Unpacking the long and winding road to the judicial decriminalization of homosexuality in India
- Agnidipto Tarafder and Arindrajit Basu*
After a prolonged illness due to AIDS-related complications, the gregarious Queen front-man Farrokh Bulsara (known to the world as Freddie Mercury) breathed his last in his home in Kensington, London in 1991. Despite being the symbol of gay masculinity for over a decade, Mercury never explicitly confirmed his sexual orientation-for reasons that remain unknown but could stem from prevailing social stigma. Occluded from public discourse and shrouded in irrational fears, the legitimate problems of the LGBT+ community, including the serial killer of HIV/AIDS was still relegated to avoidable debauchery as opposed to genuine illness. Concerted activism throughout the 90’s-depicted on the big screen through masterpieces such as Philadelphia, alerted the Western public of this debacle, which lead to a hard-fought array of rights and a reduction of social ostracization at the turn of the century for the LGBT+ community across western countries. This includes over two dozen countries that have allowed same-sex marriages and a host of others that recognize civil union between same-sex partners in some form.
On 6th September, 2018, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code - a colonial era law that criminalized “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” bit the dust in New Delhi, at the hands of five judges of the Supreme Court of India (Navtej Johar v Union of India). Large parts of the country celebrated the restoration of the ideals of the Indian Constitution. It was freedom, not just for a community long suppressed, but for the ethos of our foundation that for a century suffered this incessant incongruity. The celebrations were tempered, perhaps by a recognition of how long this fight had taken, the unnecessary hurdles - both judicial and otherwise - that were erected along the way, and a realization of the continued suffering this community might have to tolerate till they truly earn the acceptance they deserve. While the judgment will serve as a document that signifies the sanctity of our constitutional ethos, in the grander scheme of things it is still but a small step, with the potential to catalyze a giant leap forward. For our common future, it is imperative that the LGBT+ community does not undertake this leap alone but is accompanied by the rest of the nation- a nation that recognizes the travails of this long march to freedom.
Long March to Freedom
Modelled on the 1533 Buggery Act in the UK, Section 377 was introduced into the Indian Penal Code by Thomas Macaulay, a representative of the British Raj. While our colonial masters progressed in 1967, the hangover enmeshed in our penal laws lingered on. Public discourse on this legal incongruity emerged initially with the publication of a report titled Less than Gay: A Citizens Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India, spearheaded by activist Siddhartha Gautam, on behalf of the AIDS Bhedbav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) that sought to fight to decriminalise homosexuality and thereby move towards removing its associated stigma. The ABVA went on to file a petition for this decriminalisation in 1994. The judicial skirmish continued in 2001 with the Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO that works on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, filing a petition by way of Public Interest Litigation asking for a reading down of the Section. The Delhi High Court initially dismissed this petition - stating that the foundation had no locus standi. Naz Foundation appealed against this before the Supreme Court, which overturned the dismissal on technical grounds and ordered the High Court to decide the case on merits.
The two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court held that Section 377 violated privacy, autonomy and liberty, ideals which were grafted into the ecosystem of fundamental rights guaranteed by Part-III of the Indian Constitution. It stated that the Constitution was built around the core tenet of inclusiveness, which was denigrated by the sustained suppression of the LGBT+ community. It was an impressive judgment, not only because of the bold and progressive claim it made in a bid to reverse a century and a half of oppression, but also because of the quality of the judgment itself. It tied in principles of international law, along with both Indian and Foreign judgments in addition to citing literature on sexuality as a form of identity. For a brief while, faith in the ‘system’ seemed justified.
