DNA: It is queer to give in to religious demands

1 July 2009
DNA  Magazine (India)

It is queer to give in to religious demands

By Antara Dev Sen

We have such a queer government. Last year it fought itself, as the home ministry opposed the health ministry’s attempt to decriminalise homosexuality. Then last week, right before the gay pride march, the two ministries seemed to bury their differences and cosy up as the law minister hinted at changing the archaic law. And this week it has hastily retraced its footsteps, announcing that if indeed there is a change in law it would happen only after a parliamentary debate and discussions with religious leaders.

Come now. Surely we can change laws in our ‘secular democracy’ without getting waylaid by religious demands. Of course some religious groups have grumbled at the idea of legally accepting homosexuality — but that’s their job. The government’s job is to ensure constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, to make sure that otherwise law-abiding citizens are not being discriminated against on the basis of sex, to protect everyone’s right to life and all its processes. It is not supposed to inflict religious demands on people, certainly not in the bedrooms of consenting adults. Sexual preference, like religion, is a personal matter.

Victorian England didn’t think so. Which is reflected in this 150-year-old British law — Section 377 of the IPC that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Under it anyone — gay or straight — can be jailed for non-procreative sex or foreplay. Britain dumped the law 42 years ago. And most countries around the world, including the control-freak China, have decriminalised homosexuality. But not India. And ignoring the demands of progressive thought, the United Progressive Alliance continues to dither over it.

Earlier, the government stated in court that homosexuality was a “social vice” and decriminalising it would “create breach of peace” and a “big health hazard” destroying our good old society with moral turpitude and HIV/AIDS. Now it is saying that it needs a “total consensus” from not just the government but all parties. Now, since when has the government sought a consensus from all parties for significant decisions? Where was this “total consensus” in the Indo-US nuclear deal? Waiting for a consensus here is as good as slamming the law back into the closet.

Oh, and don’t forget the proposed summit meetings with the religious leaders. Of course the holy herd, always eager to control your personal lives, objects. The Darul Uloom Deoband has opposed the amendment because homosexuality is an offence under the Shariat and prohibited in Islam. Quite irrelevant, since we are not ruled by the Shariat. If we were, we would have to ban pet dogs, magic, pork, alcohol, speculation and Dalal Street, to begin with.

Then there is the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, which opposes gay marriages. Also irrelevant, since no one is asking for gay marriages right now. Besides, if we followed Catholic rules in lawmaking, we would have to first ban more mainstream matters like divorce, contraception and abortion.

And of course there is the ever-excitable Vishwa Hindu Parishad, also opposing the change of law. If we gave in to majoritarian Hindu sentiments we would never have been able to legislate against sati, child marriage, female infanticide, female foeticide, Untouchability, child labour, dowry and honour crimes. We would never have been able to make widow remarriage, inter-caste and inter-religious marriage legal. In short, we would still be trapped in the retrograde laws that smother human rights, justice and democratic freedoms.

In a country rich with religious pluralism, it is impossible to keep all faiths happy. Amending Section 377 is essential to protect the civil rights and dignity of its citizens. The UPA government, now stronger than before, must not try to appease the hungry holy herds at the cost of civil rights and justice.

The writer is editor, The Little Magazine


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