India: Row after minister calls homosexuality a disease

Publication Date: 
July 5, 2011
Mr Azad's remarks were made at a conference on HIV and Aids attended by high-level officials. Credit: BBC

India's health minister has sparked a furious row over comments in which he described homosexuality as a "disease". Ghulam Nabi Azad told a conference on HIV/Aids that gay sex was "unnatural". Later he said he had been misquoted. One leading Aids campaigner said the minister was "living on another planet".

Gay sex was decriminalised in the country in a landmark judgement in 2009 but anti-homosexual discrimination remains widespread.

Mr Azad told the meeting in Delhi on Monday that homosexuality "is a disease which has come from other countries".

"Even though it is unnatural, it exists in our country and is now fast-spreading, making it tough to detect," he said.

He said men having sex with other men "should not happen, but does".

He also said that "though it is easy to find women sex workers and educate them on sex, it is a challenge to identify men having sex with men".

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi were also present at the conference, along with a raft of government ministers, but had reportedly left before Mr Azad made his comments.


Anand Grover, the United Nations special rapporteur on health, criticised Mr Azad's comments.

"It's unfortunate, regrettable and totally unacceptable that a minister of his stature... is still insensitive to a vulnerable groups such as MSM [men who have sex with men]," the Hindustan Times newspaper quoted him as saying.

Anjali Gopalan, who heads leading HIV/Aids campaign group the Naz Foundation, told the BBC's Jill McGivering she was "horrified" by the minister's remarks.

"He's living on another planet - either he's very ill-informed or he's speaking to a very narrow constituency of his own," she said.

"He was addressing officials from across the country and this was a golden opportunity to deal with discrimination. Instead he let it slip through his fingers. I'm hoping it will not put us back another 10 years.

"My blood pressure must have gone through the roof. I'm so angry, I can't put it into words. These guys shouldn't be in these positions."

She added that as it was much easier for a man to infect a woman than a woman a man, and as it was common practice among female sex workers to use condoms, they were not the group most vulnerable to infection.

"It's women who are in marriage who are more at risk because they cannot negotiate safer behaviour from their husbands who are infecting them," Ms Gopalan said.

'Not insulting'

Gay rights activist Mohnish Kabir Malhotra said Mr Azad should "apologise immediately" for his comments.

"Homosexuality is very much a part of nature and it even finds references in religious texts. To call it unnatural is absurd," Malhotra told the AFP news agency.

In a news conference called on Tuesday evening, Mr Azad said his quotes had been taken out of context and that when he spoke of disease, he was talking about HIV/Aids and not homosexuality.

"Some people have played with the words. I have been quoted out of context," he said.

"My reference was to HIV as a disease. As health minister, I know [male homosexual sex] is not a disease."

According to one estimate, some 8% of homosexual men in India are infected with HIV. There is an infection rate of under 1% in the general population.

The 2009 court ruling overturned a 148-year-old colonial law which described a same-sex relationship as an "unnatural offence".