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INTERVIEW-Indian MP vows to fight bigotry after bid to decriminalise gay sex fails

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 January 2016 19:11 GMT

In this 2006 file photo, now Indian opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor speaks during a public lecture in Singapore. REUTERS/Luis Enrique Ascui

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A British colonial era law punishes homosexual sex with up to 10 years imprisonment

NEW DELHI, Jan 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian politician campaigning for gay sex to be legalised said on Monday he would continue his fight for the freedom and equality of sexual minorities despite attempts by members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party to thwart his efforts.

Opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor in December introduced a private member's bill in India's lower house of parliament seeking to amend a British colonial era law which punishes homosexual sex with up to 10 years imprisonment.

However the bill was quickly scuppered by members of Modi's right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"They opposed my bill at its very introduction stage which is very, very unusual. Normally opposition comes at the discussion stage, you don't prevent a bill being introduced by a private member, its uncollegial if nothing else," Tharoor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"But they did that and they succeeded, partly because prejudice sadly is still there in our society."

Seventy four members voted against the bill, said Tharoor, 21 in favour and one member abstained, making it impossible for him to even attempt a debate on the contents of the bill.

India's top court reinstated a ban on gay sex in 2013, ending four years of decriminalisation that had helped bring homosexuality into the open in the conservative country.

The Supreme Court threw out a 2009 ruling by the Delhi High Court and said that only parliament could change Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, widely interpreted to refer to homosexual sex.

The law, which dates back to 1860, prohibits "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal."

Activists say that since the ban on gay sex was reinstated, there has been a surge in reports of gangs, as well as police, intimidating, harassing, raping, blackmailing and extorting money from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

There are no official figures on the number of cases. Most go unreported, say activists, as victims are too scared to report crimes to the police fearing Section 377 will be used against them. Tharoor said 578 people have been arrested since homosexuality was recriminalised.

While the previous Congress-led government had pledged to repeal the law if it came to power again, it was crushed by the BJP in general elections in May 2014.

The BJP which has an overwhelming majority in parliament has so far been silent on the issue of homosexuality.

Senior BJP leader and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said he personally believes gay sex should be decriminalised, but lawmakers are fearful of losing support in their largely conservative and religious constituencies.

Tharoor, who was a minister in the former Congress-led government and also a former United Nations diplomat, said he was not giving up his fight for India's LGBT community.

A petition requesting Modi to amend the law has amassed around 25,000 signatures on change.org, said Tharoor, adding that he planned to reach out to sympathisers from the BJP and resubmit the bill in the next session of parliament in February.

"I think a debate will help actually sensitise the nation to the issue at stake. I have long argued that this is not about sex but about freedom. It's about our constitutional values," said Tharoor.

"It is indeed about getting the government out of people's bedrooms."

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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