India’s Silence Fuels HIV’s Spread
BY Neeraja Viswanathan
March 01 2003 1:00 AM ET
You are the government of a Third World country facing a debilitating epidemic. One of the richest men in the world announces that he is going to give you $100 million to fight the disease. Do you (a) thank him profusely and immediately start implementing social and medical programs, (b) question his motivations and refuse the money, or (c) vociferously deny that there's any major health problem facing your country, snub your benefactor, but accept the money anyway?
If it is November 2002 and you are the Indian government, you pick the last option.
When Microsoft chairman Bill Gates pledged $100 million last year to help fight the AIDS epidemic in India, even the most vocal Microsoft detractors understood that this was an act of charity'and a necessary one at that. Not so the Indian government. In interviews following the bequest, India's leaders repeatedly showed their ignorance about the threat of HIV in their country and dismay at Gates's offer. India's health minister, Shatrughan Sinha, was too busy even to meet with Gates and publicly accused him of 'spreading panic.'
When I traveled to India over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was outraged over the situation and was filled with the urge to discuss it with my Indian-American friends. We were all liberal and educated. We were all sexually and politically active. But surprisingly, I found among them the same reluctance to condemn the Indian response to Bill Gates's generosity.
'It's different there,' my friend said of India. 'It's harder for them to talk about it.'
But no one is talking about it at all. Though my friends and I were born and raised in America, our parents were South Indian Brahmans, a group known as much for its value of education as for its elitism. When I was growing up, issues like AIDS and homosexuality were dirty subjects, not to be discussed. The implicit assumption was that AIDS was a Western issue, a 'white person's problem,' a disease that affected only homosexuals and drug users.
Indian kids did not do drugs, let alone use dirty needles. Indian kids would not have sex before marriage, let alone be gay. Indian kids were raised properly with family values, not like American kids who experimented with everything and got into so much trouble. And so Indian kids did not have to worry about becoming infected with HIV.
Our parents' stance echoes the position that the Indian government has shortsightedly taken in the past few years: India's people do not need AIDS education and medical treatment. Just teach family values and ethical behavior. Only the immoral will be punished by HIV. The rationale behind this approach to AIDS prevention parallels the assumption in America's Bible Belt that if you do not talk about it, kids will not think about it.
And the result? An HIV-positive population in India estimated to be at least 4 million'and growing rapidly'and a generation of kids who learned about sex and AIDS through American television.
There are two easy, early steps that can be taken to help combat this growing problem. The first is for Indians in India and abroad to acknowledge that homosexuality is not unique to America'brought on by too much television and junk food. Gay people are everywhere. The second step is to realize that HIV is a color-blind issue. No amount of family values will stop the spread of HIV if there is no forum for discussion or education.
The brilliant 1996 film Fire by Indian screenwriter, director, and producer Deepa Mehta succinctly stated India's problems with homosexuals'and by extension with those affected by HIV: 'There are no words for what we are.'
Without words, there is no communication. Talking about HIV will not spread the disease; not talking about it will.
Viswanathan is an attorney and a freelance journalist from New York City.