India's health minister has derided homosexuality as an unnatural "disease" from the West, drawing outrage Tuesday from activists who said the comments set back the country's campaign for gay rights and its fight against HIV.
The comments Monday by Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad at a conference on HIV/AIDS in the Indian capital of New Delhi echoed a common refrain in the conservative South Asian nation that homosexuality is a Western import.
"Unfortunately this disease has come to our country too ... where a man has sex with another man, which is completely unnatural and should not happen, but does," Azad said.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and a slew of government ministers were also present at the conference. There was no immediate comment from the Health Ministry, and the prime minister's office refused to discuss Azad's remarks.
Anjali Gopalan, who heads the NAZ Foundation, a rights group that works with HIV positive people and promotes equal rights for homosexuals, said Azad's comments were deeply troubling coming from the health minister of a country fighting a tough battle against HIV infections.
"These comments help no cause. It's definitely not going to help in our fight against HIV," she told The Associated Press.
Roughly 2.5 million Indians have HIV, making it the country with the largest number of people living with the virus in Asia.
Experts say the marginalization of gay people keeps them isolated and makes it harder for HIV/AIDS awareness messages to reach them.
"If you're not going to invest in community building, then gay people will continue to be marginalized," Gopalan said.
Law struck down
In 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down a colonial era law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, that made sex between people of the same gender punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While actual criminal prosecutions were rare, the law was frequently used to harass people.
The court ruling was noteworthy in a country where even heterosexual sex is rarely discussed openly.
Over the last decade homosexuals have slowly gained a degree of acceptance in a few parts of India, especially its big cities. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues. The last two years have also seen large gay pride parades in New Delhi and other big cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata.
Still, being gay remains deeply taboo in most of the country, and many homosexuals hide their sexual orientation from friends and families.
"How can the health minister say something so unscientific and irrational?" Nitin Karani, a gay rights activist told a television new channel. "He needs to apologize immediately or he needs to go."
This is not the first time Azad's words have embarrassed the government.
A few years ago, he suggested Indians watch more late night television instead of having sex as a means to stem population growth in the nation of 1.2 billion people.