In the eyes of many LGBT activists in India, the election victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in this month’s elections was a setback for efforts to overturn the country’s anti-homosexuality law. At the least, their work becomes more complicated now.
The complications may affect upcoming proceedings before the Supreme Court, which has agreed to review its order of last December that reinstated anti-gay Section 377, which had been suspended four years earlier by the High Court.
The previous government, led by the Indian National Congress party, had sent mixed messages about the law. The Telegraph of Calcutta (Kolkata) stated:
“While the home ministry supported it, the health ministry contended that it was against criminalisation of gay sex. … “While several senior Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Kapil Sibal, criticised the Supreme Court order, with elections in mind, they didn’t actively seek to repeal the law in Parliament.”
Now the Bharatiya Janata Party takes over, with its own complex relationship to the law. New Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has been resolutely silent on the issue of homosexuality and LGBT rights,” BuzzFeed reports.
One Indian columnist added in First Post, “I don’t think any of our LGBT citizens have any cause of concern. It’s not that Modi doesn’t support gay rights. He has not officially said anything about the subject. Only Rajnath Singh made a statement supporting section 377. And who cares about that guy. He has been given an insignificant ministry and is on his way to even losing his position as the BJP president.”
But that optimistic viewpoint isn’t shared by all. Modi’s silence on the subject is a political tactic that hides his anti-gay stance, according to Aakar Patel in a commentary in the Deccan Chronicle:
“The fact is that he does have an opinion on this, but it runs counter to the media consensus. The media is liberal and was incensed at the order, saying it was a setback to individual rights and a clinging on to the code imposed by colonialists.
“Modi is from the old school of morality and doesn’t like the idea of homosexuals, much less making their activity legal. If he were absolutely pressed to weigh in on the subject, he would say that he agreed with the law and the judgement.
“But it would have been politically damaging for him to say this, because the attention of the media would turn to the only person swimming against the consensus. This is why he chose to remain silent instead.”
Shashikumar Velath, programs director at Amnesty International India, sees complexities within the new government as it comes to grips with the issues:
“The BJP does not appear to have officially taken a stand on Section 377 or the broader issue of LGBT rights. While party president Rajnath Singh has said the party supports Section 377, other senior members like the former leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha (Arun Jaitley) have indicated that there has not been a discussion on the issue within the party, and also said that some voices within the BJP support the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
“The previous government had told the Supreme Court in 2013 that Section 377 was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions and had been imposed upon Indian society by colonisers. We urge the new government to uphold this position.”
Activist Debojyoti Ghosh is more pessimistic, stating in The Telegraph article:
“This is definitely a setback for us as we now have to convince a new set of politicians to address the issue. It is now time for more aggressive advocacy, otherwise we don’t stand a chance given their huge mandate. The campaign would have been much easier with the previous government as they seemed to be on our side, but they didn’t have the gumption to take it forward.”
The Hindustan Times reports that the right-of-center Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party seems to be shifting toward advocating repeal of Section 377:
“In a possible easing of stance of the RSS, a spokesperson of the right-wing outfit — ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP — has said criminalisation of homosexuality is questionable. …
“RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav said: ‘Whether to call homosexuality a crime and treat it as one in this day and age is questionable.’ “