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India: Health Minister Stirs up Gay Sex Controversy

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.

India's Health Minister, Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, has stirred up controversy and angered the gay community and gay rights activists with his recent comments at a HIV/AIDS conference in New Delhi. Mr. Azad was widely quoted in both national and international mainstream media as having referred to homosexuality as “unnatural” and a “disease” that had come from the West and was unfortunately spreading fast in the country.

The resulting uproar soon forced the Minister to issue a clarification regarding his controversial comments. He blamed the media for misquoting him and stated that he was referring to HIV as the disease and not passing judgement on sexual orientation or preference.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and Indian Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad. Image by U.S. Embassy New Delhi (CC BY-ND 2.0)

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and Indian Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad. Image by U.S. Embassy New Delhi (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Despite Mr. Azad's clarification (which many have not bought into), his initial controversial comments soon went viral and generated a lot of buzz, not only within the country but internationally as well. Some went so far as to draw comparisons with the controversial AIDS-related theory propounded by the former South African President Thabo Mbeki in 2000.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS was present at the conference where Mr. Azad made his controversial comments. UNAIDS promptly issued a press statement announcing their position on the issue of homosexuality and denouncing homophobia as ‘prejudice’. Saying that the comments were not in line with the country's policy, Sidibé commented:

India’s rich tradition of inclusivity and social justice must include men who have sex with men and transgender people

The buzz was very much evident online – on Twitter, blogs, forums, Facebook etc. The reactions were varied, ranging from humor to outright anger and demands that Azad be sacked.

Both the Health Minister and his alleged gay gaffe soon became the butt of jokes on Twitter. Comments were often laced with sarcasm. Some examples:

@YearOfRat: Health Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad clearly blames Manoj Kumar for bringing ‘admi hoon admi se pyar karta hoon’ disease from Pashchim (West). [Funny reference to an old Hindi film song from the 1970s, whose lyrics when literally translated, says – I am a man who loves men]

@gkhamba: Breaking: Ghulam Nabi Azad outlaws homosexuals from eating Naturals Ice Cream.

@rameshsrivats:So, is Ghulam Nabi Azad okay if homosexuals take medical leave to go have sex? #JustAsking

@meradelhii: All's not gay after Ghulam Nabi Azad homophobic barb http://bit.ly/qHs27x

@sunilea: BREAKING: Will bring a bill to change the name of human species to Hetrosapiens ~ Ghulam Nabi Azad

@Roflindian: Ghulam Nabi Azad probably has finished reading the newspapers by now. At the moment, he must be quite Glum Nabi

@madversity: Someone who has both Ghulam (slave) and Azad (free) in his name should not be complaining about people who swing both way.

@khairyalonto: He must be very welcome in new york RT @TIME: India's health minister derided homosexuality as an unnatural “disease” from the West.

However, not everyone was seeing the humor in the Health Minister's comments and subsequent predicament. Many of the tweeters felt that the comments were indeed unhealthy, regressive and reeked of ignorance if not outright prejudice.

@kirankarlmarx: Ghulam Nabi Azad's comments on homosexuality reeks of a hangover of an Self-righteous Victorian attitude. Good that he has disowned them

@juhipande: Congratulations Ghulam Azad. You've invented time travel. You just took this country twenty years back in time.

@vdehejia: Ghulam Nabi Azad's comments today were reprehensible and shocking, coming as they do from the Health Minister. Truly shocking.

@IamOnir: Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad needs urgent counseling for his regressive statement. His “unnatural” stand is dangerous for healthy democracy

@calamur: Ghulam Nabi Azad's statement on homosexuality – is not about tolerance. it is about competence. Imagine a Health Minister not knowing…

@PankajPachauri: Health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad calls homosexuality a disease during a conference on HIV/AIDS. Now that is really unhealthy talk.

@ediedisapproves: Is this guy qualified? RT @TIME: India's health minister derided homosexuality as an unnatural “disease” from the West | http://ti.me/qe8c1k

Many of the netizens saw these comments as a setback for gay rights and the country's fight against HIV/AIDS. Gord Barnes, a fieldworker with of Amnesty International, tweeted:

@GordBarnes: India's Health Minister’s homosexuality remarks a setback for gay rights | Amnesty International amnesty.ca/media2010.php?… #India #gayrights

Not everyone was buying the Health Minister's subsequent clarifications either. Wonderman wrote on his blog:

A disease? We went from sin, demons and now a disease. However Mr. Azad says he was taken out of context…Good luck with the back tracking, Boo Boo.

Canadian blogger James wrote on his blog:

Epic ignorance from India’s Health Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, was displayed Monday… How can an authoritative figure who spews out myths like this keep his job? Ahh, fiction-based politics.

Many other gay blogs/sites too appeared unmoved by Mr. Azad's plea that he had indeed been misquoted and misunderstood. An online petition has been started denouncing the Minister's comments.

Interestingly, amidst all of this outrage, there is a section of netizens who are quietly supporting the Minister's comments.

@elArequipeno: to be fair to ghulam nabi azad, homosexuality is indeed unnatural in that it goes against natural urges for reproduction.

@samdondagson: Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad is true. I hope Indian people fight against this disease.

That these tweeters are not alone in their support of the Health Minster, is evident from this tweet:

@ikaveri: And now I know there are many people on my timeline who agree with Ghulam Nabi Azad.

However, others were quick to denounce these homophobic comments as regressive.

@juhipande: I have ppl who're tweeting to say they support the Health Minister. I was wrong.We're already in the Dark Ages. We don't need a time machine

Currently, the debate seems far from over and it remains to be seen what (if any) damage control exercise will be undertaken by the government to contain/ alleviate this ongoing controversy.

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.

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