Hope, however, is a fickle friend. Four years from the day, an astrologer by the name of Suresh Kumar Koushal challenged the Delhi High Court’s verdict. Some of the reasons behind this challenge would defy any standard sense of rationality. These included national security concerns - as soldiers who stay away from their families may enter into consensual relationships with each other - leading to distractions that might end up in military defeats. Confoundingly, the Supreme Court’s verdict lent judicial legitimacy to Koushal’s thought process, as they overturned the Naz Foundation judgment and affirmed the constitutional validity of Section 377 on some truly bizarre grounds. Indian constitutional tradition permits discrimination by the state only if classification is based on an intelligible differential between the group being discriminated against from the rest of the populace; having a rational nexus with a constitutionally valid objective. To satisfy this threshold, the Supreme Court stated, without any evidence, that there are two classes of people-those who engage in sexual intercourse in the ‘ordinary course’ and those who do not- thereby satisfying the intelligible differential threshold. As pointed out by constitutional law scholar Gautam Bhatia, this differential makes little sense - an extrapolation of this idea could indicate that intercourse with a blue-eyed person was potentially not ‘ordinary’, since the probability of this occurring is rare. The second justification was based on numbers. The Court argued that statistics pointed to the fact that only 200 people had been arrested under this law, which suggested that it was largely dormant and hence, discrimination doesn’t get established per se. In other words, a plain reading of the judgement might lead one to conclude that the random arrests of a small number of citizens would be constitutionally protected, so long it does not overshoot an arbitrarily determined de minimis threshold! The judgment seemed to drag Indian society ceaselessly into the past. This backward shift internally was accompanied by international posturing by India that opposed the recent wave of UN resolutions which sought to advocate LGBT+ rights.
Thankfully, there remained a way to correct such Supreme Court induced travesties, through what is known as a curative petition, a concept introduced by the Court itself through one of its earlier judgements. Needless to mention, such a petition was duly filed before the Court. While this curative petition was under consideration, last August, a 9-judge bench of the Court spun some magic through a landmark judgment in Just. (Retd.) K S Puttuswamy v Union of India which stated that the ‘right to privacy’ was a recognised fundamental right as per the Indian Constitution. The judgment in Koushal was singled out and criticised by Justice Chandrachud who asserted the fact that an entire community could not be deprived of the dignity of privacy in their sexual relations.
Strategically, this was a master-class. While the right to privacy cannot alone serve as the justification for allowing individuals to choose their sexual orientation, in several common law nations including the UK and the USA, privacy has served as the initial spark for legitimizing same-sex relations. A year before the privacy judgment was delivered, a group of individuals had filed a separate petition arguing that Section 377 violated their constitutional rights. The nature of this petition was intrinsically different from the Naz Foundation’s, since the Foundation had filed a ‘public interest litigation’ in a representative capacity whereas this petition affected individuals in their personal capacity, implying that the nature of the claim in each case was different.
The cold case file of this petition that crystallised into the iconic judgment delivered last week, was brought to the fore and listed for hearing in January 2018. Justice Chandrachud’s judgement in Puttaswamy, that tore apart the Koushal verdict, had no small role to play in the unfolding of this saga.
And so the hearings began. The government chose to not oppose the petition and allowed the court to decide the fate of Article 377. This was another convenient manoeuvre by the legislature, effectively shifting the ball into the judiciary’s court, shielding itself from potential pushbacks from its conservative voter-base. However, as public support for decriminalisation started pouring in from various quarters, leaders of religious groups were quick to make their opposition known, leaving the five judges on the bench to decide the fate of a community long suppressed through the clutches of an illegitimate law.
“I am what I am”: The judgement, redemption and beyond
“The mis-application of this provision denied them the Fundamental Right to equality guaranteed by Article 14. It infringed the Fundamental Right to non-discrimination under Article 15, and the Fundamental Right to live a life of dignity and privacy guaranteed by Article 21. The LGBT persons deserve to live a life unshackled from the shadow of being ‘unapprehended felons.”
Justice Indu Malhotra summed up her short judgement with this momentous pronouncement, adding that ‘history owes an apology’ to the members of the LGBT+ community, for the injustices faced during these centuries of hatred and apathy. It seems fair to suggest that this idea of ‘righting the wrongs of the past’ became the underlying theme of the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict on the constitutionality of Section 377. Five judges, through four concurring but separate opinions, extracted the essence of the claim against this law - protecting the virtue of personal liberty and dignity. In doing so, it exculpated itself from the travesty of Suresh Kaushal, emancipating the ‘miniscule minority’ from their bondage before the law and took yet another step towards restoring faith in the ‘system’ of which the judiciary is currently positioning itself as the sole conscientious wing. Perhaps the only set of people shamed through this verdict were our parliamentarians, who on two separate occasions in the recent past had thwarted any chance of change when they opposed, insulted and ridiculed Dr. Shashi Tharoor while he attempted to introduce a Bill decriminalizing homosexuality on the floor of the House.
