The world’s largest constitutional democracy last week relapsed into being one of the most officially and deliberately homophobic. India’s Supreme Court upheld a Victorian-era prohibition against gay sex, which calls for 10-year prison sentences for so-called “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”
The court’s decision to overturn a 2009 Delhi High Court decision and uphold Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalizes gay sex, has brought shock and condemnation from Indian human rights activists. Though Section 377 is seldom enforced, it has been used to harass gay people and interfere with HIV-prevention provisions like condom distribution.
India never denied rights to gay people, or frowned on sexual expression, until puritanical British colonizers introduced Section 377 in 1860. Erotic ancient Hindu temple carvings depict many forms of sexual enjoyment. Yet India is reviving outdated forms of British sexual restrictiveness even as Britain is set to recognize same-sex marriage next year.
Sixteen countries have now legalized same-sex marriage or are in the process of doing so. They include Catholic countries, parts of North and South America, and Africa, such as Canada, Spain, France, South Africa and Uruguay. Others at least have changed their laws so as to protect gay people against discrimination and hate crimes. So why is India, whose independence movement was built on equality and religious pluralism, whose constitution stipulates equality of all people, siding with the intolerant?
For the same reason that a small band of evangelical activists in Iowa orchestrated a campaign resulting in the ouster of three state Supreme Court justices whose 2009 ruling resulted in recognition for same-sex marriage. The same reason that Uganda has been prodded to pass a law that could even impose the death penalty for homosexual acts. So politicians can play to the growing religious conservative base to win elections. The Indian Supreme Court apparently took its cues from Hindu fundamentalist leaders associated with the conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is hoping to win a majority in coming elections and form a government.
Earlier this year, the Indian crown prince of Rajpipla, the world’s only known openly gay member of royalty, visited the United States and discussed the Hindu fundamentalists’ campaign to get 377 reinstated. “Religious leaders are being supported by government in this because they are the vote bank for politicians,” alleged Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, who is Hindu himself. Though Indian royalty today has little power but the title and ceremonial functions, Gohil has been using his platform to call out Hindu fundamentalist leaders who preach intolerance of gay people for their hypocrisy. He said he knows some to be gay themselves.
Not all Hindu clergy take a hard-line approach. There are Hindu priests who have performed marriage rituals for same-sex couples, even though those marriages were not recognized by law.
But power plays that use religion have no geographic or religious boundaries. American documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams made a film this year about Uganda’s campaign to pass its Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Williams examines the role of American fundamentalist Christians in that and other social campaigns in Africa. Even without passage of the law, the Uganda bill has created a climate that terrorizes gay Ugandans. It has given rise to such unthinkable crimes as so-called “corrective rape” of gay people.
As for India, its political and religious leaders ought to focus more attention on preventing rapes than forbidding consensual sex between adults. Monday marked one year since the brutal gang rape of a Delhi student on a bus, leading to her death. That crime sparked mass protests and calls for stricter penalties against rape. Some changes have been made, but rape and other forms of violence against women may be on the rise in part because of a backlash against women’s growing empowerment.
A New Delhi woman alleged last week that her new husband through an arranged marriage — who since fled — brutally raped and sodomized her on their honeymoon. Ironically, under India’s misguided laws, which criminalize sex but not violence, sodomy even without force would be the prosecutable offense, but marital rape would not be.
These absurd anomalies in the law cry out for India’s Parliament to undo the damage legislatively. But with elections looming, don’t expect those anytime soon.