Blackmail and Abuse: India’s Gay Sex Ban Stirs Violence

Thousands of Indians face persecution under the country’s colonial-era ban.

Gay activists dressed as newly wed grooms attend a gay pride parade in Mumbai in January. (Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Apr 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Nita Bhalla covers South Asia humanitarian affairs for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, based in New Delhi.

When Rajan was followed by two men into a public toilet in Mumbai and forced to perform oral sex on them, the 31-year-old gay marketing professional realised this was the beginning of the end of his short-lived sexual freedom.

“They knew I was gay. They were watching me and waiting. They filmed the whole thing and threatened to tell the police,” Rajan, who did not want to disclose his full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Then they took me to an ATM and made me withdraw all the money I had, which was 15,000 rupees ($240 USD)... Even though society has not fully accepted us, the law was there to protect us. But now we are scared.”

Rajan is one of thousands of people from India’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who have faced persecution after the world’s largest democracy in December 2013 reinstated a colonial-era law banning gay sex, say activists.

They are campaigning to reverse the ruling by India’s Supreme Court, arguing that the reinstated law has led to a surge in reports of gangs—as well as the police—intimidating, harassing, raping, blackmailing, and extorting money from LGBT people.

Gay sex is punishable by up to 10 years jail under this law.

“What is becoming increasingly common are gangs whose modus operandi is to befriend victims on gay dating sites, meet them in a hotel room, get them naked, and take compromising pictures of them,” said Sonal Giani, advocacy manager at the Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based charity that works for LGBT rights.

“These gangs threaten to report them to the police if they don’t give them money. They often beat and sexually abuse the victims...but the victims are so scared that they generally don’t tell anyone.”

“Against the Order of Nature”

There are no official figures on the number of cases. Most go unreported, as victims are too scared to report crimes to the police, fearing that the newly reinstated law will be used against them.

One case study in a report by the Coalition for Sex Workers and Sexuality Minority Rights documented a doctor duped into a relationship with two men who filmed him having sex and extorted 1.3 million rupees ($20,775 USD) from him. The police were tipped off about the extortion—but charged the victim.

In another incident, a woman who suspected her husband was having an affair installed a webcam in their bedroom and discovered he was sleeping with men. She took the footage to police, who arrested her husband.

Charities such as the Humsafar Trust say reports of abuse have increased in the last year, with Giani documenting 500 reports of abuse of LGBT people in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat in 2014.

India has a rich history of eunuchs and male-to-female transgender people, known as hijras, who were respected and considered close confidants of emperors in the Mughal Empire.

But British colonizers in 1860 introduced legislation that prohibited “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal,” which was widely interpreted to refer to homosexual sex.

Over the years, the country’s sexual minorities—especially transgender people, who are more visible—have been driven to the fringes of society, into sex work, and face discrimination in jobs and basic services such as health and education.

In 2009, however, the New Delhi High Court ruled the antigay legislation violated constitutional guarantees for equality, privacy, and freedom of expression, ending the ban on same-sex relationships.

Persecution and Prosecution

Sachin Awasthi, advocacy officer for Pehchan, a group that provides health care to sexual minorities, said this watershed moment for the LGBT rights movement led to a new openness.

Annual gay pride marches emerged in cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore); newspapers and TV stations increased coverage of LGBT issues, and India’s usually formulaic film industry introduced the issue of homosexuality.

“There was more coverage of the issue in the media, in schools and colleges. People started talking about their sexuality and coming out,” said Awasthi.

So it came as a shock to human rights groups when the Supreme Court recriminalized gay sex 15 months ago, saying only India’s parliament could decide on the antigay legislation. “The ruling has turned the clock back,” said Amitava Sarkar, who is transgender and an activist with India’s HIV/AIDS Alliance. “Britain, the country that imposed the law in India, has moved on and now permits same sex marriage, yet we in India are still living with this archaic law.”

She said even though the Supreme Court has since recognised transgender people as a third gender and called on the government to ensure their equal rights, it does not recognize their right to have sexual relationships.

In the past year, activists say their worst fears have been realized with LGBT people harassed and now scared to come out and express their sexuality.

Activists say LGBT people do not hold out hope that the country’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will change the law in parliament.

Last month India was among 43 countries in the United Nations to vote unsuccessfully to stop benefits to same-sex partners of U.N. staff.

“This shows how homophobic the politicians in our country are,” said Anjali Gopalan, director of the Naz Foundation, which has appealed the Supreme Court decision.

This story was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.