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Gandhi Slams India Court on Gay Rights in Shift for Ruling Party

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi said,
Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi said, "I hope that Parliament will address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by this judgment.” Photographer: RAVEENDRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician, criticized a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a 153-year-old colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex and said parliament should introduce a bill to amend the constitution.

The Italy-born Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party in power since 2004, is “disappointed” with the decision, according to an emailed statement from the party. Yesterday’s judgment reversed a 2009 verdict of the lower Delhi High Court that decriminalized same-sex intercourse between consenting adults in the nation’s capital.

“I hope that Parliament will address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by this judgment,” Gandhi, 67, said in the statement. The ruling “removed an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on the basic human rights enshrined in the constitution.”

The statement signals a shift in support of gay rights from her Congress party, which has previously avoided taking up the cause. In 2009, the Congress-controlled cabinet decided against enacting the Delhi court ruling, and lawmakers retained the provision in a review of the penal code earlier this year when they tightened legislation to stop sexual assaults.

“In this 21st century, we must move with the times,” Law Minister Kapil Sibal told reporters. “We should not jeopardize those relationships and consider those as criminal activities.”

Opposition

During more than three years of court hearings, religious groups opposed the ruling that lifted the ban. Hindu, Christian and Muslim groups argued that the prohibition protected public health and morals.

Section 377 of the Indian penal code, drafted by British rulers in 1860, outlaws “carnal intercourse against the order of nature, with any man, woman or animal.” While offenders face imprisonment and a fine, prosecutions are rare.

“We must explore ways and means which this judgment can be reversed very quickly,” Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in televised remarks. “Legislation is one way to reverse it. That may take time. Not giving up that option of legislation, we must explore other ways.

The ruling comes as gay rights proponents around the globe struggle to achieve the same treatment as heterosexuals. While the U.K., France and Australia have taken steps to expand gay rights, Croatians last week approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked international ire earlier this year by signing a law banning the spread of so-called gay propaganda.

Australia’s top court ruled today that the first same-sex marriages are invalid and unconstitutional. The Australian Capital Territory, which includes the country’s capital Canberra, this year allowed gay marriage for the first time.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi at amacaskill@bloomberg.net; Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

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