Not long after the horrific shootings at a gay nightclub in Florida, on Sunday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his sympathy — “Shocked at the shootout in Orlando, USA. My thoughts & prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured.” Politicians from other Indian political parties quickly followed suit, saying they were “shocked,” “deeply pained” and “saddened” by the killing that left 50 dead and scores more injured.
The sympathetic tweets promoted a quick backlash from those who want India’s Parliament to repeal a Colonial-era law that criminalizes homosexual acts. India is one of many countries around the world where gay sex is against the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code forbids “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” making such acts punishable with a fine and 10 years in jail.
“Want to give a strong reply to Orlando shooter and his ideology of hate?” one critic tweeted. “Stop treating gays as criminals. Repeal 377.”
Others followed suit.
A Delhi High Court declared the law unconstitutional in 2009, effectively making homosexuality legal throughout India, but that judgment was overturned by India’s Supreme Court in December 2013. The court said that the matter should be left to lawmakers to decide.
Gay-rights activists are still hoping that the matter can be addressed in curative petitions currently pending before a five-member constitutional bench of the Supreme Court. But for now, the law remains on the books. Activists claim anti-gay violence has tripled since the 2013 ruling, and hundreds have been arrested.
Homosexuality was long a taboo subject in traditional Indian culture, but after the landmark 2009 ruling gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Indians felt freer to be open about their lives, and gay pride parades became more common.
Politicians and leaders continued to decry homosexuality, with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party calling it “anti-Indian” and anti-family. The controversial guru Baba Ramdev — a favorite of Modi’s — likened homosexuality to drug addiction and said it be cured through yoga.
But there have been some signs in recent months that some conservatives are softening their stance.
Late last year, one of Modi’s top advisers, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, caused a stir when he said he felt that the Delhi High Court’s ruling was “more acceptable” given the times.
“When millions of people the world over are having alternative sexual preferences, it is too late in the day to propound a view that they should be jailed. The Delhi High Court’s view appears more acceptable,” he said.
Earlier this year, a leader of the conservative Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, also garnered headlines when he said homosexuality should not be a crime, although he later amended that comment by saying it was a “socially immoral act” that should be treated as a “psychological” case.