In the course of researching his book Sex, Lies and AIDS, Siddharth Dube traveled all over India and met all kinds of people. The book has a lot to say about AIDS in India, and the numbers and prospects he runs through are frightening. Yet what left me far more disturbed than numbers were the attitudes he encountered.

For example, in Imphal Dube found the jail stuffed with several hundred HIV-positive men and women. There were “no plans,” he writes, “to ever release this group … not because they had committed a crime that required lifelong imprisonment but simply because the state government had decided that they posed a risk to society.” Do you know of any comparable detention of hundreds of Indians because they suffer from, let’s say, typhoid?

In 1994, the Maharashtra government proposed a law that would have allowed them “to brand infected sex workers with indelible ink.” Do you know of any comparable effort to brand sufferers of, let’s say, tuberculosis?

In 1996, when doctors at a private clinic in Bombay realized that a slender 29-year-old patient had tested positive for HIV, they threw her out “even though she was covered with open sores.” This was hardly unusual behavior: The All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, says Dube, which was “set up to establish the best standards of medical practice, had turned away scores of infected people. So the beds in its small but well-equipped AIDS wards stood empty.” Do you know of any comparable “medical” treatment given to victims of, let’s say, cholera?

And why these peculiar, let’s not even say stupid and inhuman, practices?

Because ever since AIDS cases first began surfacing in India, they have been greeted with reactions that would be hilarious if they were not so callous and misguided. Dube found that various concerned—or unconcerned—Indian officials actually believed that AIDS was a disease of deviants, societal outcasts and the poor; of worthless people very far removed from the “mainstream”—ah, the complacent “mainstream”—of India. If that wasn’t—I have to say it—stupid and inhuman enough, they also believed that HIV/AIDS amounted to some apparently cosmic punishment for the promiscuity of worthless deviants; that their deaths were in fact good because they would help alleviate India’s enormous pressures of population and poverty.

And even so, other authorities found a cherry to place atop this particular cake. They told Dube over and over, in various ways, that since we Indians make up a uniquely “moral” society, AIDS could never spread here as it had elsewhere; therefore there was no need to take the steps necessary to halt the spread of the disease. The director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, Dr. A.S. Paintal, expressed the belief that “nowhere else in the world is chastity considered an important aspect of a woman’s life apart from India.” Dr A.N. Malviya of AIIMS pronounced that Indians were “of a higher moral order” than Africans, those promiscuous fellows reeling under the onslaught of AIDS.

Siddharth Dube was one of the spirits behind the recent “Open Letter” that generated a fair amount of discussion in India. The letter asks for a repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This law dates from 1861 (!) and declares, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with … imprisonment … which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Naturally, the publication of the letter meant that a great deal of public discussion ensued about homosexuality itself.

To my surprise—though perhaps I should not have been surprised—the attitudes were, again, disturbing.

For example, the Hindustan Times polled over 400 people in Delhi and Bombay, all between ages 15 and 25. Asked “What do you understand by homosexuality?” about half agreed, encouragingly, that it was a “natural sexual preference.” But not so encouragingly, about a third said it was “a habit acquired due to bad company.” Worse, over a third said we should not “accept it as an alternative lifestyle” (whatever that means). And a clear majority said homosexual marriages should not be legalized.

The same newspaper carried several revealing letters from readers a week after the publication of the Open Letter. Of homosexuality, V.T. Joshi wrote that “aberrations are best left in the closet [or there will be] grave dangers to the health of society.” Two men implied that homosexuals brought AIDS upon themselves and so they should be left to deal with the disease. B.R. Verma said the arguments to repeal 377, and about homosexuality in general, “are damaging to Indian culture and an assault on our social system.”

Where does all this come from? Why are so many so convinced that being gay is so alien to that edifice called “Indian culture”? And in any case, what does this stirring defense of Indian culture have to do with either a serious health crisis, or the demand to repeal a law drafted a century and a half ago by our colonial rulers?

Answer: nothing. But Section 377 remains on the books nevertheless.

So finally, an analogy of sorts. In 1871, the British enacted a law in India called the “Criminal Tribes Act.” This act listed over 150 tribes across India. It defined as criminal anyone born in those tribes, and laid out mechanisms—settlements, reporting to the police, taking away kids—to deal with these defined criminals.

According to this act, merely being born in certain communities made you criminal. Take a moment to absorb that: merely being born. Luckily, free India recognized the perversity of this law. In 1952, we repealed it.

There remain problems with how we treat these communities, and certainly they face prejudice and stereotype even today. But here’s my point: at the time, nobody, to my knowledge, protested that this repeal would turn out to be “damaging to Indian culture.” In these 54 years, nobody, to my knowledge, has claimed that it has “assaulted our social system.”

Today, we hold on to an even older law that says merely having sex in certain ways in private makes you criminal. If that’s not enough, there are claims that repealing it will damage Indian culture—even though it was enacted by the British.

What I want to know is, when will we recognize the perversity here?

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

 

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