Ghulam Nabi Azad’s attack on “unnatural” same-sex relationships–delivered at a HIV conference–attracted particular hostility as he is charge of health policy in Asia’s most Aids-afflicted nation.
“Even though it (homosexuality) is unnatural, it exists in our country and is now fast spreading, making it tough to detect its spread,” Mr Azad told the conference in New Delhi, which was also attended by the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress Party, senior cabinet members and MPs.
“With relationships changing, men are having sex with men now. Though it is easy to find women sex workers and educate them on sex, it is a challenge to find them (gay men)” he added.
His comments reflected a persistent culture of homophobia in socially conservative Indian society.
A 148-year old Victorian law declaring homosexuality to be a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail and fines was only overturned by the courts two years ago.
“The minister needs to apologise immediately. He has insulted the entire homosexual community” Mohnish Kabir Malhotra, a gay rights activist said.
“His statement is completely outrageous and for a health minister it is surprising that he has not been through the World Health Organisation’s guidelines in which homosexuality was taken off the list of diseases years ago.”
In an effort at damage limitation, health ministry spokeswoman Shefali Sharan said Mr Azad’s remarks were quoted out of context and that when he referred to “disease” he meant HIV-AIDS and not homosexuality.
“He was not insulting anyone” she said.
Anjali Gopalan, head of the NAZ Foundation that works with HIV positive victims, said: “In our line of work, the last thing we need is for some idiotic minister to make a statement like this.
“Which planet is he living on? Either he has no understanding of this issue, or he just doesn’t care.”
Other activists noted that the minister’s remarks would cheer servative groups and religious organisations who had virulently opposed legalising homosexuality in 2009.
Even the federal government–whilst presenting its side of the argument in the petition seeking to overturn legislation which considered homosexuality an “unnatural offence”–also termed it a “disease”.
Its counsel told the Delhi High Court that if legalised homosexuality would ‘devastate’ society as everybody would indulge in gay sex.
According to UNAIDS, India has some 5.7 million people infected with the Aids virus HIV, amongst the world’s highest but activists maintain that gay sex is only marginally responsible for spreading the disease.
But in April the UN declared that India was witnessing a 50 percent drop in HIV-Aids cases as instances of new infections dropped from 24,000 per year in the beginning of the decade to 12,000 annually.
In a hastily-arranged press conference Mr Azad later insisted he had been misquoted. “My reference was to HIV as a disease. As health minister, I know (male homosexual sex) is not a disease,” he said.