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New Delhi: An attempt to decriminalise homosexuality has set up for the UPA government a sensitive test reminiscent of the Shah Bano case.

 

Some religion-driven organisations have opposed the government’s effort to build a consensus on repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal code, which makes punishable “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.

 

The government initiative for a meeting of its three relevant ministries to scrap or modify the section has rekindled hope among gay activists and liberal opinion-makers.

 

But two Muslim outfits — the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and the Jamaat Islami — and the VHP have categorically opposed any change in the law.

 

A Christian organisation — the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) — restated the Church’s objections but suggested that it was not against the repeal as such. The CBCI does not want homosexuality to be treated as a criminal offence but it will oppose measures, such as gay marriages, intended at “legalising” same-sex relationships.

 

Law minister M. Veerappa Moily and home minister P. Chidambaram are said to be in favour of repealing the 1860 law. Moily today said the concerns of all sections, including religious groups, would be taken into account before the final decision.

 

He said the department of law, home and health would soon meet on the issue but did not commit a date. Sources said health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who hails from Kashmir, had not yet articulated his position. “He may want to gauge the mood in the Valley,” a Congress source said.

 

“Section 377 makes no sense,” said Ponni Arasu, a law student and organiser of the Gay Pride March in Delhi today. “You cannot deny people their basic civil rights.”

 

The younger section in the Congress appears to favour what one leader called “a liberal step in the right direction”.

 

But a veteran associated with minority affairs in the Congress said: “This cannot be a black-and-white decision. The party will have to discuss the issue in detail.”

 

Government sources stressed no decision had been taken to repeal the section that is also invoked to fight child abuse. The government could suggest modifications that will prevent harassment of homosexuals and squeeze in some clauses aimed at addressing the concerns of religious groups.

 

For the Congress, the controversy has brought back memories of the Shah Bano case. In 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government, under pressure from Muslim organisations, had nullified a Supreme Court order awarding maintenance to the divorced woman.

 

The homosexuality debate comes at a time the Congress feels it has won back the support of minorities. The UPA government also takes care to project a minority-sensitive face.

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