When Narendra Modi was elected prime minister of India in May 2014, a former aide to the outgoing premier Manmohan Singh described the moment as the birth of a ‘second republic’. He meant that the secular-socialist republic founded by India’s English-speaking elite had run its course. After 25 years of coalition governments, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had won a parliamentary majority. David Cameron was one of the first foreign leaders to reach out to him, congratulating the prime minister elect for getting ‘more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe’. This marked the end of Britain’s costly diplomatic boycott of Modi in retaliation for the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims, including British citizens, by Hindu mobs in Gujarat when he was the state’s chief minister in 2002. An investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court cleared Modi of criminal responsibility – but, as the anti-Modi protests in London this week demonstrate, not everyone is convinced. It hasn’t helped that, over the last year, religious minorities in India have endured vicious persecution.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by the British in the 1860s, outlawed ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. For the next 150 years, gay sex was illegal in India, until the Delhi High Court ruled in July 2009 that the law did not apply to consenting adults. ‘It cannot be forgotten,’ the judges said, ‘that discrimination is the antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.’ The decision made India the second South Asian country, after Nepal, in which gay people could no longer be prosecuted for their sexuality. The government, having once defended 377, reluctantly adjusted itself to the new reality. There was still a long way to go before homosexuality was socially acceptable, but at least homophobia was no longer legally enforceable. But the exultant mood was soon punctured by a rabble of religious leaders who, in a rare instance of interfaith harmony, forged a coalition to challenge the Delhi High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court, which overturned it earlier this month.