India will certainly be a happier, safer and generally more civilized country to live in if it stopped treating homosexuals as criminals and let them get on with their lives as ordinary human beings. Most of the enlightened world has decriminalized and legalized homosexuality several decades ago. The debate there has moved on to more sophisticated legal problems involving marriage, adoption and property rights. But India remains tied to a grimly discriminatory penal code, formed by imperialist prudes in the mid-19th century, which not only reduces homosexuality to sodomy (“carnal intercourse against the order of nature”) but also keeps up a combination of blackmail, extortion and brutality in the name of maintaining law and order. But the judiciary seems to have suddenly sat up to all this, without actually taking a definite stand on the matter. The Delhi high court has asked the Centre to hurry up and make up its mind about the issue. Moral revulsion and bigoted embarrassment could use evasion as well as violence as modes of discrimination. The Centre has looked away for years in spite of a number of petitions filed in the courts, mostly by concerned nongovernmental organizations. But, all of a sudden, India’s frightening HIV/AIDS scenario has given the matter a new edge.
Although the government does its best to wish away the fact that men who have sex with men are a high-risk group when it comes to HIV/AIDS, it is becoming increasingly difficult to look away. The ultimatum from the court is also linked to the urgent need for making prevention campaigns in the country less hazardous for AIDS workers. It is difficult to make an activity belonging to a largely invisible and criminalized underworld part of a drive towards health and hygiene. But this association with HIV/AIDS gives to homosexuality and homosexual activism a joyless quality, a matter of safe sex and legal reform. Homosexual men and women in India need to fight for their legal rights on the basis of something far more positive and fundamental than the fear of disease and death. What is at stake here is a human being’s right to happiness and freedom, to enjoy adulthood without being forced into fear and falsehood, doubleness and deceit by an oppressive social system, archaic laws and a venal law-and-order machinery. Legal reform can only be the beginning of a process of change which needs to be nothing short of a social revolution. But legalizing homosexuality is the only civilized option for a nation that proudly calls itself a modern democracy.