Fate of Tharoor’s 377 Bill makes it clear that political parties don’t care about gay rights

Fate of Tharoor's 377 Bill makes it clear that political parties don't care about gay rights
Photo Credit: Lok Sabha TV
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Gay rights fall into a very odd place in the broader Indian discourse. Fluid gender dynamics have always been a part of Indian culture and, at least in public, there are very few politicians who are rabidly opposed to homosexuality unlike in the United States. Yet, while the latter country has seen a growing consensus on legalising gay marriage, India is still not able to muster enough legislative support to decriminalise homosexuality altogether.

On Friday, a Private Member’s Bill introduced into the Lok Sabha to amend the law on gay sex was not even discussed, after Members of Parliament opposed its introduction onto the floor by 71 votes to 24.

Tharoor’s bill aimed at amending Section 377 of the Indian Penal code which criminalises intercourse “against the order of nature”, a provision that has been used in the past to threaten and blackmail gay people in the country, even though it rarely ends up in actual prosecutions. Tharoor’s proposal suggested amending Section 377 to criminalise only non-consensual, underage or coerced sex, effectively decriminalising any voluntary gay sex between consenting adults.

But the Bill barely even reached the floor of the house. According to Tharoor’s tweets, a notice of intent to oppose the introduction to the Bill was moved just as he attempted to introduce it. Reports suggested that Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Nishikant Dubey stood up to oppose the Bill and called for a division of the house to decide whether it should be taken up for debate.

This meant that those aiming to speak either in favour of decriminalising gay sex or maintaining the status quo did not get a chance to speak, and the Lok Sabha simply went on to the next order of business. Tharoor later took to Twitter to complain about the “intolerant” not even being open to debate.

But a few notes about the entire episode tells us much about our politicians’ seriousness when it comes to a fundamental question of civil rights involving gay people.

*Why was it a ‘Private Member’s’ Bill?
It is laudable that Tharoor was willing to take up such an important issue. But he is no renegade, working outside party lines. Tharoor is a senior leader in the Congress party, which has shown the political acumen to move things through Parliament even with just 45 MPs by forging alliances and consensus. Moreover, the Congress’ top leaders, from President Sonia Gandhi to Vice-President Rahul Gandhi to former Finance Minister P Chidambaram just last week, have spoken against Section 377 remaining on the books. Yet it seemed like Tharoor was fighting this battle alone, truly just a private member, without the rest of the Congress supporting him. Why didn’t the party back him?

*Where was everybody?
The numbers suggest something like 95 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha for an important period involving Private Member Bills, in a 543-strong house. There regularly isn’t quorum for Private Member’s Bills, and the debate wouldn’t have happened immediately. Tharoor also says there was not enough time to rally support against a notice to disallow his Bill from being introduced, but considering the relative importance of such a civil rights issue, at best doesn’t the lack of numbers seem like negligence and an oversight?

*Where is the government?
Chidambaram wasn’t the only one who spoke up against Section 377 last week. Current Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also said that it is “too late in the day to propound a view” that people with alternative sexual preferences should be jailed. The Bharatiya Janata Party may have a more chequered record on this front, but Jaitley could have pushed the party to embrace his views in what is clearly an important matter of civil rights.