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India's LGBTQ+ election vows ring hollow for rights activists

Students and supporters take part in an LGBT+ Pride vigil organised after India's top court declined to legalise same-sex marriage in New Delhi, India, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Students and supporters take part in an LGBT+ Pride vigil organised after India's top court declined to legalise same-sex marriage in New Delhi, India, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

What’s the context?

As millions of LGBTQ+ Indians prepare to vote, BJP and Congress manifestos ignore calls for same-sex marriage and trans job quotas

  • BJP, Congress manifestos include LGBTQ+ promises
  • Rights campaigners say policy pledges fall short
  • Demands for same-sex marriage, trans job quotas

NEW DELHI - India's two main parties are pledging to improve life for LGBTQ+ people if they win a general election that starts on Friday, but campaigners say they are paying lip service to gay and trans rights by dodging the key issue of same-sex marriage.

Despite progress on LGBTQ+ rights, same-sex relations remain taboo in India and many LGBTQ+ people hide their identity for fear of discrimination. Last year, the Supreme Court declined to legalise gay marriage in a major setback to equality gains.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - which is expected to win a third term and opposes same-sex marriage - has promised in its manifesto more shelters, national ID cards, and access to public health insurance for transgender people.

In its policy plan, the opposition Congress party has vowed to introduce a law to recognise same-sex civil unions - stopping short of supporting equal marriage - and seek constitutional changes to prohibit discrimination over sexual orientation.

But LGBTQ+ rights activists said both parties' promises were disappointing, with the BJP ignoring gay, lesbian and bisexual people altogether and Congress only making vague proposals on recognising same-sex unions after "wide consultation".

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The plan to crack down on discrimination is a gimmick that simply overlaps with existing laws, they added.  

"This is all just lip service ... we're a sizeable electorate, and this is all they could offer us," Noor Enayat, a Mumbai-based LGBTQ+ rights activist, told Context.

Neither the BJP nor Congress immediately responded to requests for comment.

Enayat called for political parties to conduct anonymous surveys of LGBTQ+ people to record their demands and launch sensitisation programmes to boost acceptance of same-sex relationships in India among others.

Discrimination and abuse

There is no official data on the size of the LGBTQ+ population in India, the world's largest democracy, but the government estimates there are 2.5 million gay people. LGBT+ rights activists say the true figure is much higher.

Six years since the Supreme Court scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex, LGBTQ+ Indians have made significant strides - from their portrayal on television to more representation in politics and inclusive corporate policies.

But many still fear coming out, and say discrimination and abuse are rife, preventing them from accessing jobs, healthcare, education and housing.

Such problems are even more acute among trans Indians who are regularly shunned by their families and face police harassment and extortion, campaigners say.

A landmark 2014 judgment legally recognised trans people as a "third gender" and made them eligible for jobs and school places, but the quota system has never been established.

Persistent marginalisation and poverty - especially among trans women who often survive by begging or through sex work - means policies to protect them and boost their inclusion are urgently needed, trans rights advocates say.

"(Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer) people are mostly privileged in education, jobs and family acceptance ... We trans people need different rights ... otherwise how will we achieve social justice and equality?" said Grace Banu, a Chennai-based trans activist.

As well as establishing the jobs and education quotas, parties should seek greater trans representation in state and federal parliaments, and reform the law to move towards a self-ID system, campaigners say.

Of all of India's political parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rules the southern state of Kerala, has the most LGBTQ-friendly manifesto, said Ankit Bhuptani, a Mumbai-based gay activist.

Still, while the party promises gay unions, trans education and job reservations and anti-bullying measures for LGBTQ+ students, it stops short of proposing marriage equality, calling instead for recognition "similar to marriage".

But with opinion polls predicting an easy win for Modi's party, Bhuptani said the LGBTQ+ community must focus on winning hearts and minds in the BJP.

"There needs to be a holistic and strategic approach to the queer conversations in India, which is extremely lacking. We need more collaboration with the BJP, not confrontation."

(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Helen Popper)

 


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Women wait in a queue to cast their votes at a polling station during Rajasthan state assembly election in Ajmer, India, November 25, 2023

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India votes: stories from the world’s biggest election

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Updated: May 03, 2024


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