Is the Commonweath ready for an Aids-free generation?

Last week the European Parliament agreed on a new law to provide specific assistance and protection to people who suffer crime because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or, in a first for EU law, gender expression.

Can we expect the Commonwealth to adopt such a progressive approach on HIV and human rights issues? The annual meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, coming up soon in New York, normally attracts attention for its economic and political agenda. But among the HIV/Aids community, populations vulnerable to the infection and human rights activists, concern is centered on the fate of certain recommendations relating to the Commonwealth’s legal reform process.

According to the International HIV/Aids Alliance, for whom I act as a Trustee, the 54 Commonwealth countries account for 30 per cent of the world’s population and for 60 per cent of global HIV prevalence which shows the disproportionate nature of risk factors present in these societies. Evidence has proved that much of the HIV-related transmission occurs among sex workers and their clients, men who have sex with men (MSM), the transgender community and people who inject drugs.

Evidence has also shown that without engaging with these populations with prevention and treatment services, new HIV infections will not be brought down. This is true too of hyper epidemic countries in Africa as a substantial share of new infections occurs among these vulnerable groups. Vulnerable populations do not exist in isolation but are intrinsically linked socially and sexually with the general population creating an epidemiological link between different sections of society.

While some Commonwealth countries have seen a steady decline in new infections in the past few years, it is not fast enough to turn the Aids epidemic around and stop its spread. Many will fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) six of halting and reversing the epidemic by 2015.

A serious obstacle for reducing infection rates among vulnerable communities is the adverse legal environment they face which criminalises their behaviour and makes them a target for harassment and violence at the hands of law enforcers in most Commonwealth countries. All but six of these countries still classify same sex conduct as illegal. Since the first UN General Assembly Special Session on Aids the international community and UN member states have repeatedly called for amendment of laws that criminalise the behaviour of vulnerable populations to protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular access to health care and legal protection. But very little progress on reform has been reported from many Commonwealth countries in the last decade.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law recently presented incontrovertible evidence that criminalization enhances HIV-related risks among men who have sex with men and transgender populations in Commonwealth countries. In Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, one in four MSM are infected with HIV while in non-Commonwealth countries the ratio is one to fifteen.

Section 377 stands for criminalization of same sex relations in most of the penal laws of Commonwealth countries of Asia. Transgender people are denied acknowledgement as legal persons and their gender is unrecognized. Acts of sexist violence are committed against them while police stand by. Sex work is criminalized in most of the Commonwealth countries despite compelling evidence that sex workers are 14 times more vulnerable to HIV than other women.  When it comes to drug policy, laws do not differentiate between a drug user and drug trafficker and the war on drug campaigns too often end up as a war on drug users.

The Commission has called upon governments to take immediate action to repeal or amend outdated legislations criminalizing HIV transmission and the behaviours of vulnerable populations. Police and law enforcement machinery must be reined in and asked to protect human rights and guarantee access to HIV-related prevention, treatment and care

The report received strong endorsement from the UN Secretary-General, the heads of UNDP and UNAIDS and many civil society organisations around the world who called for a time bound implementation of the Commission recommendations.

In this context, the upcoming meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers assumes great significance. Following the Perth meeting of the Heads of Governments of Commonwealth (CHOGM) countries last year, a Ministerial Task Force was asked to develop 44 recommendations and present them for approval. Some have great social relevance like the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede an effective response to the HIV epidemic and the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.

Whether these recommendations actually make their way into the discussions is another matter.  Civil society organisations and vulnerable communities within the Commonwealth are concerned that the Aids agenda risks being put on the back burner at a time when determined action by these countries could lead us towards an Aids-free generation.

There is still time for the Commonwealth to lead by example and take decisive action to address the legal and structural barriers currently impeding the global HIV response, thereby changing the course of the epidemic once and for all.

Prasada Rao is the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Aids in the Asia Pacific region. He is former Permanent Secretary for Health and Family Welfare in Government of India and former Regional Director of UNAIDS in Asia and the Pacific. He is also a Trustee of the International HIV/Aids Alliance which works to support community action on HIV and AIDS in developing countries.

Sex workers chat to outreach workers at an outdoor café during a street shift in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photograph: International HIV/AIDS Alliance
Getty
Show Hide image

"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

0800 7318496