New Delhi: A private member's bill by Shashi Tharoor to decriminalise homosexuality was on Saturday voted out in the Lok Sabha at the introduction stage itself, a rarity that was preceded by what some visitors described as a display of the very bigotry he was seeking to address.
The Congress MP, who tried to move the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill that proposes carefully worded substitutions in the provisions of Section 377 that criminalises gay sex, was met with loud jeers, giggles and sexual innuendos.
Tharoor later said he could not make out the words in the din but added that the protest was mostly confined to BJP members. He added that not all BJP members heckled him.
Harjyot Khosa of India HIV/AIDS Alliance, a group that helps communities affected by the virus, was present in the gallery when the furore broke out.
She said: "It was shameful to say the least. When Tharoor stood up to ask if he could present the bill, some MPs from the government side (treasury benches) got up and started jeering loudly. I heard them ask Tharoor if he wanted the bill passed for himself. I cannot recognise the faces of the MPs, but they said - " Tharoor ko zyada zaroorat hai is bill ki(Tharoor needs this bill more)."
Khosa added: "It was really sad to see elected parliamentarians speak this language when all that we are asking for is equality, which is the fundamental right of every citizen of this country."
Tharoor's plea to introduce the bill was rejected by 71-24 with MPs shouting "NO, NO" even before the voting began.
Private members' bills are rarely voted out at the introduction stage. The bills are usually withdrawn after a debate and a reply by the government. In a few cases, such bills have been passed. The bills are called private members' to denote that they were being introduced by an MP who is not acting on behalf of the executive branch.
Today, when the Speaker moved the motion to ask members if the bill could be moved, Nishikant Dubey, a BJP parliamentarian from Jharkhand, said he was opposing it, not because of any "religion, Vedas or Puranas" but because of the Supreme Court judgment.
In December 2013, the Supreme Court had overturned a verdict by Delhi High Court that had set aside Section 377 of the IPC. However, the apex court had added: "Notwithstanding this verdict, the competent legislature shall be free to consider the desirability and propriety of deleting Section 377 IPC from the statute book or amend the same...."
The BJP has been speaking in two voices on decriminalising homosexuality. Rajnath Singh, now home minister, had earlier opposed legalising gay sex while recently Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, had batted for decriminalisation.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi had issued a formal statement expressing disappointment at the Supreme Court verdict and adding: "I hope that Parliament will address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by this judgment."
But her party's government, which was in power then, did not initiate any legislative action as suggested by the court.
Later this evening, Tharoor told The Telegraph: "Criminalisation of gay sex deprives homosexuals of their fundamental rights and dignity. My bill is not about homosexuality or anyone's sexuality. It is about privacy, freedom and equality before law."
In the draft, Tharoor had listed "consent" as a key component, proposed to replace "unnatural offence" with "other sexual offences" and omitted the words "against the order of nature" from the current version.
"The bill proposes to restrict applicability of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to non-consensual sexual acts between persons or sexual acts with persons under the age of eighteen years..." the proposed bill said.
Tharoor said the plan to disrupt his bill had been made in advance. "Point is not about any individual, it was a Friday afternoon and there were a total of 96 members present in the House, which is very unusual for a Friday afternoon. Clearly, the plan was to outvote the bill. In fact, in the Opposition, there were only those who had bills to move.
"There is a lot of bigotry. I didn't personally hear any jeering but they were prepared to oppose the bill," he said.
In the din, sometimes the member moving the bill might not hear comments around him.
Nisha Gulur, a member of an advocacy group for LGBT rights, Sangama, had come to the House excited and hoping that the issue would be given a fair hearing but went back feeling insulted.
"Even before voting, they were shouting, asking him why he was so interested in the amendment. They kept saying, 'We know about you' while laughing. I felt insulted, but Tharoor kept his calm. He didn't react. What is also good is that 24 MPs supported the bill. There is hope," said Gulur.
"Will try again in future. We shall overcome!" Tharoor later tweeted.