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Lesbian marriages, born of a legal loophole, stir debate in India
FEB 24: Winter is India's wedding season, a time of gold jewelry, dancing and loud music.

But not for Raju and Mala. They are among three lesbian couples who have been making headlines lately by publicly declaring their relationships and calling themselves married.

The law is silent on gay marriages, and same-sex couples are taking advantage of this loophole to perform marriage ceremonies and live together. However, they are vulnerable to arrest because homosexual sex is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Since the law against homosexual sex was enacted under British colonial rule in 1861, fewer than 50 people have been convicted, mainly because judges tend to be lenient and authorities are reluctant to stir sexual controversy.

But India is deeply conservative on sexual matters. Heterosexual couples rarely kiss or cuddle in public. Gays in their daily lives face discrimination, ridicule, blackmail and persecution by police and government agencies, human rights campaigners say. Being openly lesbian is doubly hard in India, with its myriad caste and class distinctions.

In fact it's difficult enough just to be a woman. Government estimates say a woman is raped every hour in India, a bride is set on fire in a dowry dispute every six hours and 80 per cent of illegally aborted fetuses are female. So Raju, 25, and Mala, 22, who use single names, showed stunning courage and eloped in December. Apart from the gender question, the couple also defied another ancient taboo; Raju is a Dalit - what used to be called an "untouchable" - while Mala belongs to a higher caste. Higher castes often shunned physical contact with the lowest castes in the past, and social intermingling is still not common.

So a month before Mala was to marry a man, the two women fled their homes in Amritsar and secretly married at a Hindu ceremony in New Delhi. But when they declared their relationship, their families tried to have them arrested.

The couple was detained and taken to court - which said they could live together because the law was silent on the issue. "Nobody can separate us. Not even death," Raju told reporters. "We have vowed to live together for the rest of our lives as husband and wife."

A second couple emerged in the same month in the eastern state of Bihar, but was less lucky. Police arrested Pooja Singh, a widow with an 8-year-old son, and charged her with abducting her 19-year-old female partner, Sarita.

Sarita, who uses a single name, was returned to her parents on a magistrate's orders. Singh is preparing her appeal to higher courts against the separation order.

Within days a third case surfaced, in Aroor, Kerala, involving Venu and Mangala, married with two children. Mangala, 26, told Venu she had been involved throughout the 10-year marriage with another woman, Ramlath, 23. She said she would kill herself if the two women could not be together. So Venu, 40, took an unusual step - he married his wife's lover. Now they all live together.

Ruth Vanita is a professor at the University of Montana who is publishing a book on same-sex marriages in India and the West. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, she said the striking feature about most Indian homosexual couples is that they are lower-middle class with no connection to any organized gay movement. Ranjana Kumari, head of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, says lesbian ties are more visible in India now, yet "still there is a total rejection in terms of social acceptance. ... It is only the socially accomplished people who tacitly convey their choice."

Gay campaigners want a repeal of the law against homosexual sex, saying India should learn from Western countries that allow marital rights to same-sex couples.

Vanita, the author, points to a centuries-old Indian tradition that has celebrated love in all forms in myth, folklore and literature.

"I think that tradition will win out against the ignorant and heartless people everywhere who oppose the right to love," she said.


Lesbian couple Raju, 25, left, and Mala, 21, pose at their home in Amritsar. Three female couples including Raju and Mala, have defied social taboo, unsympathetic police officers and legal challenges to publicly declare their relationships and start lives together..

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