India Supreme Court seeks count of homosexual population

Gay rights activists in India
Image caption The 148-year-old colonial law was overturned in 2009

India's Supreme Court has asked the government for the number of homosexuals in the country and the number of gay men infected with HIV.

The judges are hearing a challenge to a 2009 Delhi High Court ruling which decriminalised same-sex relationships.

Many political, social and religious groups want the 148-year-old colonial-era law reinstated.

On Tuesday, the court criticised the government for its shifting stand on the issue of decriminalising gay sex.

Last week, senior government lawyer PP Malhotra told the Supreme Court that homosexuality was unnatural and immoral. Within hours, the home ministry disowned the lawyer's statement and said he had read from the wrong file.

And on Tuesday, the health ministry said it supported a Delhi High Court order decriminalising gay sex.

On Thursday, Judges GS Singhvi and SJ Mukhopadhyaya said "the data which was put before the Delhi High Court had not been placed here" and ordered the government to provide the information on the next date of hearing.

The judges also criticised the government for not doing their "homework" in the case.

"You should have done your homework before coming to the court," they told an official present in the court.

The government says there are 2.39 million HIV-infected people in India. In 2009, authorities told the Delhi High Court that 8% of homosexuals were HIV-infected.

The 2009 ruling was welcomed by India's gay community, which said the judgement would help protect them from harassment and persecution.

Many people in India still regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate, but rights groups have long argued that the law contravened human rights.

Section 377 of the colonial Indian Penal Code defined homosexual acts as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" and made them illegal.

But the Delhi High Court said the colonial-era law was discriminatory and gay sex between consenting adults should not be treated as a crime. Until the high court ruling, homosexual acts were punishable by a 10-year prison term.

Earlier this month the Supreme Court began a debate on the legality of decriminalising gay sex in private between consenting adults.

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