NEW DELHI A top Indian court issued a landmark ruling Thursday decriminalising gay sex between consenting adults, overturning colonial-era legislation that outlawed homosexuality.
The New Delhi High Court ruled that an existing statute prohibiting homosexual acts was discriminatory and therefore a 'violation of fundamental rights' accorded under the constitution.
The statute in question is a British colonial-era law outlawing 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature.' Conviction carried a fine and a maximum 10-year jail sentence.
Although prosecutions were rare, gay activists said police used the law to harass and intimidate members of their community.
The High Court ruling was made on a petition brought by the Naz Foundation, a gay advocacy group fighting for equal rights and AIDS awareness.
'This is a long awaited and incredible judgment,' said gay rights activist Gautam Bhan.
'The judges in their verdict spoke about inclusivity, quality and dignity. They spoke about a vision of India as an open, tolerant society and to hear all this from the Delhi High Court was amazing,' Bhan said.
While the ruling is non-binding outside the Indian capital, lawyers supporting the petition said it set a precedent that effectively decriminalised consensual gay sex nationwide.
The petition had been staunchly opposed by religious groups, particularly leaders of Indias Muslim and Christian communities who argued that all homosexual acts were 'unnatural' and should therefore be banned.
Gay sex has long been a taboo subject in conservative India, where many still regard homosexuality as an illness.
In recent years, however, the countrys largely closeted homosexual community has raised its profile, organising gay pride marches in major cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai.
'I feel very proud to be an Indian today. This was a very just ruling,' said openly gay fashion designer Wendell Rodericks.
'The entire legal community was in favour, I think, of the act being declared legal if it was between consenting adults,' Rodericks said.
The Indian government has offered mixed messages on its policy regarding the decriminalisation of gay sex, with some ministers speaking out in favour of the petition, only to be contradicted by others in the cabinet.
'The government cant ignore this,' Naz Foundation executive director Anjali Gopalan told reporters after the ruling was announced.
Law Minister Veerappa Moily said last weekend that he would be meeting with his cabinet colleagues from the home and health ministries to review the existing legislation.
The petitioners at the High Court had received substantial overseas support, including from the United Nations.
Jeffrey OMalley, director of the United Nations Development Programme on HIV/AIDS, had argued that decriminalising homosexuality would help India to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. India has an estimated 2.5 million people living with HIV. — AFP