“Can India abolish the anachronistic homosexuality law to battle HIV/AIDS?” by Govindasamya Agoramoorthy & Minna J Hsu

Source: AIDS (http://goo.gl/tR48TL)

Despite the fact that the journal AIDS has covered various articles related to HIV in Asia, the thorny issue of the colonial era homosexuality law of India has seldom been discussed. We are concerned about the recent increase in the reported cases of HIV among homosexual men in India. We believe that it is time for India to repeal the colonial era homosexuality law so that intervention measures can be enforced to help the often ignored gay community, one of the vulnerable groups for HIV infection.

The first report of HIV infection in India was in 1986, and within just two decades this immune-stripping disease has infected over 5 million people. According to reports, the HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men was 23.6% in Maharashtra State and 2.4% in Tamilnadu State, respectively. Detailed statistics on India’s current homosexual practice and its implications on the spread of HIV, however, are not known clearly because homosexuality is illegal in India and is punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years. This unfortunate legal stumbling block prevents gay men from coming forward for HIV screening; it also frustrates health workers in providing information regarding treatment, monitoring and counseling.

The major provisions of the criminalization of same-sex acts are found in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. According to Section 377, gay sex is bracketed with sex with animals and paedophilia and is classed as an ‘unnatural’ offence, punishable by imprisonment. Even though only a few individuals have been prosecuted under the law, its continued existence on the statute books has meant that homosexual men and organizations promoting AIDS awareness across India remain vulnerable to police aggravation and legal prosecution.

For example, the police force in Lucknow city has been bizarrely upbeat in its attempts to enforce this outdated Section 377. In 2001, the police invaded two offices of the local AIDS prevention organizations to arrest staff members, condemning them for encouraging homosexuality in the city. Early this year, police arrested four men and accused them of operating an online gay ‘racket’ and engaging in unnatural sex. International human rights organizations condemned the arrests, and India’s coordinator for UNAIDS stated that treating homosexuals as criminals in fact increases the stigma and discrimination they face, and therefore hinders the ongoing fight against AIDS.

Sexuality on the whole is somewhat a taboo in traditionalist India, and individuals often regard same-sex relationships as illegal or even profane. However, what people forget is that India has a long history of including homosexuals as part of society, and ancient Hindu texts such as the Kama Sutra describe homosexuality more accurately than any other religions in the world. As a matter of fact, the 145-year-old law originated during the British occupation of India, when there was no freedom of speech or democracy. The United Kingdom has indeed changed many laws over the past few decades as society has progressed towards freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, India has been struck with this outdated anomaly that deserves to be abolished if India is to be recognized globally as a true democratic nation that respects all people equally.

AIDS experts have already raised alarm bells over the spread of the disease in Asia and the Pacific region, and called for a united effort to control it. The government of India is increasingly committed to HIV prevention and control efforts. But it regrettably continues to ignore the implications of Section 377 on India’s gay community, social workers and HIV prevention programmes. There is insufficient public awareness at present about India’s homosexual community. Therefore it is crucial for health education professionals and social work experts to take a leading role to reach out to policy makers, politicians, community leaders, and the media to alert the public on the dire social and health consequences of the homosexuality law.

Press releases from international human rights groups condemning India’s homosexuality law are not enough to make legal changes in India. Public pressure with the support of parliamentarians and local political parties is the key to changing the law, especially when there is a coalition government in New Delhi similar to the present one, which often needs the crucial support of small parties and independent members of parliament to stay in power. Finally, we urge people from all walks of life in India to play an active role in bringing public pressure to abolish Section 377, so that the neglected homosexual community in the world’s largest democracy can be free at last!

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