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Rights violations

Naomi Conrad, New Delhi
February 7, 2014

On his visit to India, German President Gauck has criticized violence against women and the situation of homosexuals in the South Asian country. Civil society activists say Germany’s support will help their struggle.

German President Joachim Gauck (2L) addresses the media as Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh (CR) and President Pranab Mukherjee (CL) look on during the ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on February 5, 2014 (Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/Afp/Prakash Singh

Even after many years, it still makes rights activist Anjali Gopalan shudder to remember the boy's "shell-shocked face," whose parents had taken him to a private hospital in Delhi to be "cured" of his homosexuality. The activist says she has heard of parents dragging their children to religious leaders and even to black magic practitioners for "treatment."

"There's no end to what people do to make others conform," Gopalan told DW.

Gopalan is one of the eight human rights activists whom the German President Joachim Gauck met on Thursday, February 6, in New Delhi during his state visit to India. Gauck called the activists "heroes of the nation" and went on to say that their work “inspired and moved him."

German President Joachim Gauck meets with Ranjana Kumari (L), Director of the CSR (Centre for Social Research) and Jyoti Macwan, of SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) to discuss the role of women in India on February 6, 2014 in New Delhi, India (Photo: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)
Gauck: "You are all heroes"Image: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung/Getty Images

Legal issues

A recent ruling by the Indian apex court upheld a British colonial law making homosexuality illegal in the South Asian country. Gopalan says the Supreme Court's decision was "horrifying."

The activist also fears that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) comes to power after the upcoming general elections, there will be no chance of the controversial law to be repealed. She says the BJP has made it clear it will not rescind the law. "If the BJP comes to power, we're in trouble," Gopalan remarked.

In 2009, Gopalan challenged the law in the Delhi High Court. She says she has been receiving threatening messages and phone calls ever since; however, she is determined to keep on fighting.

Foreign support

India has often been described as a country living in two eras. As one activist puts it: "Part of the population lives in the 21st century, and another, a big part, in the Middle Ages."

The activist is referring to widespread human rights violations, which continue in India albeit they have been outlawed by the government. Examples include early marriages of girls and female foeticide.

Another rampant issue, the activists told Gauck, was sexual violence: "Most women in Delhi have experienced some kind of harassment in their lives," Karuna Nundy, an advocate at the Supreme Court, told DW. Rights activists also pointed to engrained traditions which justified the use of violence against women.

Addressing students at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, the German president stressed how difficult it was for citizens to exercise their rights, "given the traditional behaviors" in the country. Gauck repeatedly referred to women's rights issues and the situation of homosexuals in India as two "extremely sensitive topics."

At the same time, the German head of state praised the country's vibrant civil society and media, saying there was nothing that Indians didn't know or hadn't already discussed. Gauck said he did not want to behave like a teacher, who "knows everything better."

Indian campaigners have appreciated Gauck's remarks and say that it will put more pressure on the Indian government to act. Gopalan, however, believes the foreign support should be subtle. "We can't have foreigners come to India and tell us what to do about the problems faced by homosexuals, otherwise people might think it is part of the western agenda."

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