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.