TV & Radio
Attitudes, and the law, keep India's gays quiet
THURSDAY, JANUARY 19, 2006 International Herald Tribune
NEW DELHI What happened on Jan. 3 in the state capital of Lucknow is unclear. The police account and the version offered by the lawyers of the accused differ on most points, but the outcome was that four men were arrested and imprisoned, accused of operating an online "gay racket" and engaging in "unnatural sex."
There are some peculiar contradictions in the police narrative of events.
Officially, officers claim they arrested the men in a park, but one involved in the arrest later told local journalists that the police had "laid a trap" for one of the accused and detained him together with three others at a private address in the city.
Adding to the confusion, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog, said it received reports suggesting that the police had posed as gay men on a gay Web site, "entrapped one man, then forced him to call others and arrange a meeting where they were arrested."
Whatever the precise details, the decision to imprison the men for 14 days before granting them bail has given new impetus to a campaign for the repeal of India's laws banning gay sex.
The police officers probably did not expect the arrests to prove particularly controversial. To their surprise, the incident triggered an international outcry. In a letter to the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Human Rights Watch argued that the government's decision to "cling to the criminalization of homosexual conduct" prevented people from coming forward for HIV/AIDS testing, information and services.
Campaigners for the law's repeal argue that it is not simply a question of AIDS prevention, but a matter of basic human rights. Section 377 of India's criminal code is, they say, an anachronistic anomaly that originates in 19th-century British colonial law.
Under the statute, gay sex is bracketed with sex with animals and pedophilia and classed as an "unnatural" offense, punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment.
Few people are prosecuted under the law, but its continued presence on the statute books has meant that gay men, as well as organizations promoting AIDS awareness among gay communities in India, remain vulnerable to police harassment.
The Lucknow police force has been unusually proactive in its attempts to enforce the law. In 2001, the police raided the offices of two organizations working on AIDS prevention and arrested staff members, accusing them of promoting homosexuality. The police seized the HIV-AIDS education material being distributed by the organizations on the grounds that it was "obscene."
Arif Zafar, from the Naz Foundation International - an HIV/AIDS prevention organization - was imprisoned for 47 days, as were three colleagues.
"The police in Lucknow seem to have their own moral agenda," Zafar said. "They said we should not be distributing condoms to men because it was against the Indian culture. They said we were promoting unnatural behavior in order to make money out of foreign donors."
So far, the officers involved in this month's arrest appear quite unabashed by the furor they have unleashed.
"If laws were made against homosexuality in India, it must have been done keeping in view the Indian social ethos and moral values," Ashutosh Pandey, Lucknow's senior superintendent of police, told the Indo-Asian News Service.
Anil Kumar Yadav, the officer in charge of the police station where the charges were filed, declared: "It seems as if all the gays of the world have united against us just because we picked up the boys. Homosexuality is neither legally nor socially recognized in our culture."
The argument that Indian society was not ready for a legalization of homosexuality was echoed in a Ministry of Home Affairs response to a petition to have the law changed.
Dismissing the petition in December, the ministry pointed out that homosexuality is illegal in most countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and declared: "Public opinion and the current societal context in India does not favor the deletion of the said offense from the status book."
The idea that public opinion should be used as a moral barometer guiding legislation has irritated campaigners against the law.
Rahul Singh, another worker with the Naz Foundation, said: "Public opinion is in favor of sati - widows immolating themselves - but the government legislated against that. The law has to come first and public opinion will follow."
But the question of whether society was ready to accept homosexuality is also debated within India's gay community. In urban areas, life has gotten much easier for gay men.
"There are help lines, support groups, access to other gay men," said Gautam Bhan, an activist with Voices Against 377, a movement campaigning for repeal of the law. "The change has been extraordinary for urban-based, middle- and upper-class men. But it is only possible to live an 'out' life in privileged circles. Beyond those groups, it is harder."
In smaller cities like Lucknow, attitudes change very slowly.
"Homophobia in India is very different to what it is in the West, where it combines religious disapproval and personal disgust," Bhan said. "Here people aren't surprised by the existence of same-sex attraction, which is present in the Hindu epics and carved in stone in the temples of Khajuraho.
"But India is a patriarchal society which values marriage, and people are afraid of men who reject that path."
The petition is due to be heard by the Indian Supreme Court in February. Activists harbor little optimism that there will be a swift rethinking of the law.
On the scale of European and U.S. gay pride marches, the public response to the Lucknow incident has been muted. In Delhi, about two dozen activists gathered last week to protest the arrests.
Campaigners point out that it is still hard to persuade people to protest openly - partly because of the law. "The response this time was much greater than ever before, but the existence of the law still constrains us," Bhan said.
"Everything we do can be construed as aiding and abetting a criminal offense."