'We are no longer criminals': India's top court scraps colonial-era ban on gay sex

India's top court has scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex, in a landmark judgment that has sparked celebrations across India and elsewhere in South Asia, where activists hope to push for similar reform.

Sexual relationship between 2 consenting adults 'cannot be said to be unconstitutional,' chief justice says

Indian members of the LGBT community in Mumbai celebrate the Supreme Court decision Thursday to strike down a colonial-era ban on gay sex. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

India's top court scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex on Thursday, in a landmark judgment that sparked celebrations across India and elsewhere in South Asia, where activists hope to push for similar reform.

Gay sex is considered taboo by many in socially conservative India, and it was reinstated as a criminal offence in 2013 after four years of decriminalization. 

A five-judge bench in India's Supreme Court was unanimous in overturning the ban. But the ruling could face a legal challenge from groups that say gay sex erodes traditional values.

"Any consensual sexual relationship between two consenting adults — homosexuals, heterosexuals or lesbians — cannot be said to be unconstitutional," said the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra as he read out the judgment.

Supporters of the campaign to scrap the ban milled around the Supreme Court before the verdict and cheered the decision, hugging one another and waving rainbow flags.

Some were overcome with emotion, while others waved banners with slogans such as "Gay and Proud" and "I am who I am." A few distributed sweets in celebration.

"I'm so excited, I have no words," said Debottam Saha, one of the petitioners.

'Long road ahead'

Activists hope the scrapping of the ban will uphold the right to equality but many acknowledged that discrimination would persist.

"We are no longer criminals, [but] it will take time to change things on the ground — 20 to 30 years, maybe," said Saha.

Balachandran Ramiah, a second petitioner, also said there was "a long road ahead when it comes to changing societal mindsets," and stressed the importance of employers ending discrimination in workplaces.

"A number of companies up until now were unable to put these down on paper," he said, referring to steps to end discrimination. "Now they can."

People at an NGO in Mumbai celebrate after the Supreme Court's verdict, though it could still face a legal challenge. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

The law against gay sex, known as Section 377, was introduced during British rule more than 150 years ago.

It had prohibited "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal," which was widely interpreted to refer to homosexual sex.

BJP member criticizes verdict

The battle to repeal Section 377 began in 2001, when a group called the Naz Foundation challenged it in court. That eventually led to its repeal in 2009.

It was reinstated in 2013 after a legal challenge from an astrologer, Suresh Kumar Kaushal, who told Reuters on Thursday the latest verdict would erode traditional society.

"Marriage is the most sacred part of our culture, many cultures actually," he said. "Sexual relations are a sacred part of this bond."

Supporters of the campaign to scrap the ban on gay sex milled around the Supreme Court before the verdict and cheered the decision, hugging one another and waving rainbow flags. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had said it would support any decision by the Supreme Court but one prominent member of the party criticized the court ruling.

"This verdict could give rise to other issues such as an increase in the number of HIV cases," member of parliament Subramanian Swamy told CNN-News18.

'Other countries will follow suit'

Shashi Tharoor, a senior member of the opposition Congress party, said "the government has no place in the bedroom."

"Private acts between consenting adults is something which no government should have criminalized as unfortunately we have done," he said.

Activists in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Pakistan said they planned to push for reform of the laws that their countries also inherited from colonial Britain.

"The Bangladeshi LGBT community has gained moral support," said Shahanur Islam, executive director of the Bangladesh Institute for Human Rights.

"We hope and will make sure that other countries will follow suit in overturning this remnant from colonial law," said Mani Aq of the Pakistani branch of the Naz Foundation.