‘We are free’: India celebrates Section 377 verdict

SC likely to decide on validity of section 377 which criminalises gay sex on Thursday

"Respect for individual choice is the essence of liberty", Dipak Misra, India's chief justice, told a packed courtroom. Gay sex was punishable with up to 10 years in prison, although few have been imprisoned.

The judgment comes on a batch of petitions, including the lead one filed by hotelier Keshav Suri, arguing that the right to sexual orientation is meaningless without the right to choose a partner.

The Supreme Court of India has decriminalised gay sex between consenting adults by reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). "We want the relationship to be protected under Fundamental Rights and to not suffer moral policing", he said. In 2009, the Delhi High Court described Section 377 as a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The judgment reflects rapid social change in India, where only five years ago, the top court upheld the same law.

Anti-section 377 activists then submitted a "curative petition" - a formal request to review an earlier court order perceived as a "miscarriage of justice" - and in 2016 the Supreme Court chose to revisit its ruling.

Section 377 of the IPC is a colonial-era law which came into effect in 1862 and was struck down by the apex court.

The United Nations in India welcomed the verdict, saying sexual orientation and gender expression form an integral part of an individual's identity the world over.

The Supreme Court verdict on gay sex, widely acclaimed as historic, has held out hope of equal and fair treatment for members of the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).

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"Justice Chandrachud, according to The Hindu, questioned the meaning of the phrase "order of nature" in Section 377 and said: "[The] State can not decide the boundaries between what is permissible or not.

Part of the reason for this, he said, is that leading political figures, including PM Modi, have avoided the gay rights debate. Our responsibilities as citizens of the country has widened as we ought to thrive to act and bring this inclusiveness in our actions and make a more freer India that we got today into a reality. He further added that homosexuals have full right to live with dignity as others. In its 493-page judgement, the bench said aspects of Section 377 dealing with unnatural sex with animals and children remain in force. Local media are carrying extensive reports about the Supreme Court ruling and presenting public opinions calling for a stop to discrimination and prejudice against sexual minorities.

"So proud today! Decriminalizing homosexuality and abolishing section 377 is a huge thumb up for humanity and equal rights!"

The battle to repeal Section 377 began in 2001, when a group called the Naz Foundation challenged it in court.

During one hearing, Justice Chandrachud observed that "our focus is not only on the sexual act, but the relationship between two consenting adults and the manifestation of their rights under Articles 14 and 21 ..."

Even as the community celebrates, it will have to gear up for other battles, said another gay rights activist, Ruth Chawngthu."A lot of people think that this is the end and everyone is going to have rights now, marriage, equality and whatever, but this not the end, this is just the beginning and we have a long way to go". News channels showed people in cities across India weeping and embracing as they celebrated the historic decision. One thing we have learned from the dilly-dallying of courts over the past decade is the fact that even when we have freedom, it could be taken away at any time.

Five Supreme Court judges will decide whether to strike the law down, following weeks of careful deliberation in New Delhi.

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