India’s newly appointed Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan’s recent comments on condoms and sex education have shocked many. His responses and clarifications since, have only escalated the media scrutiny. The first wave of criticism started with his interview with The New York Times, in which he claimed that India’s AIDS campaign should emphasise on traditional ‘Indian culture’ rather than condoms. Now a second wave of backlash has ensued with his “Educational Vision for Delhi (school)” document being unearthed, which proposes to ban sex education in schools.
The statement naturally came under reasonable criticism from the many condom-using, sexually-active citizens who thought they were being responsible all this while. The volume of criticism was enough to result in the minister issuing an official statement on his Facebook page, which clarifies that he very much supports condoms, and that many extracts of his interviews were sensationalised or misrepresented by the media.
In an age where we half expect our politicians to make ludicrous statements, the health minister’s strategy of addressing these criticisms head-on is a welcome change. But amidst the lengthy 500-word rebuttal, one has to hunt hard for a valid defence that can compensate for his unsound advice to the nation.
The good news is that Dr Vardhan apparently does support condoms. He did not say that the use of condoms should not be promoted to combat HIV/AIDS, but that ‘the supremacy of fidelity’ can also be an effective AIDS prevention measure. To quote, “condoms promise safe sex, but the safest sex is through faithfulness to one’s partner.”
You may ask, what happens in the cases of pre-marital sex or (dare we say it!) casual sex? Is he assuming that the average Indian citizen has sex with just ‘the one’ person during his/her lifetime? Perhaps such concepts are anathema to ‘Indian culture,’ but that doesn’t make them any less real as a part of modern Indian society. Durex India’s recent ‘Do the Rex’ campaign picked Ranveer Singh, a popular youth icon as its brand ambassador. The commercial not only promotes safe sex among the youth, but reflects a much-needed change in mindset in a culture where most sex-related topics are thrown under the rug. Dr Vardhan’s proposal to ban what he refers to as “so-called sex education” does precisely this. The senior-most health decision-maker of our nation should know that when it comes to sexual health, ignorance is not bliss.
Dr Vardhan’s emphasis on fidelity is only relevant insofar as we are referring to marital sex or those in steady relationships, which does not cover all sexual relations. While his concern for the integrity of cultural values is endearing, does his mandate not require him to address the reality of public health issues? Consider this extract from his response: “The culture of regarding husband and wife as halves of a whole should be upheld in the modern age where one sees all-round crumbling of values.” Such sermonizing statements seem out of place in a statement by a health minister whose duty is to increase health awareness and modern health safety practices. Is ‘culture’ really going to control people’s sexual urges (faithful or not)? Wouldn’t ensuring that people engage in safe sex be a more effective strategy? Even Narendra Modi, while chief minister of Gujarat, had championed the use of condoms and contraceptive pills under the scheme 'Kalyan Chhap'. Dubbed as the 'Modi condom', the packets had also carried his face as well as that of the then Gujarat health minister Ashok Bhatt on them.
The next surprise is the minister’s denial that his statement had anything to do with homosexuality. In fact he condemned the media connecting his statement to the criminalisation of homosexuality, as this matter is ‘beyond the domain of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.’ (Because a moral commentary on Indian values is?) Sorry, Dr Vardhan, but a selective interpretation of your mandate makes for a poor defence!
In his interview he is clearly quoted as saying that condoms send the wrong message: you can have “any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you’re using a condom, it’s fine.” Here’s our question: if in the context of preventing HIV/AIDS, the minister was not alluding to homosexuality, what was he referring to? Given that Section 377’s validity has been highlighted extensively in the media, it is hardly outlandish to connect his statement to homosexuality. Compared to his predecessor Gulam Nabi Azad, who called homosexuality an unnatural disease at a national convention on HIV/AIDS, Dr Vardhan’s statement may even be excusable. But as a top-level decision-maker, he should clarify his policies to effectively address HIV/AIDS for every member of Indian society, including the homosexual community.
Sexual diseases do not discern whether the sexual activity is ‘illicit’ or not. The fact remains that the health minister should focus on health first. Shifting focus and politicising these issues threatens public health. His clarifying response while perhaps well intentioned is not well thought-out, not to mention filled with several extraneous details from a lengthy description of his efforts to organise blood donation camps, to cultural norms, which seem to be a popular favourite with the Modi Cabinet. Perhaps Smriti Irani will next consult Dr Harsh Vardhan on whether the Kama Sutra is an apt ancient Hindu text to include in the school syllabi!
Digant Raj Kapoor holds an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge, where he was a Cambridge Commonwealth Trust Scholar. He is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @DigantKapoor.
Saanya Gulati is an alumnus of Tufts University with a B.A. in International Relations and Sociology. She was previously a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow at PRS Legislative Research. Follow her on Twitter @BombayDelhiGirl.