NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's ruling party on Thursday slammed the Supreme Court for reinstating a ban on gay sex, taking an unexpectedly bold stance ahead of elections in the religiously conservative nation.
The court on Wednesday overturned a 2009 ruling by Delhi's High Court, which had lifted a ban on gay sex between consenting adults that dated back to the nineteenth century. The top court said only parliament could change the penal code.
The court's shock move triggered protests in cities across India on Wednesday as fear spread that the gay community was effectively being outlawed. The ruling was condemned internationally.
"The High Court had wisely removed an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on the basic human rights enshrined in our Constitution," said Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that leads the ruling Congress party, in a rare public statement.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Law Minister Kapil Sibal also voiced dismay.
"To say in this day and age that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)rights should not be recognized is extremely regressive and extremely disappointing," Chidambaram told reporters.
Gay rights activists had not expected the Congress-led coalition government to wade in on the issue, given that it faces general elections within the next six months and the socially conservative Hindu nationalist opposition is already leading in many opinion polls.
"We are very, very happy and we are pleasantly surprised," said Arvind Narrain, one of the lawyers representing the consortium of advocacy groups that defended the 2009 judgment at the Supreme Court.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party ducked mounting pressure to make its stance known.
"This is not a political issue. It is a social issue," said BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi.
India's parliament could now vote to change or remove section 377 of the penal code, which prohibits "carnal intercourse against the order of nature", a phrase widely interpreted to refer to homosexual sex. Violation of the law can be punished with up to 10 years in jail.
Gandhi urged parliament to take up the matter in her statement. Chidambaram suggested that, given the notoriously slow pace of India's lawmakers, the government should instead file a "curative petition", a kind of appeal under which the case is reviewed by a five-judge panel.
Gay rights activists have long argued that the current law reflects British colonial standards of morality and not Indian traditions. India's trans-gender community, the Hijras, have played a role in its society for hundreds of years. It is common to see heterosexual men holding hands in India.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court referred to the "so-called rights of LGBT persons" and said "a minuscule percentage" of India's population were lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay on Thursday described the ruling as a "significant step backwards for India".
Australia's High Court on Thursday similarly overturned a bill that was passed in October to allow gay marriage in and around the capital Canberra.
(Reporting By Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Nick Macfie)
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