Campaign Spotlight: Voices Against 377

'Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.'

About Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code reads: ‘Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.’ As an explanation, penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section. This has been interpreted to include anal and oral sex.

The very existence of this law leads to harassment, blackmail, and a systematic denial of rights for same-sex desiring people by the police and the society. It also legitimises violence and discrimination against same-sex desiring people in India. Although several activists, practitioners, researchers, and even many politicians view the law as antiquated, there has been a conservative stronghold on keeping the law, in the name of preserving values and marriage between a man and a woman.

Several groups are calling for the removal of Section 377 in India. Voices Against 377 (VA377), based in New Delhi, India, is one such coalition of progressive individuals and organisations. VA377 was formed as an attempt to facilitate a space for a dialogue between various social movements, raise awareness on issues related to Section 377, and advocate for the decriminalisation of adult, consensual, same-sex desiring behaviour.

The Background

In 2003, The Lawyer's Collective (an NGO based in India which provides legal aid, research and advocacy on issues of HIV/AIDS and women's rights) filed a petition on behalf of The Naz Foundation (India) Trust (an NGO based in New Delhi, India which mainly works on HIV/AIDS issues) in the Delhi High Court to remove adult, consensual, same-sex desiring behaviour from its ambit. The court did not hear the case on its merits, but instead dismissed the petition on the grounds that an organisation (The Naz Foun-dation in this case) cannot file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on behalf of a community.

The Lawyer's Collective argued that due to their marginalised status under the law, the same-sex desiring community was not in a position to approach the court on their own accord. However, the court dismissed this argument also. Most recently, Naz Foundation and The Lawyer's Collective appealed to the Supreme Court to review whether the Delhi High Court could dismiss the petition on such grounds. The Supreme Court has since redirected the petition to the Delhi High Court for reconsideration and the case is currently pending a hearing.

The Campaign

It was following the High Court’s initial dismissal of the petition, that a group of individuals (the group later called itself ‘Voices Against 377’) met for the first time and formed a coalition. What sets the coalition apart from previous such efforts is the wide range of politics and perspectives that its members come from. A minority of members of the coalition explicitly identify with LGBT spaces – others work on areas as diverse as child rights, health, human rights, and education. Yet each of these individuals and the organisations they work with has articulated the concerns of same-sex desiring people as an issue that affects all people, and not just a small LGBT-identified minority. The campaign is rooted in the belief that discriminations are linked, be they on the basis of caste, religion, sexual orientation, or class, and that these linkages must be understood to counter any and all prejudice.

The group began compiling a report called ‘Rights for All: Ending Discrimination Under Section 377’. The report documents the violations and injustices towards sexual minorities in India as a result of the Article 377 and incorporates perspectives from various social movements in India, showing how same-sex sexuality intersects with child rights, right to health, current human rights frameworks and the women’s movements. The report also discusses the bias against sexual minorities within the mental health field as well as in public health programmes. The report has been translated into Hindi (a language that is used widely in India) for further dissemination.

After the ‘Rights for All: Ending Discrimination Under Section 377’ report was published, VA377 felt that there should be a continued dialogue on a variety of issues with regard to sexuality. Therefore, VA377 has taken on an active role in a variety of settings -  participating in protests against violence; raising awareness about Section 377 at public events; dialoguing with other progressive movements; conducting trainings on sexuality for other groups; writing memos on the connections between sexuality and other issues for dissemination and education purposes; engaging the media; presenting at local, national and international conferences and seminars; and facilitating an internal debate among coalition members themselves.

The coalition launched the ‘Million Voices Campaign’ in December 2004, a nation-wide year long campaign to collect a million messages on sexual rights. The campaign is being used to raise awareness and advocate support on issues related to sexual rights.

The existence of this forum is a much-needed step towards broadening the foundations of the LGBT movement, and an articulation of a truly inclusive politics around sexuality and human dignity. Voices Against 377 includes Amnesty International India, Anjuman, Breakthrough, CREA, Haq, Jagori, Nigah Media Collective, Nirantar, Partners for Law and Development, PRISM, Saheli, SAMA, and TARSHI.

For more information on Voices Against 377, please write to 

(Special thanks to Gautam Bhan and Jaya Sharma for providing substantive inputs for this article).