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BRUTE LITERACY

The brutality and ignorance of literate and respectable Indians have been in evidence again in the case of two HIV-positive children in Kerala. Benson and Bency, five and seven respectively, are being brought up in a Kerala village by their grandparents, after losing both parents to AIDS. They have been diagnosed HIV-positive, but are perfectly well otherwise. No school, however, in their area would agree to admit them. This was in defiance of the local deputy director of education’s orders to the schools to take them in. So the children sat without food for an entire day in front of the chief minister’s office to attract his attention. The chief minister’s office and the Kerala AIDS Control Society did take notice, and forced the local school to admit them. But after they started attending classes, the entire local community boycotted the school. All classes were empty of students as parents refused to send their children for fear of contagion from Benson and Bency. The headmistress of this lower primary government school has now submitted to the fearful and outraged parent-teachers’ association, and the children have been stopped from attending school in the name of what some parents have called “natural justice”. The other children, far outnumbering the two, cannot be put at risk. The government has therefore ordered that the children be taught at home, and the state will pay for their education. At a heavily policed public meeting, the local Congress legislator condemned the grandfather’s effrontery in sending the two to school. The district collector, education secretary and sundry health officials endorsed this stand by their presence at this meeting.

The state, civic authorities, a political party, educationists and most of the local community — all of them literate and publicly articulate and powerful people — have thus colluded in an act of bottomless ignorance and cruelty towards two entirely powerless members of society. This has happened before to HIV-positive children, and to adults, in Kerala, and is doubtlessly happening all over India as well. Public awareness regarding HIV/AIDS has obviously not got off at the most rudimentary level. Illiteracy is evidently not the problem. A benighted inhumanity — explicitly and implicitly endorsed by the weight of civilized society and of most of its hallowed institutions — has shown its ugliest face in this shocking incident.

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