By MUNEEZA NAQVI
NEW DELHI – India’s health minister derided homosexuality as an unnatural “disease” from the West at an HIV/AIDS conference, drawing outrage from a U.N. official and activists who said the comments set back campaigns for gay rights and against HIV.
In a hastily called news conference Tuesday evening, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said he was misquoted, though video of Monday’s speech has aired repeatedly on Indian television.
“Some people have played with the words. I have been quoted out of context,” he said. “My reference was to HIV as a disease. As health minister, I know (male homosexual sex) is not a disease.”
His original speech echoed a common refrain in the conservative South Asian nation that homosexuality is a Western import.
“It is a matter of concern that, unfortunately, in the world and in our country this disease has arisen, where men are having sex with men, which is unnatural and should not be happening,” Azad said, speaking in Hindi.
Anjali Gopalan, who heads the NAZ Foundation, a rights group that works with HIV positive people and promotes equal rights for homosexuals, said Azad’s initial comments were deeply troubling coming from the health minister of a country fighting a tough battle against HIV infections.
“These comments help no cause. It’s definitely not going to help in our fight against HIV,” she told The Associated Press.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and a slew of government ministers were present at the conference Monday.
Singh should consider firing Azad, said Anand Grover, the U.N. special rapporteur on health.
“His remarks are completely insensitive. It lowers the dignity of the gay community,” he said. “It is unacceptable to have a minister talking like this.”
Roughly 2.5 million Indians have HIV, making it the country with the largest number of people living with the virus in Asia.
Experts say the marginalization of gay people keeps them isolated and makes it harder for HIV/AIDS awareness messages to reach them.
“If you’re not going to invest in community building, then gay people will continue to be marginalized,” Gopalan said.
In 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down a colonial era law- Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code- that made sex between people of the same gender punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While actual criminal prosecutions were rare, the law was frequently used to harass people.
The court ruling was noteworthy in a country where even heterosexual sex is rarely discussed openly.
Over the last decade, homosexuals have slowly gained a degree of acceptance in a few parts of India, especially its big cities. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues. The last two years have also seen large gay pride parades in New Delhi and other big cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata.
Still, being gay remains deeply taboo in most of the country, and many homosexuals hide their sexual orientation from friends and families.
“How can the health minister say something so unscientific and irrational?” Nitin Karani, a gay rights activist told a television new channel. “He needs to apologize immediately or he needs to go.”
This is not the first time Azad’s words have embarrassed the government.
A few years ago, he suggested Indians watch television instead of having sex as a means to stem population growth in the nation of 1.2 billion people.