issue 250 - December 1993
Bigots take the temple
Moralizers are encouraging HIV infection. Ashok Row Kavi
and Dinyar Godrej focus on how they do it in India.
In their ‘frank! revealing! no-holds barred!’ interviews film stars are talking about it – chastity and fidelity. They worry about kissing, offer their opinion on ‘homos’ and think up concerned advice for their admirers, like ‘life’s too precious to waste on a fling’.
Elsewhere in India’s film glossies, exposés reveal the routine sexual shenanigans of the stars. The double standard has a long tradition in India, strengthened again by the fear of Aids.
At first those who had read about it thought it was a distant scourge happening to foreigners. Inherent notions of cultural superiority dismissed the possibility of Aids in India; Indians were good, it wouldn’t happen here. When it came, denial came with it. HIV came from contact with foreigners and was their fault so the general population needn’t worry. MPs took time off from political wrangling to contemplate a bill proposing a ban on sex with foreigners.
Now it’s a pandemic and ordinary people are affected. The World Health Organization estimates that there are a million people with HIV in India and expects the figure to triple within two years. Others estimate eight million. In Bombay alone 120,000 people are thought to be HIV positive. The official response? Hysterical bigotry.
In 1990, some 854 women from Bombay’s red-light district were rounded up and sent to Madras. They were put in jail, then shunted around the city to clinics. Over 400 tested HIV positive. When some were placed in hospital they were shunned by doctors and other patients fled. Some were held in a ‘vigilance home’. The state minister for social welfare said that women whose families would take them back could leave once they knew what being HIV positive meant. But as one woman said, ‘After publicly announcing we have been at the vigilance home, known as a place where only prostitutes are held, which family will risk the dishonour of taking us back?’ Blaming the women and throwing them out of Bombay only reduced the chances of their getting counselling on how to minimize the risk to others and cope with HIV.
Dominic D’Souza, India’s first person with Aids, received similar impractical and discriminatory treatment. A regular blood donor while employed by the Goa branch of the World Wildlife Fund (now Worldwide Fund for Nature) he was taken to a local hospital under armed guard in February 1989. It was only when he saw a register with ‘Aids’ written in bold across the cover that he realized he was HIV positive. He was held at a tuberculosis sanatorium under armed guard to ‘protect him’. No one touched him and food was left at the door of the cell. But through demonstrations and protest marches his family and friends pushed Dominic’s plight into public focus. He was released after 64 days in the sanatorium but WWF sacked him and he was required to stay at home. Dominic became an activist publicizing the damage caused by prejudice until his death in May 1992.
In India prejudice can be something of a hydra-headed monster: chop one head off and another grows in its place. Following a minority religion, belonging to a lower caste, being ‘polluted’ by menstruation or childbirth or disease or death can all lead to isolation. Small wonder then that HIV should be misunderstood.
Infectious diseases are routine and feared. Dredged from the depths of colonial slime comes the 1929 Infectious Diseases Act of Maharashtra, amended to require that all HIV positive people are registered with local health authorities. This even though HIV cannot be transmitted through air, water or the casual contact that the Act was designed to control. Often even doctors imagine that HIV is contagious and won’t touch patients or let them sit on their chairs. A lethal plague mentality develops, based on ignorance and confusion. The Maharashtra government even considered making being HIV positive a ‘cognizable offence’, allowing detention without a warrant.
Since anonymity isn’t guaranteed, the Act predictably drives people underground which speeds up the spread of the virus. As Dominic D’Souza said: ‘When you go underground without medical counselling, without advice on safe sex, you’re going to transmit the virus to others’.
A modern form of untouchability is at work. Doctors at privately managed hospitals are doing illegal tests on all incoming patients without counselling. Patients testing positive at private Bombay hospitals like the Harkisondas, Jaslok, Breach Candy, Bombay and Hinduja are unceremoniously kicked out, including those needing urgent care. The reason given off-the-record is that the ‘innocent should not suffer’. Somehow testing positive is being guilty. The sufferer is criminal.
Aids prejudice rides on the backs of many others like the Indian concept of Mardaani. Mardaani says that low sexual control is a characteristic of men and it is women who are to blame for ‘tempting’ the man to fall from purity. This idea opens the door to misogyny and women become vulnerable to blame for new stigmas like spreading HIV when in reality it’s much more difficult for a man to get HIV from sex with a woman than vice-versa.
Gays are also scapegoated. After years of invisibility (gay sex is still illegal) fledgling groups are emerging only to find the plague mentality hemming them in. Bombay’s influential gay community were frightened that safer sex information in Bombay Dost, India’s first lesbian and gay newsletter, was scare-mongering and would turn them into targets.
Aids now activates all the stigmas of an incurable sexually transmitted disease. The truth in India is that over half the HIV infections among men are through blood products or injecting drugs. But sexual transmission is increasing and there is a widespread sexual coyness as common among doctors as among the public. Bombay GPs stormed out of a lecture because oral and rectal gonorrhoea was mentioned. Meanwhile, safer sex information is held up by bad presentation. In Tamil Nadu a massive slogan campaign proclaimed mysteriously: ‘Aids is a killer disease. If you have unconventional sex, you will get Aids.’ Most disregarded the message, assuming the kind of sex they had was conventional.
From high up in his ivory tower Dr K Abhayambika, state Aids Programme Officer for Kerala, proclaimed: ‘Our younger generation and youth still practice virginity till their nuptial day. The religious customs and god-fearing living habits are a shield of protection against many social evils. It will be difficult even for the HIV to penetrate this shield.’ Such ignorance kills, yet no-one has put the bigwigs in the dock.
As time runs short one can’t help wondering, what happened to the sexual frankness and tolerance of the past when temples were adorned with erotic art and a wide range of sexual expression flourished? How did our cultures absorb so readily a prudish Victorian morality which is life-threatening today? The paradox is that sexual activity is, as ever, plentiful, but the subject of sex is dirty and shameful for most. Disease similarly brings the stigma of uncleanliness and people believe that avoiding all contact with HIV positive people will keep them safe.
Education efforts are coming from marginalized, community-based organizations who are forcing the government and medical establishment to face HIV head on. Groups like Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (Campaign Against Aids Discrimination), Bombay Dost, the Lawyers’ Collective and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences are attempting to stem this third epidemic of prejudice.1
Recently there have been some advances. Gays are organizing and sharing life-saving information. HIV positive people are ‘coming out’ in the media, returning the blame to hypocrites who shun them, and insisting on continuing their lives as normal. Instead of blaming prostitutes, some local groups now see them as potential safe-sex educators. For India, knowledge of HIV is essential to overturn the moralizing and false security of so much of the political and medical establishment. The fight is on to get heads out of the sand.
Ashok Row Kavi is a gay rights and HIV/Aids campaigner based in Bombay. Dinyar Godrej is a freelance writer and poet from India.
1 From Jon Tinker’s introduction to The Third Epidemic: Repercussions of the fear of Aids quoting Dr Jonathan Mann
(see ‘Worth Reading’).