India's Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, has landed himself in an unhealthy soup (pun intended) and earned enough raps on the knuckles of his country, by his regressive statements. His sick proclamation at the recently held National Convention of Parliamentarians on HIV/AIDS, which was attended by senior ministers, parliamentarians, and zila parishad chairpersons and mayors, invited a global outrage of indignations, and rightly so. He reportedly said that, "The disease of men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) is unnatural and not good for Indian society. It's a challenge to identify such people. In case of female sex workers, we can identify the community and reach out to them since they live in clusters. But in case of MSMs, it isn't always possible." According to our Health Minister, "this disease has come to India from foreign shores, and Indian society needs to be prepared to face it. Unfortunately, the number of ‘such people’ is increasing by the day."
Ironically, his regressive remarks on the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgenders) community came close to the heels of right minded people celebrating the second anniversary of the landmark Delhi High Court judgment which, upholding the principles of equality and freedom as enshrined in our Constitution, had annulled a 150-year-old law criminalizing "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." On July 2, 2009, a division bench of Chief Justice A.P Shah and Justice S. Murlidhar struck down provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized gay sex among consenting adults, saying that ‘it violated the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognizing a role in society for everyone."
Just for the information of the likes of Mr. Azad, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is an authoritative body on health, does not list homosexuality as a disease anymore, and no reputable scientific body across the world terms same-sex behavior/orientation as "unnatural". To refresh Mr Azad’s memory ‘the 2006 United Nations Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, governments are committed to removing legal barriers and passing laws to protect vulnerable populations. Countries that have non-discrimination laws against men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers have provided better access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services.’
The minister's statements go against the stand taken by the Government's own National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), which reacted sharply: "How can this be a disease? It is just a form of sexual orientation. It's definitely not unnatural."
An official associated with the United Nations said, "His reaction is bound to undo much of the effort we have put in to spread information to fight against discrimination."
Dr Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) clarified, "India's rich tradition of inclusivity and social justice must include men who have sex with men and transgender people. There is no place for stigma and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Consistent with WHO's disease classification, UNAIDS does not regard homosexuality as a disease."
The 2010 UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic found that among the high-risk group that got HIV infection in India last year — 9.2% were intravenous drug users, MSMs (7.3%) and female sex workers (4.9%).
According to NACO's latest surveillance data, India is home to an estimated 4.12 lakh MSMs of whom 2.74 lakhs have been identified. NACO has been trying to put in place targeted interventions (TI) to specifically cater to the needs of the MSM community.
Let all the good work being done by all these and other agencies for the betterment of LGBT community, not be pushed back by the irresponsible statement made by Mr Azad.
After being cornered by national/ international health organizations, media and civil society members, he is now sheepishly admitting that he does not know the difference between MSM and HIV, and that due to his poor knowledge of synonyms 'by MSM he actually meant HIV’. But then his ignorance and/or lack of information on health issues plaguing the country (which he is actually supposed to manage), is not new. In 2009 he had put forward the preposterous idea of using the idiot box as a birth control device. He had mooted the idea of taking care of 80% of India’s birth control by providing television sets to villagers, so that ‘people will watch television late into the night and will have no time to produce babies.’
Is he more of a joker than a Health Minister? Whatever the case maybe, his ignorance and personal prejudices/idiosyncrasies are really dangerous for our country. As tweeted by filmmaker Onir, "Ghulam Nabi Azad needs urgent counseling for his regressive statement. His 'unnatural' stand is dangerous for healthy democracy.”
He is advised to do his homework well and rehearse his speeches before making a fool of himself and his country in international circles, and sending wrong messages to society in general. He needs to realize the seriousness of his position as Health Minister of a country where basic health amenities are not available to a large chunk of population, including MSMs. It is as much a duty of the ruling political party, as it is of Mr Azad (the word azad means ‘free’ but he seems to be actually a prisoner of a diseased mind), to remember that that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual, despite her/his sexual orientations. (CNS)
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She is also the Director of CNS Gender Initiative and CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI). She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)