Indian health minister invents queer “disease”
By Annie Banerji
As if the Congress-led coalition government hadn’t already cut a pitiable figure in recent times, the Indian health minister stirred up a storm of criticism on Monday with his comments on a “disease” called MSM — men who have sex with men.
“MSM is unnatural and not good for India. It is a disease which has come to India from other countries where men have sex with men,” Ghulam Nabi Azad said at a national convention on HIV and AIDS, a meeting that should have fostered compassion and created awareness about the virus.
Azad’s comments came just a few days after the second anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexual relations between consenting adults by the Delhi High Court, a move that was vociferously supported by the ministry of health even in 2008 and upended a 148-year-old law categorising same-sex relations as “unnatural”.
While HIV prevalence levels among gay men has reached as high as 7.3 percent in India where there are 2.5 million HIV-positive people, the health minister asserted that the population of these men is hard to trace as they do not come out in the open and are at risk of spreading HIV/AIDS.
Perhaps one of the reasons why these men, already a vulnerable lot, remain untraceable is prejudicial statements like Azad’s.
It seems the health minister not only forgot about the bill passed by the United Nations in which discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality is a violation of human rights, but also conveniently overlooked that India’s home-grown classic texts like the Kama Sutra and Manusmriti not only mention homosexuality, but also accept it — defining the openness to the expression of highly evolved same-sex unions.
It is not the minister’s first time in a controversial knot. In 2009, Azad said each household must have a TV as it would keep people busy and help them in abstaining from sexual activities. This time, Azad’s comments have already drawn flak from activists who worked toward the legalisation of homosexuality in India.
“The statement is completely outrageous. For someone who is qualified enough to be the country’s health minister, it is surprising that he has not been through the World Health Organization’s guidelines in which homosexuality was taken off the list of diseases a few years ago. Homosexuality is very much a part of nature and even finds references in religious texts,” said Mohnish Kabir Malhotra, publicist and queer rights activist.
Even though Bollywood films have moved on from using gays as comical props to realistically depicting them with some semblance of sensitivity, it appears that the health minister refuses to make that shift.
Can this be a political gimmick by Azad to win brownie points from the masses in the 2014 federal elections, knowing well that a majority of Indians still look down upon homosexuality?