Influential Indian Organization Appears to Shift Its Stance on Homosexuality

LGBT activists in India have long called for the repeal of the country’s colonial-era law banning homosexuality, known in India as Section 377 of the criminal code. In 2009, the Delhi High Court, which exercises jurisdiction over the national capital territory of Delhi, overturned the law, finding it unconstitutional. The victory was short-lived: in 2013, the Supreme Court of India reversed the Delhi High Court’s decision, resulting in the reinstatement of the law. Last month, however, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case once more, giving renewed hope to Indian human rights defenders that the law will be invalidated once and for all.

Meanwhile, the legislature has failed to repeal the law. The ruling center-right Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has not taken a hardline position on Section 377, but BJP politicians have not supported efforts to decriminalize homosexuality. Most recently, Shashi Tharoor, a prominent politician of the opposition Indian National Congress party, introduced a bill to replace Section 377 in the Indian penal code but was voted down twice in India’s lower house of parliament in December 2015 and March 2016.

There’s a strange silver lining that has emerged last week, however. Indian LGBT activists found a small measure of support from an unlikely source yesterday. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Organization”—known as RSS), India’s most prominent right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, closely affiliated with the ruling BJP, appeared to shift its stance on Section 377. The RSS joint general secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale, stated that homosexuality should not be criminalized: “Sexual preferences are private and personal. Why should RSS express its views in a public forum? RSS has no view on that. It is for people to have their way.”

It’s not all good news—Mr. Hosabale also said that homosexuality is a psychological disorder and gay marriage is a non-starter—but for a hardline right-wing organization to take a soft stance on Section 377 is, to put it mildly, unexpected. We’ll see whether this affects the BJP’s position. As Human Rights Watch’s Yuvraj Joshi put it on Twitter, “#India’s gov’t must be out of touch when even right-wing, Hindu nationalist group says #LGBT shouldn’t be criminals.” If the BJP manages to come around on this issue, we might see a repeal of Section 377 even before the Supreme Court has a chance to issue a new decision on the law’s constitutionality.

Decriminalization, to be sure, is just one step in a long march toward LGBT equality in India, but it is a necessary step.