| Kumaraswamy with the HIV-affected family in Bagalkot, Karnataka. Picture by Ravi Shankar
Ingalgi (Bagalkot) Jan. 24: When chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy held the toddler in his arms in a remote village tenement in Karnataka, he sent out a message to the whole country.
The 16-month-old boy is, after all, not just another baby — both his parents are HIV positive.
But it didn’t stop Kumaraswamy from spending the night in their three-room home and having breakfast with them this morning.
“I want to remove the stigma attached to the HIV-affected. I want society to acknowledge their presence and take care of them. That is why I am spending the night at their house,” he said last night.
The child will be tested soon and non-government organisations working to battle the scourge hope he will test negative.
Akhila Sivadas, of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, said it was the “first time” that an elected representative ate and slept at an HIV-infected person’s house. “This gives a clear message to people in both rural and urban areas not to shun those with AIDS, but to help them come out of their trauma.”
Bagalkot, 500 km from state capital Bangalore, has one of the highest number of adults living with AIDS in the country. Here 2.9 per cent of grown-ups have been afflicted by the deadly virus whereas the national average is 0.92 per cent. The average for other Karnataka districts is 1.5.
“The blame lies on migration to Mumbai, commercial agriculture that allows disposable incomes and the age-old practice of the devadasi system where women are dedicated to temples from a young age and used as comfort girls,” said James Blanchard of the University of Manitoba, Canada.
Blanchard’s organisation works with the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust, which runs several programmes to promote safe sex and help HIV-positive destitutes.
Last night, Kumaraswamy, a dash of vermilion on his forehead, looked around at the tired faces as he entered the house. He shook hands with Rudriaah Mathapathi, the frail 26-year-old father of the baby.
It was close to 1, but the chief minister, welcomed with a traditional arathi, was wide awake. Words of comfort flowed as he listened to their story.
“I am overjoyed to have the chief minister in my home,” Mathapathi said as shutters whirred and flash guns lit up the cramped house.
Shobha, his 20-year-old wife, continued to look down at the floor clutching her 16-month-old son.
This morning, Kumaraswamy, who had a room to himself, woke up as usual at 5.30, spent some time with the family and had breakfast prepared by Shobha. The gesture bridged, even if for a brief while, the divide between the ruling party and the Opposition, which hoped the visit would erase the stigma attached to the HIV-afflicted.
Kumaraswamy, who is keen to introduce a legislation that would make it mandatory for couples to go for an HIV test before marriage, announced that his government was working on an economic package for HIV/AIDS patients.