Earlier in the day, the Chief Justice, authoring the lead opinion for himself and Justice Khanwilkar, began with the ominous pronouncement that ‘denying self-expression (to the individual) was an invitation to death’, emphasizing through his long judgement the importance of promoting individuality in all its varied facets- in matters of choice, privacy, speech and expression. Arguing strongly in support of the ‘progressive realization of rights’, which he identified as the soul of constitutional morality, the Chief Justice outlawed the ‘artificial distinction’ drawn between heterosexual and homosexual through the application of the ‘equality’ doctrine embedded in Articles 14 and 15. Noting that the recent criminal law amendment recognizes the absence of consent as the basis for sexual offences, he pointed out the lack of a similar consent-based framework in the context of non peno-vaginal sex, effectively de-criminalizing ‘voluntary sexual acts by consenting adults’ as envisaged within the impugned law. The Chief Justice went on to elaborate that the right to equality, liberty and privacy are inherent in all individuals, and no discrimination on grounds of sex would survive the scrutiny of the law.
Justice Nariman in his separate opinion charted out the legislative history behind the adoption of the Indian Penal Code. In his inimitable manner, he travelled effortlessly across time and space to source historical material and legislations, judicial decisions and literary critique from various jurisdictions to bolster the claim that the discrimination faced by homosexuals had no basis in law or fact. For instance, referring to the Wolfenden Committee Report in the UK regarding decriminalisation of homosexuality which urged legislators to distinguish between ‘sin and crime’, the judge went on to lament the lives lost to mere social perception, including that of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing. Repelling the popular myth of homosexuality being a ‘disease’, he quoted from the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, the US Supreme Court’s seminal judgment in Lawrence v Texas and several other studies on the intersection of homosexuality and public health, dismissing this contention entirely. Justice Nariman, invoking the doctrine of ‘manifest arbitrariness’ to dispel the notion that the law treating homosexuals was ‘different’. Since it was based on sexual identity and orientation, such a law was a gross abuse of the equal protection of the Constitution.
Justice Chandrachud, having already built a formidable reputation as the foremost liberal voice on the bench, launched a scathing, almost visceral attack against the idea of ‘unnatural sexual offence’ insofar as it applied to homosexuality. Mirroring the concern first espoused by Justice Nariman about the chilling effect of majoritarianism, he wondered aloud what societal harm did a provision like Section 377 seek to prevent. In fact, his separate opinion is categorical in its negation of the ‘intelligible differentia’ between ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’ sex, sardonically stating the perpetuation of heteronormativity cannot be the object of a law.
As an interesting aside, his judgement in Puttaswamy famously introduced a section called ‘discordant notes’ which led an introspective Court to disown and overturn disturbing precedent from the past, most notably the Court’s opinion in the ADM Jabalpur, decided that the right to seek redressal for violation of Fundamental Rights remained suspended as a consequence of the National Emergency.
In a similar act of constitutional manipulation, he delved into a critique of the Apex Court’s judgement in the Nergesh Meerza case. This was a decision which upheld the discriminatory practice of treating men and women as different classes of employees by Air India, denying the women employees certain benefits ordinarily available to men. The Court in Nergesh Meerza read the non-discrimination guarantee in Article 15 narrowly to understand that discrimination based on ‘sex alone’ would be struck down. He held that since the sexes had differences in the mode of recruitment, promotion and conditions of service, it did not tantamount to ‘merely sex based’ categorization and was an acceptable form of classification. In his missionary zeal to exorcise the Court of past blemishes, Dr. Chandrachud observed that interpreting constitutional provisions through such narrow tests as ‘sex alone’ would lead to denuding the freedoms guaranteed within the text. Though not the operative part of the judgement, one hopes his exposition of the facets of the equality doctrine and fallacies in reasoning in Nargesh Meerza will pave the way for just jurisprudence to emerge in sex discrimination cases in the future.
Reverting to the original issue, the judge addresses several key concerns voiced by the LGBT+ community through their years of struggle. He spoke of bridging the public-private divide by ensuring the protection of sexual minorities in the public sphere as well, wherein they are most vulnerable. Alluding to his opinion in Puttaswamy, he declares that all people have an inalienable right to privacy, which is a fundamental aspect of their liberty and the ‘soulmate of dignity’- ascribing the right to dignified life as a constitutional guarantee for one and all. Denouncing the facial neutrality of Section 377, insofar as it targets certain ‘acts and not classes of people’, his broad and liberal reading of non-discrimination goes beyond the semantics of neutrality and braves the original challenge- fashioning a justice system with real equality at its core.
