Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad's comments on homosexuality in India have raised the predictable outcry from the ‘queer movement’ (if such a ‘movement’ exists) and liberal sections of the media.
But it is more important to examine the deeper implications of his statements than simply decry the rather muddled nature of comments from both sides.
The implications are many. First, they indicate how fickle the political establishment can be on very serious questions of identity, HIV and AIDS.
The previous Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, who resigned as recently as 2009, was progressive on the issue.
He asked for the decriminalisation of homosexuality -- and not the mere reading down of Section 377, which is what the ‘queer movement’ settled for --and firmly believed along with the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) that anti-gay attitudes hampered work on HIV/AIDS in India in a serious way.
In one fell swoop, Azad has undone all of that. This shows that the UPA, specifically the Congress, is not consistent on the issue of homosexuality at all. It is important because the conflation of homosexuality and AIDS in this context has dangerous implications. But more on that later.
The second implication is that the opposition, particularly the BJP, has no serious position on homosexuality or HIV/AIDS either. They settle instead for any scrap they can find in their attack on the foreignness of Sonia Gandhi.
In effect, they agree with Azad. The only difference is that they club Sonia Gandhi and homosexuality/AIDS as foreign diseases and want both out.
They will use a Baba Ramdev or capitalise on Rahul Gandhi’s popularity among urban gay men (especially when he cycles on Delhi’s streets in speedos) or anything they have to score points. They do not really care about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS at all.
The third implication is that homosexuality and HIV/AIDS continue to be interlinked in the popular imagination, never mind that in India they have very little to do with each other.
The population most affected by HIV and AIDS in India are not homosexuals. They are not even the new epidemiological/NGO category MSMs, but in fact women (especially sex workers and economically poor mothers), children and (mainly Northeastern) injectable drug users.
Yet the ‘queer movement’ and NGOs (often indistinguishable) have screamed themselves hoarse about how MSMs are a great ‘high risk’ population, loud enough for Azad to have heard and be provoked to address them as a serious threat.
Who are MSMs? Men who have sex with men. These can be men who may identify themselves publicly as straight and often be married. Are we seriously to believe that this is the most high risk population group for HIV/AIDS in India, despite the figures to the contrary staring us in the face?
This is a new-fangled NGO category from the 1990s. NACO legitimised it.
The NGOs needed money for funding and this was a cool new target group. NACO wanted others to do the job they ought to, which is to find out who really has HIV/AIDS and help them. Those people are much more difficult to track down and work with.
MSMs are in every urban space, ready to pose for the cameras. They get the publicity. NACO feels good and so do the NGOs. The people who are really suffering die.
The fourth and fifth implications here are clear. The state (NACO) and the ‘queer movement’ are complicit with this false epidemiological picture of HIV/AIDS in India.
Azad says these MSM can’t be identified, unlike female prostitutes. Female prostitutes are more at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Yet the government would rather let them die (identifiable as they are) and go after the elusive MSMs.
In some strange way, Azad is right about MSM being a category of the developed world. Funders in the developed world created them.
Where he’s wrong is in calling them a disease or high-risk carriers of a disease called AIDS or a virus called HIV. They are neither a disease nor the highest carriers of the disease or virus in India by any stretch of the imagination. They constitute, according to NACO, 25 lakh people, 100,000 of them at risk of HIV and AIDS.
Is that even a sizeable fraction of the total population living with HIV/AIDS in India? Are these really the people we need to reach out to? Or is it economically poor heterosexual women, heterosexual female sex workers and injectable drug users? And what about hijras?
Whether or not homosexuality is unnatural (and, really, who cares what Azad thinks about the issue?), Azad’s capitulation to categories created by NGOs, and supported by NACO, is deeply uncritical and only shows his ignorance and stupidity about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in India.
That the Indian state is also implicated in this uncritical culture shows that it does not care about really vulnerable population living with and dying of HIV and AIDS. It would rather go with a population created by NGOs and marshalled for all sorts of purposes (including as ‘high risk groups’) by the ‘queer movement’ and assorted liberal fools in the country who are equally guilty of creating this false picture of HIV/AIDS in India.
That’s the real debate. Not the views of an ignorant man. And that debate is not happening in the country. That’s the final and biggest implication.
Also read: Homosexuality no disease: UNAIDS | Azad's comments 'shocking'
Ashley Tellis a is a freelance editor, journalist and academic-at-large based in New Delhi