The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ms Sushma Swaraj wants to put a little figleaf on the Indian AIDS prevention programme. All the talk about condoms that HIV/AIDS breeds discomfits her and her pure-souled ministry of health. Indian morality must therefore be strictly alphabetical. The ABC of HIV ensures that Condoms come only after Abstinence and Being Faithful. And that is how it should be henceforth. This builds the entire Indian campaign on a murderous puritanism. The folly of looking away from the realities of the epidemiology in India is going to be quite unimaginably horrible — but Ms Swaraj’s imagination is obviously engaged elsewhere. An epidemic is an entirely amoral thing, and brooks no bureaucratic squeamishness about sex. HIV/AIDS is especially relentless in this respect. Its impact on a sexual-double-standards-ridden society like India’s ought to be nothing less than revolutionary. It would indeed take some feat of wilful ignorance to try to dress up the central fact about the transmission of HIV — that 85 per cent of the infection happens through sexual contact. Moreover, there are about 4 million people living with HIV in India. Therefore, trying to mess up the awareness programmes regarding condom-use by invoking a confused and bigoted notion of the “Indian cultural ethos” amounts to irresponsibility of almost criminal proportions.

Within this larger looking away, there are smaller but equally dangerous ones. The Indian campaign is also entirely silent, on its public front, about the fact of men who have sex with men being another crucial and vulnerable target group. Here too there is a deadly mix of deliberate blindness, discrimination and sheer unthinking backwardness. The sexual injustice fostered by Indian homophobia can also seriously affect the campaign’s handling of sex-workers and prisoners, for instance. Indian men, women and children have sex with one another in all possible combinations as human beings do in every other society on this planet, irrespective of Ms Swaraj’s approval or revulsion. They must all have proper access to good-quality condoms, know how to use them and when to use them. This is really all that matters, and all that Ms Swaraj needs to ensure and be concerned about. The questions of sexual abstinence and fidelity are absolutely out of the purview of the government’s interventions. Moral policing and the promotion of sexual health and hygiene are entirely distinct public activities, and it is of paramount importance that the Indian state, and that bit of it embodied in Ms Swaraj, maintain this vital distinction.

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