The Unnatural Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, India's Health Minister

The Unnatural Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, India's Health Minister

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 Editor's note: India's Health Minister, recently said during a HIV/AIDS convention that  "homosexuality is unnatural and it’s a disease which is growing in our country.” He triggered a wave of protest across the globe, and a reaction from Sandip Roy, who is on leave as an editor with New America Media in San Francisco and currently the culture editor with FirstPost.com in Calcutta.


Calcutta, India - Ghulam Nabi Azad famously asked people to watch television instead of producing children.

Perhaps the Union Health Minister should watch some more TV himself.

Especially Maryada on Star Plus. He could meet some gay characters there. Not swishy campy men introduced for laughs or South Bombay designers but gay men in a very traditional patriarchal Haryanvi family.

Even the likes of Ekta Kapoor seems to have gotten the message that the Union Health Minister has missed.

Homosexuality is neither “unnatural”, nor “a disease”. And it certainly did NOT “come to India from foreign shores”.

This, Mr. Azad, is not what your old party boss Indira Gandhi was talking about when she kept warning us about “the foreign hand”.

To be fair to Mr. Azad, a lot of Indians, even the ones who tittered at the whole Saif-Shah Rukh Kantabehn breakfast-in-bed silliness in Kal Ho Na Ho, or the faux gay action in Dostana, are uncomfortable with all this gay business. And he certainly isn’t the only political offender in recent memory. Even the suave Farooq Abdullah recently tried to warn us about the country’s uneven sex ratio by saying, “The day is not far when there will be no girls to marry and we’ll all become gays.”

Azad might have thought gays would be an easy target. After all, no one ever stands up for the gays. Except that’s not true anymore. Gurinder Osan/AP Photo

Besides, in these matters, some media have played their sorry part as well. Earlier this year, TV 9 in Hyderabad outed gay men on television with their pictures after entrapping them through sting ads on a gay website. It was all part of an an exposé of the “drastically increasing” gay culture in the city where gay men go to clubs once a week “and drink and dance with whomever they want!”

But TV9’s head of programming is not the Union Health Minister. NACO, the National AIDS Control Organisation does not report to him. Maybe the hapless Mr. Azad just didn’t get the memo, the one that was distributed, in triplicate no doubt, when in 2009 the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized sex “against the order of nature” even if it was between two consenting adults. At that time, the Health Ministry, yes the one Mr. Azad now heads, supported the decriminalisation. On June 12, 2009, Veerappa Moily, the Union Law Minister agreed that Section 377 was outdated.

FYI, honourable minister, here is what the High Court said in its landmark judgment:

If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness.’ The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone.

That’s everyone, as in Hindus, Muslims, men, women, LGBT, third sex, everyone.

But perhaps Mr. Azad was thinking that gays have a “special” role in India today. Perhaps he is the one inspired by the “foreign hand”. In America, whenever the Republican Party was in disarray and it needed to rally the faithful, it played the gay card. In 2006, when President Bush’s poll numbers were sagging, the war in Iraq was going disastrously, and gas prices were going through the roof, he started talking about a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The President, in effect, sent an old-fashioned telegram to his errant base: Gays getting married. Party bedridden. All forgiven. Come home at once.

Faced with so many scams, so many scandals, and galloping inflation, our minister might just have been trying to change the headlines. Even casting Kanimozhi, Raja and Kalmadi to the wolves has not helped now that the VIP prisoners have been found having chai pani with the jail super. The government desperately needs new sacrifical bakras.

Why not the gays? Mr. Azad might have thought they’d be an easy target. After all, no one ever stands up for the gays. Except that’s not true anymore.

Five years ago, almost every Indian intellectual who was anyone, from Amartya Sen to freedom figher Captain Lakshmi Sahgal signed an open letter demanding that Section 377 be repealed. A group of parents, yes parents, filed a petition in the Supreme Court this year saying Section 377 is “a threat to family values” by criminalising their gay and lesbian children.

A quick and sharp protest about that TV 9 sting led by gay activists resulted the National Broadcasting Standards Authority slapping a Rs 1,00,000 fine on the station and directed it to apologise on air.

The pushback against the Health Minister has been quick and it’s been fierce. Gay activist Vivek Anand told the media that it’s Mr. Azad who is sick and needs urgent treatment. Veteran activist Ashok Row Kavi said, “If out of 100 children, five are lefthanded do you call them unnatural?”

So in this case, poor Mr. Azad might become the sacrificial lamb himself. Already his own NACO is distancing itself from the minister. He might not know it but the main challenger to the Delhi High Court judgment is not any government minister but Baba Ramdev. Yes, the very same Baba Ramdev his government sent packing from Delhi under a rain of lathis.

Sexual politics makes for strange bedfellows, indeed.

As I see it, there might be only one option for the hapless Health Minister. Mr. Azad, you can pretend that you were misquoted, misheard, and misunderstood. You weren’t talking about MSM (men who have sex with men) at all. You were talking about, hmmm what’s close to MSM? Maybe SMS? That’s right. You actually meant to warn us about the health dangers of too much SMSing. It “exists in our country”, it’s “fast-spreading” and reaching “epidemic” proportions. We really should be taking a stand against it.