- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

NEW DELHI | New Delhi’s gay community celebrated a landmark court ruling Thursday that decriminalizes homosexuality - a decision that could end widespread police harassment and be a harbinger for gradual acceptance for homosexuals across this deeply conservative country.

The Delhi High Court ruled that treating consensual gay sex between adults as a crime is a violation of fundamental rights protected by the Indian Constitution. The ruling, the first of its kind in India, is not binding outside New Delhi.

Hours after the ruling was issued dozens of members of New Delhi’s gay community - some with rainbows painted on their faces and others holding signs that read “Queer and loving it” - gathered in the heart of the capital to celebrate.

“I’m so excited, and I haven’t been able to process the news yet,” said Anjali Gopalan, executive director of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, the sexual health organization that filed the petition with the court.

“We’ve finally entered the 21st century.”

But some religious leaders quickly criticized the ruling. “This Western culture cannot be permitted in our country,” said Maulana Khalid Rashid Farangi Mahali, a leading Muslim cleric in the northern city of Lucknow.

Gay sex has been illegal in India since a British colonial-era law was issued in the 1860s classifying it as “against the order of nature.” According to the law, gay sex is punishable by 10 years in prison.

While actual criminal prosecutions are few, the law frequently has been used to harass people.

“This legal remnant of British colonialism has been used to deprive people of their basic rights for too long,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

Health experts say the law discourages safe sex and has been a hurdle in fighting HIV and AIDS. About 2.5 million Indians have HIV.

The verdict came more than eight years after the New Delhi-based Naz Foundation filed its petition - not unusually long in India’s notoriously clogged court system. The decision can still be challenged in India’s Supreme Court.

The government has remained vague about its position on the law, and Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily said he would examine the high court’s order before commenting.

While the ruling is not binding in India’s other states, Tripti Tandon, a lawyer for the Naz Foundation, said she hoped it would have a “persuasive” effect on other courts.

Religious leaders in the capital and in other parts of India argue that gay sex should remain illegal and that open homosexuality is out of step with India’s deeply held traditions.

“We are totally against such a practice as it is not our tradition or culture,” said Puroshattam Narain Singh, an official of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council.

In New Delhi, the Rev. Babu Joseph, a spokesman of the Roman Catholic Church, told New Delhi Television that while homosexuals should not be treated as criminals, “at the same time we cannot afford to endorse homosexual behavior as normal and socially acceptable.”

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