In 1860 a British act of parliament declared that sex between men was illegal and punishable by a jail sentence of up to ten years. The law went into effect throughout the British Empire including its largest colony, India. Unfortunately, when the British government repealed section 377 in 1967 it couldn't take back what it had imposed on its colonies the century before, and to this day homosexual sex is still illegal in India. (Speaking to a gathering of Indian delegates at last summer's 2008, International AIDS conference in Mexico, Indian health minister A Ramadoss lent his support to the repealing of Section 377, but as of yet nothing has been done to do so.)
The Bombay Police Act of 1951, which covers everything from frightening cattle to public decency, gives police the power to fine and arrest people they believe are behaving indecently. As the act does not define what is indecent, it gives police the arbitrary power to arrest virtually anyone they feel like. While in theory the act is to be used to curtail prostitution, the fact that the average police officer makes less than a maid results in widespread use of the act to shake down sex trade workers for money. Of course the constable on the beat has to give a cut of whatever he takes in to his superior officer. In fact if the lower grades among the police force ever want to advance up the ladder they are expected to pay off their higher ups on a regular basis thereby encouraging the practice.
It's reading disheartening facts like these, and other far worse anecdotal tales, that makes the new book AIDS Sutra, produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published by Random House Canada (available in India through Ramdom House India) so depressing. For all that India tries to present to the world the shiny face of a modern technologic giant, judging by what you read in AIDS Sutra when it comes to sexuality its stuck in the dark ages. One of the things this book makes clear is just how much these attitudes impact HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
For AIDS Sutra the Gates Foundation gathered together sixteen of India's best writers and sent them out among the various communities in India affected by HIV/AIDS. AIDS Sutra tells the stories of everyone from orphan children living with the disease to women, men, and transgendered people forced to sell their bodies as a means of survival. Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Nalini Jones, and twelve other authors have each contributed a report for the book that as fiction would be heartbreaking while as non-fiction are heart-sickening and horrifying in their implications.
The overall impression that you get from reading these works is that in general India is the same place North America was in the 1980s when it comes to their understanding of HIV/AIDS. There is still wide spread ignorance concerning how the disease is spread and it's only been recently that even the medical profession has begun to treat those suffering from the disease with something approaching the respect offered anyone suffering a serious ailment. Reading the story of Dr. Tokugha, as told by Nikita Lalwani, that opens the book prepares you for some of the ugliness to come. When he tested positive for the virus instead of informing him of the results, in a horrible breach of patient confidentiality, the hospital told his brother-in-law, a government minister. It was only six months later, a week before he was to be married, that his brother-in-law let him know he was positive.
Reporting on sex trade workers in various places around India Kiran Desai, Sunil Gangopdhyay, Sonia Falerio, and CS Lakshmi, all draw similar pictures of women who have been pushed into circumstances by forces beyond their control. While some of them, mainly the younger and prettier ones, are able to command a degree of respect, the majority of them face the attitude of one police officer interviewed who said any woman who sells her body is bad so should be beaten, and wants sex, so should be raped. Even more disquieting is new legislation being proposed by the government threatening to send them even further underground, making it harder for medical authorities and Non Government Organizations (NGOs) to work with them to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.
While the police in major centres like Mumbai (Bombay) are now starting to make attempts to educate new officers about the reality of AIDS, ingrained habits and conditioning will take years to overcome. As no records have been kept in the past there is no way of knowing how many police officers have been infected with the virus from exercising their "rights," raping sex trade workers instead of arresting them, and then in turn infecting their wives and other partners. The only group more difficult to monitor and help than female sex trade workers in India are men who have sex with men (MSM).
With homosexual sex acts still illegal the stigma attached to being gay is such that many men are forced underground. Since sex is illegal they are continually at risk of being arrested and are routinely subject to harassment and extortion by the police. However according to articles by Salman Rushdie and Mukul Kesavan that's nothing compared to what happens to MSM sex trade workers. The police routinely set up entrapment ploys for them by sending a "client" out looking for sex in one of the regular cruising areas. When the client goes to leave the area to take his partner of choice somewhere they can have sex, the sex trade worker is arrested. If he's lucky he'll only have to pay off the police, but quite often they will be hauled back to the station house where they are gang raped by police officers and tortured.
As it is illegal to have gay sex, how do you set up programmes that will deal with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among that community? There are NGOs that do work with the MSM and transgendered communities in India, and as it stands the best statistics available show that 20% of MSM's are HIV positive. How many are still going undetected because of their reluctance to go public with the reason for them requiring testing is anybody's guess, as are the number of police officers who may be positive after participating in a scene as described above. Until the act making sex between men illegal is repealed in India, there can be no way of knowing the true numbers of people infected with the disease, and no way of mounting a seriously effective prevention campaign.
It's never a good thing to try and impose your own moral code unto another culture or to form judgements on it based on observations conducted by eyes conditioned to another value system. However, when a book like AIDS Sutra, written by people who are native to the culture, paints as devastating a picture of India's preparedness for dealing with HIV/AIDS, it's no longer a question of morality, it's a question of human rights. No one, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender deserves to be treated in the manner the people we meet in this book are treated. Even worse is the fact that the way they are treated not only endangers them, but endangers the population as a whole.
Reading AIDS Sutra one is forced to draw the conclusion that not only is the Indian government unprepared for dealing with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, the situation is such that there is no way of knowing the extent to which the disease is spreading across the country. For the country that gave us Tantric sex and the Karma Sutra, and whose pantheon of Gods and Goddesses contains a transgendered deity (Ardhanarishvara the half woman god) India seems to have somehow become stuck with horribly Victorian attitudes towards sex and sexuality.
In the West our governments ignored HIV/AIDS until it was almost too late because of bigotry and prejudice. India can't plead the excuse of ignorance when it comes to the disease as far too much is known about it for that to wash as an argument any longer. However, judging by the articles in AIDS Sutra the government which should be leading the fight to save the lives of its citizens is allowing conditions to continue that will only encourage the spread of the disease. The tragic conclusion one reaches reading AIDS Sutra is that right now India may be headed the way of East Africa of ten years ago and risks AIDS reaching pandemic proportions.