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Can attitudes change now that India has decriminalised homosexuality?

Blog 12th September 2018

6th September 2018 will forever be a momentous day in Indian history. This is the day that the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. The end of this 24-year legal battle is not just a break from an “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary” law, but also a break from yet another colonial tie. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was introduced in 1862 as the British imposed Victorian mores on India. In 2016 alone, there were more than 2,000 cases registered for “unnatural offences” under Section 377. Of those that went to court, 16 led to acquittals and 7 resulted in convictions.

What does Section 377 say?

Section 377 of the IPC says the following:

Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to a fine.

It may be worth taking a moment to note that Section 377 classed zoophilia on the same level of crime as having homosexual sex, even in 2018. India has made a very important move to rid itself of such a regressive law, but have these dangerous attitudes really changed? The abolishment of this law is the hard work of a few individuals, however there are still many who disagree with the ruling. Prof. Ramchandra Siras’ case shows, in a civil context, that although the law can change, dangerous attitudes to homosexuality are likely to still exist.

The case of Prof. Ramchandra Siras

Prof. Siras was a professor at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), specialising in Marathi literature. Prof. Siras was in his bedroom when three journalists forcefully entered his house on 8 February 2010. The crew filmed the professor having sexual intercourse with his male lover, a rickshaw puller. Focus on his lover’s occupation, unforgivably, enhanced the scandal. The video, given to the BBC by AMU, shows Prof. Siras pleading with the journalists to stop filming.

Prof. Siras was suspended by AMU. His suspension memo described his act as a prima facie case of “gross misconduct” under Rule 403-C of the AMU statute. Prof. Siras argued that both the memo and suspension were unlawful as the university had no locus standi to suspend a person for what they do in their private life. Furthermore, homosexuality could no longer be described as a ‘gross misconduct as the Delhi High Court had decriminalised it 2009. On 1 April 2010, Prof. Siras won his case and got his job and home back on the basis of the 2009 decision. However, religious groups later moved the Supreme Court in 2013 to overrule the Delhi High Court’s order and reintroduce the criminalisation of homosexuality.

Prof. Siras died in his apartment 6 days after winning his case. The autopsy revealed poison in his body. The police were reluctant to label the death as a murder and for a while called it a suicide. It seemed that the responsibility for justice lay in the hands of the public and after some pressure an investigation into murder was opened. However, this only lasted 12 days before the case was closed without resolution, and remains unsolved to this day.

Prof. Siras’ story was the basis for the film Aligarh by Hansal Mehta in 2016. Aligarh does well to encourage public debate on LGBT issues and tackle taboos in India. However, it was recently aired on a major Hindi channel, where the word ‘homosexual’ was censored out repeatedly like a foul word.

What now India?

Prof. Siras’ case highlights the difficult lives of homosexuals in India where same-sex relationships are taboo and many regard them to be illegitimate. People, like Prof. Siras’ lover, still live in fear every day. Some find themselves in a more violent misfortune than Prof. Siras, and almost all are ostracised from society for being themselves. This was recognised by Chief Justice Dipak Misra who said:

Social exclusion, identity seclusion and isolation from the social mainstream are still the stark realities faced by individuals today, and it only when each and every individual is liberated from the shackles of such bondage… that we can call ourselves a truly free society.

Attitudes can absolutely change, but it is going to take a lot of time and hard work. India’s first step is a commendable one. Efforts must continue to now consider the battles that lie ahead and bring a change in societal attitudes. Perhaps now the 72 other countries and territories that still criminalise same-sex relationships can follow suit.

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