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Diplomats brace for backlash

New Delhi, Dec. 11: Indian diplomats in key capitals around the world this evening braced themselves to tackle a possible backlash against the Supreme Court’s judgment that has once again criminalised gay sex and could hit the nation’s image as a liberal democracy.

The apex court’s decision comes at a time when homosexual rights are increasingly emerging as a key component of diplomatic dialogues on human rights between nations, amid a storm of global opposition to an anti-gay law Russia enacted this year.

Indian diplomats posted at different missions told The Telegraph they are worried the Supreme Court order that restores a law far more draconian than Russia’s could attract similar criticism for the world’s largest democracy.

“We will be asked why a nation that holds the same human rights principles as the rest of the world for all other segments of the population, is returning to criminally penalising people for their sexual preferences,” an Indian ambassador in a Western European nation said, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely. “We’ve got to have a convincing answer unless we want to be lumped with Russia or countries not noted for their democratic freedoms.”

By late Wednesday evening, American television network NBC had described the verdict as a “return to the dark ages,” and Reuters dubbed the decision as “turning the clock back” on key rights.

The headlines that Indian diplomats are preparing to read on Thursday morning will not be dissimilar to the attacks Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced after he rammed through a law that criminalised “promotion of homosexuality to minors.”

Activists have criticised the Russian law as effectively banning any public display of homosexuality, and are pressuring sponsors to withdraw from the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014.

A worried Kremlin has asked its missions across the world to “monitor” local public opinion amid fears that other nations may feel the pressure to boycott the Winter Olympics that is a key public relations exercise for the Putin administration.

“We don’t have any such event coming up, but much of the criticism we may face will be very similar,” a senior diplomat heading a mission in the Americas said.

Unlike Russia, India does not anticipate any threat to the flow of investments or to strategic ties with key allies, officials said. Those stand secure — just as they were before 2009, when the Delhi High Court decriminalised gay sex.

But India’s larger projection of itself as a liberal democracy on a par with the freest nations in the world may take a hit, some officials fear.

“We’re confident of our claim to a larger role in the world, but yes, appearing stuck in the past on same-sex laws isn’t an ideal position to defend,” a diplomat posted in East Asia said.

India’s tussle with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code — the law that punishes gay sex with a possible life sentence — has already trapped the nation in uncomfortable diplomatic positions.

An American diplomat who had moved to India this year was refused a diplomatic visa for his male spouse two months back, with an officer citing India’s non-recognition of same-sex marriages.

But the US embassy protested, citing international norms on bilateral ties and India’s past decision to award visas in such cases to the spouse as a “family member.” The ministry of external affairs has since decided to award the visa.

In 2007, before the Delhi High Court had decriminalised gay sex, the Canadian High Commission had asked India to approve diplomatic spouse visas for two officials — a request that put the government in a quandary temporarily.

But even though visas have been granted in these cases eventually, the Supreme Court order will likely deter several same-sex diplomats from taking up India posting because of fears of possible legal harassment by law enforcement officials during their stint, a senior Australian diplomat said.

Though the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 grant immunity from criminal action against diplomats, they don’t bar the police from initially registering a case against them, or from questioning them.

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