It is India’s particular misfortune that its minister for health and family welfare is given to making inane doggerel on AIDS being sad but not bad. He was presumably attempting to free the disease of its moral taint. This is, of course, important. But it could only be part of a comprehensive and updated policy on a whole range of relevant issues, of which there has been no evidence in the various declarations made by the Centre on the occasion of World AIDS Day on December 1. From all appearances, Mr Shatrughan Sinha seems to be fairly clueless about the gravity and complexity of the HIV/AIDS situation in India. Neither the national blood policy nor the Centre’s action plan concerning the testing, processing and storage of donated blood has shown any new advance so far from the standard utopian recommendations.
Apart from celebrity spectacles, there are two ways in which HIV/AIDS impinges on the national consciousness. First, the squabbling over statistics, as when Mr Bill Gates was here to inaugurate his HIV/AIDS-related project in India. This nitpicking over numbers, carried on largely by politicians, is usually founded on a false sense of the Indian HIV/AIDS scenario not being as bad as what the West makes it out to be. Second, there is a great deal of talk about the right kind of sexual behaviour. There is an unthinking conflation of sexual health and sexual morality, with a heavy premium given to such values and practices as abstinence and “being faithful” to a single partner. The use of condoms is then mentioned, in the same breath, as part of an essentially moral disposition. Refusing to wear a condom to reduce the risk of infection and having sex with multiple partners cannot be castigated, and that too by the state, as the same kind of immoral behaviour. Promiscuity and fidelity are a matter of personal choice, and both could be practised within the limits of safe sex. Condom use is absolutely crucial and must be central to any awareness campaign. But this is a matter of health and hygiene and not of morality. The wrong emphasis could only increase the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS in society. The number of women getting infected by their husbands is increasing in West Bengal. So is the number of children getting infected by their parents. AIDS is becoming a crisis within the family, and could no more be projected onto communities of truck-drivers, migrant labourers or sex-workers, safely cordoned off from respectable society. A reality of such alarming dimensions cannot be left to the whimsy of clueless politicians.