Shall History Absolve Us?
Where to from here then? Can the 500 pages of this iconic judgment magically change the social norms that define the existence of LGBT+ communities in modern Indian society? If the reception of this judgement by the conservative factions within society is anything to go by, the answer is clear enough. Yet, the role of this judgment - in an ecosystem of other enablers - might just be a crucial first step. As noted by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, law can create, displace or change the collective expectations of society by channelling societal behaviour in a manner that conforms with its contents. An assessment of the impact of Brown v Board of Education on African-Americans offers an interesting theoretical analogy.
The unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court in Brown marked a watershed moment in American history that struck down the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine which served as the basis for segregation between communities of colour and the dominant White majority in American public schools. While this ruling initially faced massive resistance, it laid the edifice for progressive legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act a decade later. While its true impact on evolving acceptable standards of social behaviour remains disputed with valid arguments on all sides, Brown kick-started a counter-culture that sought to wipe out the toxic norms that the Jim Crow-era had birthed in the 1950s. Along with subsequent decisions by the US Supreme Court, it acted as the catalyst that morphed the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater attempted to stifle this counterculture in 1964 by undertaking a sustained campaign that opposed the dictum in Brown not in opposition to African-Americans but instead in opposition to an overly intrusive federal government that was taking away from the cultural traditions and values, particularly of the South. In the past few years, cultural apathy seems to have taken a more sinister turn as recent incidents of police violence and the rebirth of white supremacist movements indicate.
Lessons from a different context in an alternate society can never be transposed in another without substantial alterations. Discrimination is intersectional and a celebration of identity is a recognition of intersectionality. Therefore, the path ahead for the LGBT+ community lies in crafting a strategy that works for them - a strategy that can draw from lessons learned in other contexts. Last week’s judgment could morph into a point of reference for a counter-cultural movement that works to remove the stains of oppression. The key challenge is carrying this message to swathes of the populace who, goaded by leading public figures, continue to treat homosexuality as an unnatural phenomenon.
Being a majority Hindu nation, one possible medium of communication could be reference to ancient Hindu scriptures that do not ostracize individuals based on their sexual orientation but treat them as fellow sojourners on their path to Nirvana, the idea of spiritual emancipation, a central tenet of Hindu belief. Strategically, using this framework as a dangling carrot for religious conservatives may be a potential conversation starter but comes riddled with potholes, as the same scriptures could be interpreted to justify subjugation of women, for example. A more holistic approach might be reading these scriptures into the overarching foundation stone of society -The Indian Constitution, which is not a rigid, static document - stuck in the time of its inception - but is a dynamic one that responds to and triggers the Indian social and political journey. The burden of a constitution, as reiterated by Chief Justice Misra and Dr. Chandrachud is to ‘draw a curtain’ on the past of social injustice and prejudice and embrace constitutional morality, a cornerstone of which is the principle of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness driven by rhetoric in political speeches and storylines on the big screen. Inclusiveness that fosters symbiosis between the teachings of religious scriptures and that of Constitutional Law Professors - an inclusiveness that begets the idea of India, which is a fair deal for all Indians.
...And Justice for all?
In the aftermath of this decision come further legal challenges. Legally, while the ‘right to love’ has been vindicated, the right to formalise this union through societal recognition remains to be established. This judgement paves the way for the acceptance of homosexual relationships, but not necessarily the right to marry for a homosexual couple. There are passages within Justice Chandrachud’s visionary analysis which directly address this concern, and advocate for the ‘full protection’ of the law being extended to the LGBT+ populace. It will certainly be instructive for future courts, and one tends to remain hopeful that the long march to freedom for the LGBT+ community and its supporters will not come to a screeching halt through judicial intervention or State action. If anything, the wings of government should bolster these efforts, in view of this verdict.
That said, social acceptance seldom waits on the sanction of the law.
The outpouring of public support which was witnessed through public demonstrations, social media advocacy and concerted efforts from so many quarters to bring down this draconian law needs to continue and consolidate. There are evils yet, and the path to genuine inclusiveness in this country (as in most others) is littered with thorns. And even greater resistance is likely to emerge when tackling some of these issues, which tend to hit closer home than others.
