India's Supreme Court has agreed to re-examine a colonial-era law that criminalises gay sex. Five judges will decide whether Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which describes homosexuality as an "unnatural offence" and imposes a 10-year sentence for gay sex, can be overturned. Introduced in 1861, the law says intercourse between members of the same sex is "against the order of nature".

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Gay rights activists celebrate in Mumbai after India's top court said it will review a decision over whether to uphold a colonial-era law that criminalises gay sexDanish Siddiqui/Reuters
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Gay rights activists celebrate with rainbow flags in New Delhi after the Supreme Court agreed to review the lawSajjad Hussain/AFP
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An Indian gay rights activist reacts after the country's Supreme Court agreed to review a decision which criminalises gay sex, in MumbaiIndranil Mukherjee/AFP

In 2009, a New Delhi High Court declared Section 377 unconstitutional, but the judgment was overturned four years later when the Supreme Court decided that amending or repealing the law should be left to Parliament, not the judiciary. That decision ended a four-year period of decriminalisation that helped bring homosexuality into the open. India's parliament did not act on the matter, with the ruling Hindu nationalist party in no hurry to change the law.

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4 July 2009: National Panthers Party activists burn an effigy in New Delhi symbolising homosexual behaviour during a protest against the court ruling to decriminalise gay sexAFP
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5 July 2009: Activists from the National Akali Dal stage a protest in New Delhi against the court decision to decriminalise consensual sex between adults of the same genderAdnan Abidi/Reuters
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13 July 2009: Activists from the Islamic Students Organisation in Kolkata protest against the ruling that decriminalised gay sexAFP
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16 August 2009: Gay rights supporters pose for a photo while taking part in the Queer Azadi March in Mumbai only weeks after a New Delhi court overturned a British colonial era ban on gay sexSajjad Hussain/AFP
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16 August 2009: Activists dance during the Queer Azadi March in Mumbai after the ban on gay sex was liftedAFP
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Chained and gagged Indian gay rights activists call for the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, during a demonstration in Bangalore on 15 December 2013Manjunath Kiran/AFP
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A gay rights activist holds a placard during a demonstration against the Supreme Court ruling reinstating a ban on gay sex in Bangalore on 15 December 2013Manjunath Kiran/AFP
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An activist demonstrates against the Supreme Court ruling reinstating a ban on gay sex in Bangalore on 15 December 2013Manjunath Kiran/AFP
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A gay rights activist takes part in a protest against the Supreme Court ruling reinstating a ban on gay sex in Kolkata on 11 December 2013Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

While the previous Congress-led government had pledged to repeal the law if it came to power again, it was crushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party in general elections in May 2014.

In December, members of Modi's party, which has an overwhelming majority in the lower house of parliament, scuppered a private member's bill to scrap the law. Human rights group Amnesty International India welcomed the court's review, saying the law puts homosexuals under physical, mental and legal threat. "The Supreme Court has another chance to correct a grave error," Amnesty said.

Gay activists cheered the court decision and said they were hopeful that the verdict would ultimately go in their favour, giving them a chance to live openly.

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A gay rights activist distributes anti-Section 377 badges in MumbaiDanish Siddiqui/Reuters
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An activist celebrates in New Delhi after India's Supreme Court agreed to review a decision which criminalises gay sexSajjad Hussain/AFP
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An Indian gay rights activist reacts after the country's Supreme Court agreed to review a decision which criminalises gay sex, in MumbaiIndranil Mukherjee/AFP
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Anjali Gopalan, founder of the Naz Foundation and one of the petitioners in a pivotal LGBT rights case, speaks with the media outside India's Supreme Court in New DelhiSajjad Hussain/AFP
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Gay rights activist Mohnish Malhotra speaks with other members of the LGBT community outside India's Supreme Court in New DelhiSajjad Hussain/AFP
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Indian gay rights activist Amalina Dave smiles outside the Supreme Court in New DelhiSajjad Hussain/AFP
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A member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community holds a placard during a protest in New Delhi on 31 January 2016Sajjad Hussain/AFP

India is one of 75 countries around the world that outlaws homosexuality, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Although the law banning homosexuality is rarely enforced in India, activists say it is used to intimidate, harass, blackmail and extort money from homosexuals. There are no official figures on the number of cases and most go unreported as victims are too scared to report crimes to the police, fearing they will be punished too, according to activists.

Over the past decade, homosexuals have gained a degree of acceptance in parts of deeply conservative India, especially in big cities. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues. Still, being gay is seen as shameful in most of the country, and many homosexuals remain hidden. National surveys show about three-quarters of Indians disapprove of homosexuality and are deeply traditional about other issues of sexuality such as sex outside of marriage.