In recent years, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and Spain have recognized marriages between people of the same sex. Several other countries recognize civil unions with similar legal effect. An even wider range of countries have laws against discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation, in areas like housing and employment. Yet in the world’s largest democracy, India, sex between two men remains a crime punishable, according to statute, by imprisonment for life.
India is not, of course, the only nation to retain severe punishments for homosexuality. In some Islamic nations – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, for instance – sodomy is a crime for which the maximum penalty is death. But the retention of such laws is easier to understand in the case of countries that incorporate religious teachings into their criminal law – no matter how much others may regret it – than in a secular democracy like India.
Anyone who has visited India and seen the sexually explicit temple carvings that are common there will know that the Hindu tradition has a less prudish attitude to sex than Christianity. India’s prohibition of homosexuality dates back to 1861, when the British ruled the subcontinent and imposed Victorian morality upon it. It is ironic, therefore, that Britain has long ago repealed its own similar prohibition, while India retains its law as a colonial relic.
Fortunately, the prohibition of sodomy in India is not enforced. Yet it provides a basis for blackmail and harassment of homosexuals, and has made it more difficult for groups that educate people about HIV and AIDS to carry out their work.