While this judgement entered into detailed discussions on the issue of consent, it remained disquietingly silent on a most contentious subject, perhaps because it was perceived to be beyond the terms of reference. The exception of marital rape carved out in the Indian Penal Code, which keeps married relationships outside the purview of rape laws, remains as a curse - a reminder that gender equality in this nation will only come at tremendous human cost. The institution of family, that sacrosanct space which even the most liberal courtrooms in India have sought to protect, stands threatened. Malignant patriarchy will raise its head and claim its pound of flesh before the dust settles, and in the interest of freedom, it shall be up to the Apex Court to ensure that it settles on the right side of history. Else, all our progress, howsoever incremental, may be undone by this one stain on our collective conscience.
*Agnidipto Tarafder is an Assistant Professor of Law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, where he teaches courses in Constitutional Law, Labour Law and Privacy.
Arindrajit Basu recently finished his LLM (Public International Law) at the University of Cambridge and is a Policy Officer at the Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.
 Gay Marriage Around the World, Pew Research Centre (Aug 8, 2017) available at http://www.pewforum.org/2017/08/08/gay-marriage-around-the-world-2013/.
 W. P. (Crl.) No. 76 of 2016 (Supreme Court of India).
 Aids Bhedbav Virodhi Andolan, Less than Gay: A Citizen’s Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India (Nov-Dec, 1991) available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1585664/less-than-gay-a-citizens-report-on-the-status-of.pdf.
 P.P Singh, 377 battle at journey’s end (September 6, 2018) available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/section-377-verdict-supreme-court-decriminalisation-gay-sex-lgbtq-5342008/.
 (2009) 160 DLT 277; W.P. (C) No.7455/2001 of 2009 (Delhi HC).
 Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, It is like reversing the motion of the earth, The Hindu (December 20, 2013) available at https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/it-is-like-reversing-the-motion-of-the-earth/article5483306.ece.
 (2014) 1 SCC 1 (Supreme Court of India).
 Ibid, at para 42.
 Gautam Bhatia, The unbearable wrongness of Koushal v Naz Foundation, Ind Con Law Phil (December 11, 2013)
 supra note 8, at para 43.
 Manjunath, India’s UN Vote: A Reflection of Our Deep Seated Anti-Gay Sentiments, Amnesty International (Apr 20, 2015) available at https://amnesty.org.in/indias-un-vote-reflection-societys-deep-seated-anti-gay-prejudice/.
 The concept of curative petitions was laid down in Rupa Ashok Hurra v. Ashok Hurra, (2002) 4 SCC 388 (Supreme Court of India).
 Ajay Kumar, All you need to know about the SC’s decision to reopen the Section 377 debate, FIRSTPOST (February 3, 2016) available at https://www.firstpost.com/india/all-you-need-to-know-about-the-scs-decision-to-reopen-the-section-377-debate-2610680.html.
 2017 (10) SCC 1(Supreme Court of India).
 The Wolfenden Report, Brit. J; Vener. Dis. (1957) 33, 205 available at https://sti.bmj.com/content/sextrans/33/4/205.full.pdf.
 Griswold v Connecticut, 381 US 479.
 Gautam Bhatia, Indian Supreme Court reserves judgment on the de-criminalisation of Homosexuality, OHRH Blog (August 15, 2018) available at http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/the-indian-supreme-court-reserves-judgment-on-the-de-criminalisation-of-homosexuality/.
 Krishnadas Rajagopal, Supreme Court refers plea to decriminalize homosexuality under Section 377 to larger bench, The Hindu (January 8, 2018) available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/supreme-court-refers-377-plea-to-larger-bench/article22396250.ece.
 Puttuswamy, paras 124-28.
 Aditi Singh, Government leaves decision on Section 377 to the wisdom of Supreme Court, LIVEMINT (July 11, 2018) available at https://www.livemint.com/Politics/fMReaXRcldOWyY20ELJ0GK/Centre-leaves-it-to-Supreme-Court-to-decide-on-Section-377.html.
 supra note 2, at para 20.
 Express News Service, Lok Sabha votes against Shashi Tharoor’s bill to decriminalize homosexuality again, Indian Express (March 12, 2016) available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/decriminalising-homosexuality-lok-sabha-votes-against-shashi-tharoors-bill-again/.
 Navtej Johar v. Union of India, W. P. (Crl.) No. 76 of 2016 (Supreme Court of India) at para 1.
 Ibid, at para 2.