In their push for a reduction in the rate of HIV infection, the Indian government’s HIV/AIDS control body has filed a statement in the Delhi High Court supporting the legalisation of homosexuality.

In a boost for gay rights in India, where a 145 year old law dating back to British colonial rule is still used by police to harass gay people, the National AIDS Control Organisation’s (NACO) statement calls for section 377 of the Indian penal code to be abandoned.

Although few homosexuals are actually arrested, the law is seen to legitimise harassment of gay people by the police. As a result the NACO has observed that the places considered by gay men to be safe to meet often have poor access to condoms, health care and safe sex information.

The statement said “The fear of harassment by law enforcement agencies leads to sex being hurried, leaving partners without the notion to consider safer sex practices.”

In India a country with 5.7 million HIV positive people, gay men are considered to be amongst the groups with the highest levels of risk. It is thought that about 8% of the practising gay population are HIV positive.

Gay rights organisation Naz has for the last few months been trying to push legalisation through the Delhi Supreme court. Rahul Singh, who runs the outreach programs for Naz said: “Parents say it’s a passing phase and once (my son) is married it will pass. They say I don’t want him to be criminalized. Many of them end up living a dual life.”

Opponents of a law change say India is not ready to accept homosexuality. This concern has also been echoed by the government.

But Mr Singh said: “Change in a society takes time, but the law has to take the first step.”

Whether their statement of support from the NACO will help the legal challenge facing Naz remains to be seen.