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Section 377 and Moral policing by the Indian State

28 September 2008

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The Indian Express, September 29, 2008

Moral policing

Being gay in India is to know the brute power of state and society in the most immediate, humiliating ways — the entire spectrum from police harassment to social ostracisation. Section 377 of the IPC contains the legal abomination that allows the Government to extend its tentacles into the intimate life of lakhs of its queer citizens. Now, a much deferred liberation movement, to strike down the part of Section 377 that criminalises homosexuality, is playing out in the Delhi High Court. The government’s stand had previously been split between the health ministry’s tentative suggestion, couched in the language of AIDS intervention that maybe Section 377 be reconsidered in the interest of public health, and the home ministry’s conviction that legalising homosexuality would unleash moral armageddon. The court hearings have been a tragicomedy of errors, as the government floundered on its own absurd arguments, at one point claiming that homosexuality spreads AIDS and therefore it should remain illegal, and then throwing in non sequiturs about widow remarriage — inviting stern rebuke and ridicule from the court.

Gay rights movements have flowered all over the world, and institutions have reluctantly ceded ground, after raging culture wars. Countries like the UK decriminalised homosexuality half a century back, though Victorian-era legacies like Section 377 still retain a vise-like hold on Indian society. It is not only here that the issue has sunk into a mire of intellectual confusion and emotional recoil — in the US, as late as 1986, Bowers vs Hardwick upheld the law penalising homosexuality. But the Indian government’s hypocrisy and patently ridiculous reasoning are themselves the best demonstration of the vacuity of the moral case against scrapping 377.

It is reprehensible that a democracy like ours should be among the last to accept this most fundamental of desires — the need to stop living a lie. The right to love who you love, after all, is far more significant for most people than even voting freely. And it is a human right.