The arrest of four people on charges of homosexuality and running an online gay club in northern India has triggered criticism by NGOs and the United Nations’ AIDS body, UNAIDS.
Police in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state, said the young men arrested last week had dozens of members in their secret Internet club.
Homosexuality is illegal in India but is prevalent undercover. Many night clubs in New Delhi and other cities even host secret gay and lesbian nights. But if convicted, homosexuals face at least 10 years in jail.
UNAIDS says making homosexuals criminals increases the stigma and discrimination they face, hindering the battle against HIV/AIDS.
The government’s own planning commission, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently recommended homosexuality and prostitution be legalised to help the fight. The government has yet to formally respond.
“The members would meet in private and public places and indulge in unnatural acts,” police officer Ashutosh Pandey said in Lucknow. Those arrested are said to be in their early 30s.
“The group established online Internet links with gay groups outside the country too,” said Pandey. He ruled out their release. The arrests have sparked criticism from gay rights groups with UNAIDS taking the lead.
“We’re concerned at the arrest of a number of men who have sex with men in Lucknow,” Denis Broun, UNAIDS India coordinator, told Reuters on Wednesday, adding there was a need to repeal “archaic” 19th century laws banning homosexuality.
“Criminalisation of people most at risk of HIV infection may increase stigma and discrimination, ultimately fuelling the AIDS epidemic.”
India has 5.1 million people with HIV/AIDS but UNAIDS and non-government organisations (NGOs) say the numbers are much more. The country is second only to South Africa in the number of HIV cases.
Arif Jafar, executive director of the Naaz Foundation International, a gay rights organisation, said his group had taken up the matter with authorities in Lucknow.
“They say the men were caught indulging in anal sex then why haven’t they seized the clothes? What is the report of the medical examination? We want the full facts,” Jafar told Reuters.
The editor of the Indian edition of Maxim, an international men’s lifestyle magazine, Sunil Mehra, termed the incident as “rank hypocrisy characteristic of all matters sexual in India.”
“Why should anybody dictate to anybody what they should eat for dinner, how they should live, what they should wear, who they should make love to?” he said.
India’s gay community is trying to lift the veil of secrecy in a country where public hugging or kissing invites angry stares and even lewd comments.
Uttar Pradesh police recently thrashed heterosexual couples simply for being together in public areas of another city recently.
In the past year, three lesbian couples hit the media headlines as they struggled to stay together under pressure from the public and their families. A petition to legalise homosexuality filed by the Naaz Foundation is before the Supreme Court. The government has told the court the law cannot be changed because homosexuality is not accepted by Indian society.
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.