at pains to stress that the issue was one of sovereignty, not of gay rights. This is hard to believe; in September 2014, India was one of the few countries to abstain from a historic vote on violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Highlighting India’s increasingly embarrassing isolation on an issue on which there is global consensus, that of the universality of sexual rights, the resolution was adopted. Globally, India is now in the minority, one of only 76 countries that criminalise same-sex relationships. India’s votes at the UN are in line with its domestic laws, since the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising unnatural sex — which has been interpreted to cover consensual homosexual relationships — remains on India’s statute books. A plea that detailed police harassment of homosexuals and the challenges to HIV prevention that the ghettoisation of gay men posed cleared the Delhi High Court hurdle but not the Supreme Court. Review petitions have failed; only a curative petition is before the Supreme Court.
The apex court can and does come to the rescue of citizens faced with unconstitutional laws and policies, but the ultimate blame for India’s retrograde stand on homosexuality must lie with its elected representatives, who could have acted to strike off Section 377 from the statute books. Gay rights are human rights and India cannot pretend to be a democracy when it refuses to recognise the existence and choices of a significant minority of its population. Indian law has been marked by its commitment to full safeguards against the trampling by majority groups of the rights of minority social groups. The natural progression of a democracy’s expanding definition of freedoms must be reflected in its recognition of sexual minorities, as most of the world has already done. That the United Progressive Alliance could not find the moral courage to set right this historical wrong should not stop the National Democratic Alliance from writing a new future. The new government appears to care deeply about how it is perceived overseas. It should then recognise that its regressive stance on gay rights would militate against its aspirations to be seen as a modernising society.
Corrections and Clarifications
A sentence in the Editorial, “An embarrassing stance” (March 27, 2015) said: “This is hard to believe; in September 2014, India was one of the few countries to abstain from a historic vote on violence and discrimination again sexual minorities. It should have been against.
The mix of bigotry, cowardice and pseudo-logic shown by the Indian government in voting against, and then losing the vote, on the right of United Nations staff to benefits for spouses of the same sex is fostered by the bizarre history of Section 377 of the penal code in India. India happened to be in the august company of Pakistan, China, Nigeria, Syria and Saudi Arabia, among several other nations, in voting against the official recognition of same-sex unions by the UN. In a strangely two-faced evasiveness, the Indian government made the point that it was not voting against same sex couples so much as objecting to the unilateralism with which the UN secretary-general made this change in the UN’s regulations, imposing a uniformity for all UN staff that might be at odds with the laws of some member countries. By this logic, India was fighting for fairness and democracy rather than depriving human beings of their right to equality. This awkward attempt at masking discrminatory conservatism as righteousness will not be unfamiliar to those who have been following the peculiar history of the decriminalization and recriminalization of homosexuality (strictly speaking, sodomy) in India. The judiciary has given the third sex their Constitutional status as Other Backward Classes, yet their sexual identity remains at odds with their sexual behaviour in the eyes of the State, as long as intercourse "against the order of nature" between consenting adults remains a criminal offence in India. The Supreme Court has deemed a change of law as a matter of parliamentary debate. But the Indian State’s knee-jerk attitude to the entire matter shows a sort of visceral opposition to the idea of sexual justice that often speaks the rhetoric of nationalistic indignation.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, has objected to the UN’s decision openly on moral grounds, and there is a kind of consistency, however unpleasant, about such a position. India, with one eye to the world, does not quite wish to appear to it in all its bigoted glory on such a matter. Yet, it will not examine its official position on it, or even come clean on what it actually thinks after having done so on its own terms. A nation that is keen on proclaiming its sovereignty as a modern democracy cannot afford to appear so benighted and confused in its understanding of what equality is all about.