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Elite in India campaigning against antigay legislation

Gay and transgender people marched in Calcutta this June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, widely considered the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Gay and transgender people marched in Calcutta this June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, widely considered the beginning of the gay rights movement. (Bikas Das/ Associated Press)

NEW DELHI -- Amid a climate of growing sexual tolerance in urban India, a campaign to force the government to decriminalize homosexuality is gaining momentum.

Some of India's most influential figures, from author Vikram Seth to the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, have joined their voices in a protest letter demanding the repeal of ``cruel and discriminatory" legislation banning gay sex.

Unusually, the letter brings together senior names from India's traditionally conservative elite, its business world, civil service, and judiciary, alongside the more expected representatives of human rights groups. Activists say it marks a radical change in attitudes toward homosexuality among India's establishment.

``Some of India's most distinguished people have come together to say that this is a fundamental human rights issue which must be addressed," said Siddharth Dube, a writer and senior official in the UN's AIDS prevention effort . ``The most respected people in our society are standing up and saying they believe something is really wrong. It would be very surprising if the government does not sit up and take notice now."

About 150 high-profile signatories have called for section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans gay sex, to be overturned immediately. The law has been used to ``systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest, and terrorize sexual minorities," said the letter, which was published in various Indian newspapers earlier this month. ``It has spawned public intolerance and abuse, forcing tens of millions of gay and bisexual men and women to live in fear and secret at tragic cost to themselves and their families."

Hostility to the law has intensified recently for two reasons: because it is seen as an anachronism, redolent of an earlier, less tolerant era, and because health care officials, struggling to contain India's AIDS epidemic, warn that it hampers their efforts to contact vulnerable groups.

The letter, which was also signed by Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney general, and Nitin Desai, a former UN undersecretary general, as well as prominent figures ranging from newspaper editors to admirals, stresses that the law has been ``used by homophobic officials to suppress the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenseless against HIV infection."

The letter's release has been timed to trigger renewed debate in advance of a critical ruling from Delhi's High Court, expected early next month, on the validity of the legislation.

This is the latest stage of a long-running attempt by an HIV-AIDS prevention organization, the Naz Foundation, to have the law overturned.

Their case was rejected by the government last year on the grounds that ``public morality" should ``prevail over the exercise of any private right," but the petition is being heard again on appeal, and the mood within the government appears to be softening.

UNAIDS said in May that India had the highest number of people in the world living with HIV -- about 5.7 million. A few weeks later, the government's AIDS-prevention body called for the law to be overturned.

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