Back to Dark Ages

Mumbai: A recent newspaper cartoon in an English daily shows India’s Union health minister Harsh Vardhan teaching sex education to children: sunflowers in each hand touching each other.
Okay, we can stop laughing right now. India’s new Union health minister has jumped into his job in the classic foot-in-mouth position, coming up with a couple of suggestions which hark straight back to those dark ages where everything you wanted to know about sex was secret and hidden and you were a bad person for wanting to know.

He started on his ministerial journey by declaring that the distribution of condoms should no longer be the priority of the agencies involved in fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Instead, fidelity and love and marriage should be promoted.

Those who thought that this meant a repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality can think again. There is no promoter of gay marriage in India here. Instead we have a perspective that is skewed by social conservatism and underlying all that is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s view on morality, Indian culture and religion. So a doctor of medicine feels he must now take the same line that Christian fundamentalists used when AIDS was first discovered in America in the 1980s.

To go back in time to fight a fatal disease that has spread worldwide, whose sufferers face not just a possible early death but also stigma and discrimination during their lives seems unconscionable. Indian culture, however great it may be, cannot stop HIV from spreading and however pleasing the idea of marital fidelity is, it is also impossible to ensure.

The good doctor, we have been told, meant well. This is a standard explanation for everything that this new government does. Yes, social conservatism is a strong force in India and no political dispensation is safe from it, but the RSS-Bharatiya Janata Party combination has a special lien on spreading the benefits of their understanding of “Indian culture”. HIV, homosexuality, sex, women — these are all major red flags that have the potential to stall India’s return to the golden age of Bharat.

Which is why Dr Vardhan moved on to the next bugbear — the horror of sex education in schools. Such vulgarity he declared was also against Indian culture. It is difficult to conjecture just what the minister thought went into sex education in schools. An overdose of those “gupt gyan” films, which were apparently popular in dark corners in the 1970s and 80s? Or those old Hindi films — referenced by the cartoonist — where kissing between adults was substituted by a bee flying towards a flower or indeed, two flowers moving closer together.

However, all this begs the question: what does the minister think sex education in schools is all about? Largely, it is about providing knowledge about how the body functions so that you are not at a loss when the moment arrives. Also, and more importantly, it is about the changes that you will undergo in puberty, the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch” so that you understand if you are being sexually abused and some information about contraception. Education, like healthcare, must surely be pragmatic to be effective. Examples of the relative failure of enforced morality are strewn thick through human history.

Dr Vardhan has since apparently backtracked on some of these remarks. But that is hardly heartening. His inner voice has spoken and whatever he does to mask it from now on, we know what his intentions are. A little bit of media hysteria leads to a hastily applied bandage but what happens when the spotlight shifts? We are back to the backdoor entry of all kinds of regressive ideas masquerading as “Indian culture”. This blanket term has nothing to do with promoting traditional arts and crafts or fine or performing arts or literature. It is all about arcane practices most of which reaffirm the latent patriarchy which governs society’s underbelly. The hidden khap panchayats of the mainstream in other words.

A minister in Goa has said that “girls wearing short dresses in pubs” is against Goan culture. An MP in Bengal made a speech threatening rape and violence if he is crossed. A woman has accused a Union minister from Rajasthan and many others of raping her, a case which the Central government has remained largely silent on. Successful rocket launches and moon missions aside, many of our social attitudes are locked in gravity unable to enter the space age.

Most politicians are conservative and often deeply regressive, especially about women regardless of political party. “Westernisation” remains a “fear” — notice the defensive nature of those who feel that Hindi should be India’s main medium of communication instead of the “foreign language” — amongst the older generation. There is a special fear however when the RSS pulls the strings. Protecting this vague notion of Indian culture is a Nagpur speciality and even space travel is justified when we find some ancient Indian connection to it.

The idea that democracy means choice and that includes condoms, sex education and short dresses is hard for some to swallow. In an earlier National Democratic Alliance regime, female news readers on the national TV channel Doordarshan, were made to cover their upper arms by the current external affairs minister. Female upper arms it has long been established are also against Indian culture.
Some of this is so ludicrous that it sounds funny. Can a mobile phone dependent young India longing to be proficient in English be pushed back into the Dark Ages quite so easily? There is no pat answer except that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty!

Or else, one can just laugh like this joke doing the rounds on the Internet:
Speaker: Let us discuss sex education.
Prime Minister: What is discuss?
Health minister: What is sex?
HRD minister: What is education?
While you’re laughing though, keep an eye over your shoulder for an unwelcome blast from the past reaching out a ghostly hand.

The writer is a senior journalist who writes on media affairs, politics and social trends

Next Story