Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India: The Navtej Singh Johar Case

Author- Jessica Singh Amethia

Student at college- New Law College, Bharti Vidyapeeth Deemed to be University, Pune


India’s history with homosexuality has traveled a complex path from ancient acceptance to modern-day challenges and victories. Ancient texts like the Vedas and the Kama Sutra included same-sex relationships without stigma, but British colonial rule introduced laws that criminalized homosexuality, leading to over a century of discrimination. 

In recent decades, a strong LGBTQ+ rights movement emerged in India, driven by global influences and local activism. Key legal battles, including the 2018 Supreme Court case Navtej Singh Johar & Ors. v. Union of India, resulted in the decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts. This landmark ruling recognized the fundamental rights of LGBTQ+ individuals under the Indian Constitution, marking a significant step towards equality.

Despite this progress, societal acceptance varies, and many LGBTQ+ individuals still face challenges in areas like employment, healthcare, and family acceptance. Increased visibility of LGBTQ+ issues in media, pride parades, and advocacy efforts have fostered greater awareness. The journey ahead involves continuing to fight discrimination and promote inclusivity, ensuring that the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ individuals are fully recognized and respected.

  1. Introduction:

India’s story of homosexuality is a fascinating journey from ancient acceptance to modern-day struggles and triumphs. Long ago, Indian texts and myths included same-sex relationships without judgment. However, British colonial rule introduced laws that criminalized homosexuality, leading to over a century of discrimination. 

In recent years, India has seen major changes. In 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual acts, marking a significant step towards equality. While legal progress is evident, societal acceptance varies, with many LGBTQ+ individuals still facing challenges. 

This journey highlights India’s evolving attitudes towards homosexuality, reflecting a broader fight for human rights and acceptance. Let’s explore this story of change, from ancient traditions to modern legal victories and ongoing efforts for equality.

  1. Historical Context:

India’s ancient texts, including the Vedas and the Kama Sutra, reflect a diverse understanding of sexuality, including same-sex relationships. The Kama Sutra, written between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE, acknowledges homosexual acts, suggesting that ancient Indian society did not uniformly stigmatize homosexuality. Hindu mythology also includes references to gender fluidity and same-sex love, as seen in stories of deities like Ardhanarishvara, a composite of Shiva and Parvati, symbolizing the union of male and female principles.

However, the advent of British colonial rule in the 19th century introduced Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with life imprisonment, effectively outlawing homosexual acts. This law cast a long shadow over India’s LGBTQ+ community, perpetuating stigma and discrimination for over a century.

  1. Rising Voices: The Fight for Decriminalization:

The resistance against Section 377 began to glow in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The mushrooming LGBTQ+ rights movement in India, inspired by global movements for equality, started demanding the repeal of the discriminatory law. 

A pivotal moment came in 1994 when a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by AIDS activist Ashok Kumar Mehta challenged the constitutionality of Section 377. This landmark case, ultimately dismissed on procedural grounds in 2006, brought national attention to the plight of LGBTQ+ individuals and ignited further activism.

The fight against Section 377 gained momentum in the 2000s. Several organizations such as the Naz Foundation (India) Trust filed fresh petitions, and a vibrant online community emerged, fostering solidarity and raising awareness. In 2009, a landmark Delhi High Court judgement in the case of Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi (2009) decriminalized Section 377, recognizing that it violated Article 14, 15 and 21 which are the fundamental rights to equality and privacy.

However, this progressive decision was overturned just four years later by the Supreme Court in the infamous Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation (2013) case. This setback, though demoralizing, did not extinguish the fire for change.

  1. Navtej Singh Johar & Ors. v. Union of India: A Turning Point:
  • Background and Facts: –

Navtej Singh Johar, a renowned dancer and one of the five petitioners who filed a fresh PIL challenging Section 377 in 2014. The petition argued that Section 377 violated fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution, including Article 14, the right to equality before the law, Article 21, which talks about the right to privacy and life and lastly, Article 19, which highlights the right to freedom of expression and speech. This comprehensive approach, which focuses on human rights, matched well with the changing social landscape in India.

The case gained widespread support from human rights organizations, legal experts, and even prominent actors and celebrities. A crucial aspect of the Johar case was the emphasis on the inherent nature of sexual orientation. The petitioners argued that homosexuality is not a choice or a disease, but rather an intrinsic part of one’s identity. This argument resonated with the court, challenging the long-held notion of homosexuality as deviant behavior.

  • Legal Issues: –

The legal issues addressed in the case were:

  1. Whether Section 377 IPC violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution, particularly Articles 14 (Right to Equality), 15 (Prohibition of Discrimination), 19 (Freedom of Expression), and 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty).
  2. Whether the right to privacy includes the right to express one’s sexual orientation.
  • The Verdict/ Judgement: –

On September 6, 2018, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a historic unanimous verdict. The Court held that Section 377, insofar as it criminalized consensual sexual conduct between adults, violated the Constitution.

