Leader of influential Hindu group backs LGBT rights in India

Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), gestures as he addresses a news conference in New Delhi

By Rupam Jain and Arpan Chaturvedi

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The leader of a Hindu group that is the parent organisation of India's ruling party has come out in support of the gay and transgender community, days before the government is due to respond to the Supreme Court about petitions to legalise same-sex marriage.

India decriminalised homosexuality when it scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex in 2018, but it remains a taboo topic in this socially conservative country of 1.4 billion.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has in the past refused to legalise same-sex marriage.

But the recent comments by Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), could force the government to reassess its opposition, said a junior minister in the federal government and a senior BJP leader, both declining to be named as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Speaking to an RSS-backed magazine published this week, Bhagwat said the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community "should have their own private and social space as they are humans and have the right to live as others".

He cited Hindu scriptures and mythology as the basis of his support, and added: "Without much hullabaloo, we have found a way with a humane approach to provide them social acceptance."

The RSS, established in 1925, is estimated to have millions of active members across India and overseas. The organisation was behind Modi's rise to power.

This month, India's Supreme Court started hearing petitions to recognise same-sex marriages after four gay couples stated that without legal recognition, they can not have access to rights such as those linked to medical consent, pensions, adoption or even club memberships.

The hearing is set to resume in March.

Lawyers for the couples declined to comment about Bhagwat's comments, saying the matter was before the court.

(Reporting by Rupam Jain, Arpan Chaturvedi; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Raju Gopalakrishnan)