Courts, the Law, and LGBT Politics in India
- Saatvika RaiSaatvika RaiDepartment of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Toledo
In India, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized sodomy (penile nonvaginal sexual acts) in 1860 during British colonial rule. Under this law and the traditional cultural norms, the LGBT community faced harassment and violence from the police, medical establishment, religious and conservative organizations, and families. The Indian queer movement mobilized in the early 1990s, primarily through activism for legal reform. Criminalization of sodomy prevented the LGBT community from freely mobilizing in public spaces, reporting acts of violence and harassment, and coming forth for testing and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and therefore was an impediment to their health and well-being. LGBT rights groups challenged the constitutionality of Section 377 on the basis of violating the right to equity (Article 14), nondiscrimination (Article 15), freedom (Article 19), and life and privacy (Article 21).
Decriminalization of Section 377 has been a long, three-decade battle in the courts involving multiple judicial rulings. In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized sodomy and declared Section 377 unconstitutional. The ruling was challenged by conservative and religious groups in the Supreme Court for going against social norms, threatening the institution of marriage, and promoting homosexual practices that would increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 2013, the Supreme Court heard the case, overturned the High Court ruling, and recriminalized Section 377. The Court declared that Section 377 was constitutional and applied equally to all persons. Thereafter, the Supreme Court passed three other judgments that directly impacted Section 377: It expanded the rape laws under Section 375 of the IPC to include penile nonvaginal acts (2013), provided legal rights to the transgender community as a nonbinary third gender (2014), and established the right to privacy under the Constitution (2017). The Supreme Court reassessed its decision, and on September 6, 2018, decriminalized Section 377 in a historic judgment. Legalizing queer sexuality was a positive step forward., yet considerable legal reform is still needed. The LGBT community still lack civil rights such as marriage, adoption, tax benefits, inheritance, and protection in the workplace. LGBT rights mobilization through the Indian courts has evolved from a focus on HIV/AIDS and health to broader human rights and privileges as equal citizens.