  • Key Points of the Judgment: –
  1. Decriminalization of Consensual Acts: The Court ruled that Section 377, to the extent it penalized consensual sex between adults, was unconstitutional. It upheld that such criminalization violated the right to equality and dignity under Article 14, the right to privacy under Article 21, and the right to freedom of expression under Article 19.
  2. Right to Privacy and Autonomy: The judgment emphasized that sexual orientation is an intrinsic part of an individual’s identity and privacy. The right to privacy includes the right to make personal choices relating to sexual intimacy, which is protected under Article 21.
  3. Equality and Non-Discrimination: The Court held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unconstitutional. It underscored that the Constitution’s promise of equality and non-discrimination extends to all individuals, irrespective of their sexual orientation, which is protected under Article 14 and 15 of the Constitution.
  4. Critique of Section 377: The judgment criticized Section 377 for its historical misuse and the trauma it caused to the LGBTQ+ community. The Court noted that the provision had been used to harass, blackmail, and discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals.
  5. Role of Constitutional Morality: The Court invoked the principle of constitutional morality, emphasizing that the Constitution’s values must guide societal change and protect individual rights against majoritarian views.
  6. Impact and Significance: 

The Navtej Singh Johar case is celebrated as a monumental victory for LGBTQ+ rights in India. The judgment not only decriminalized consensual homosexual acts but also acknowledged the dignity, rights, and freedoms of LGBTQ+ individuals.

This decision marked a significant shift towards inclusivity and equal rights, fostering a more progressive and tolerant society. It set a powerful precedent for future cases related to LGBTQ+ rights, inspiring legal and social reforms.

While the legal recognition of LGBTQ+ rights marked a significant achievement, societal acceptance has been gradual and uneven. Traditional and conservative views persist in many parts of India, often clashing with the progressive aspirations of urban and younger generations. The visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in media, literature, and popular culture has increased, contributing to greater awareness and acceptance.

Pride parades, which began in major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, have become annual celebrations of diversity and solidarity. These events provide a platform for LGBTQ+ individuals to express their identities openly and advocate for their rights. Additionally, the presence of LGBTQ+ characters in films and television shows, such as the critically acclaimed movie “Aligarh” and the series “Made in Heaven,” has helped normalize queer identities in mainstream culture.

  1. The Road Ahead: Challenges and Opportunities:

Despite the immense victory of the Johar case, the journey towards full LGBTQ+ equality in India is far from over. Section 377 remains in place for non-consensual sexual activity and acts involving minors. Furthermore, societal attitudes towards homosexuality are still undergoing transformation. Discrimination persists in various forms, including social stigma, prejudice within families, and difficulties in areas like employment, housing, and healthcare.

There are several key challenges that lie ahead:

  • Workplace Discrimination and Healthcare Access: Despite legal progress, LGBTQ+ individuals in India often face discrimination in the workplace. Many struggle to find jobs or advance in their careers due to bias and prejudice. Additionally, access to healthcare remains a significant issue, with many healthcare providers lacking the training or willingness to address LGBTQ+ specific health concerns.
  • Family Rejection and Conversion Therapy: Social acceptance is still a major hurdle, with many LGBTQ+ individuals experiencing rejection from their families. This lack of support can lead to mental health issues and isolation. Furthermore, some are subjected to conversion therapy, a harmful and discredited practice that attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, causing further psychological harm.
  • Transgender Marginalization: Transgender individuals face particularly severe challenges. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019 aimed to provide rights and protections, but its implementation has been criticized for falling short. Legal recognition of gender identity and access to public facilities are still contentious issues, leaving many transgender people without essential rights and protections.

However, opportunities include:

  • Empowering the Community: The Johar case has emboldened the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. This momentum can be harnessed to build stronger organizations, advocate for policy changes, and promote awareness through social media campaigns and community outreach programs.
  • Corporate Advocacy: Corporations can play a crucial role in promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion. Implementing anti-discrimination policies in workplaces, offering healthcare benefits for same-sex partners, and supporting LGBTQ+ employee resource groups can create a more welcoming environment.
  • The Power of Storytelling: Sharing personal narratives of LGBTQ+ individuals and their struggles can foster empathy and understanding within society. Literature, cinema, and other forms of art can be powerful tools for promoting inclusivity and challenging prejudice.
  1. Conclusion:

India’s journey toward accepting LGBTQ+ individuals has been long and complex. Ancient texts showed acceptance of same-sex relationships, but British colonial laws criminalized homosexuality, leading to decades of discrimination. The 2018 Supreme Court decision to decriminalize homosexual acts was a significant step forward, bringing hope and legal recognition to the LGBTQ+ community. However, societal acceptance still varies widely, and many LGBTQ+ individuals face challenges such as discrimination in workplaces, healthcare, and family rejection.

Despite these ongoing challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic. The visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in media and public life is increasing, fostering greater awareness and acceptance. Pride parades and supportive corporate policies are helping to create a more inclusive environment. By continuing to advocate for equality and share personal stories, India can work towards a future where everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is fully accepted and respected.




  1. What was the status of homosexuality in ancient India?

   Ancient Indian texts like the Vedas and the Kama Sutra acknowledged same-sex relationships without judgment, reflecting a diverse understanding of sexuality.

  1. How did British colonial rule affect homosexuality in India?

   British colonial rule introduced Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing homosexual acts and leading to over a century of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.

  1. What was Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code?

   Section 377 criminalized “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” which included consensual homosexual acts, punishable by life imprisonment.

  1. When was homosexuality decriminalized in India?

   Homosexual acts were decriminalized on September 6, 2018, by the Supreme Court in the landmark case Navtej Singh Johar & Ors. v. Union of India.

  1. What were the key legal arguments in the Navtej Singh Johar case?

   The case argued that Section 377 violated fundamental rights under the Constitution, including the right to equality, privacy, and freedom of expression.

  1. How did the Supreme Court rule in the Navtej Singh Johar case?

   The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional insofar as it criminalized consensual sexual conduct between adults.

Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India: The Navtej Singh Johar Case

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *