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Two steps back

Political backpedalling on Section 377 is regrettable. Will reform be left to the courts?

Written by The Indian Express |
July 1, 2009 5:28:22 am

Just when the government was showing movement in trying to decriminalise homosexuality,there’s been a sudden change of tune. Initial reports indicated that the government was in favour of repealing Section 377 of the IPC; Law Minister Veerappa Moily even called the law outdated. But he’s now more circumspect — he talks of considering views from “all sections of society”,including religious groups. And Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad is calling for “consensus” and “public debate” — all very well,but his ministerial responsibilities require that he bring the public health angle to the debate; and,as his predecessor repeatedly pointed out,that debate has been settled.

India has a rich tradition of social reform legislations that were ahead of their times. Laws that allowed widows to remarry and those that banned sati were passed in the

mid-19th century amidst fierce opposition. Yet,they now seem obvious. Even the Hindu Code Bills,opposed by then-President Rajendra Prasad,now finds acceptance even amongst Hindu conservatives (though they grumble that Muslims were exempt from such reform). Yet legislations that pander to prejudice and parochialism have also found a place in modern India. In a bid to pacify the Muslim clergy after the landmark Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case,the then-Congress government passed an utterly retrograde law that set back gender justice by many years.

That Section 377 is an archaic law is obvious enough. But with few politicians willing to stick their neck out,it has fallen to the courts to intervene — the Delhi high court’s decision is expected any time now. But reform legitimised by the political process is far better than when court-induced; the UPA government’s initial stand on Section 377 was all the more welcome. But it’s recent backpedalling,ostensibly to form “consensus”,is nothing but cowardice. In the case of the nuclear deal,the previous UPA government ditched consensus (rightly,in this newspaper’s opinion) for decisiveness. In its early days,and with a stronger mandate,the UPA faces this choice once again: will it pander to politics-as-usual,or will it show leadership on Section 377?

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