NEW DELHI – India's health minister has derided homosexuality as an unnatural "disease" from the West, drawing fire Tuesday from activists who said the comments set back the country's campaigns for gay rights and its fight against HIV.
The comments Monday by Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad at a conference on HIV/AIDS in the Indian capital echoed a common refrain in the conservative country that homosexuality is a Western import.
"Unfortunately this disease has come to our country too ... where a man has sex with another man, which is completely unnatural and should not happen but does," Azad said.
Anjali Gopalan, who heads the NAZ Foundation, a rights group that works with HIV positive people and promotes equal rights for homosexuals, said Azad's comments were deeply troubling coming from the health minister of a country fighting a tough battle against HIV infections.
"These comments help no cause. It's definitely not going to help in our fight against HIV," she told the Associated Press.
Roughly 2.5 million Indians have HIV making it the country with the largest number of people living with the virus in Asia.
Experts say the marginalization of gay people in India hinders the fight against the disease.
"If you're not going to invest in community building then gay people will continue to be marginalized," she added.
In 2009 the Delhi High Court struck down a colonial era law -- Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code -- that made sex between people of the same gender punishable by up to 10 years in prison. While actual criminal prosecutions were rare, the law was frequently used to harass people.
The court ruling was noteworthy in a country where even heterosexual sex is rarely discussed openly.
Over the last decade homosexuals are slowly gaining a degree of acceptance in a few parts of India, especially in its big cities. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues. The last two years have also seen large gay pride parades in New Delhi and other big cities such as Mumbai and Calcutta.
Still, being gay remains deeply taboo in most of the country, and many homosexuals hide their sexual orientation from friends and families.