Love, homophobia and the AIDS panic in 1980s India

01 October 2015

I WAS 26 YEARS OLD in 1988, living in Delhi, where I had recently moved after several years as a graduate student in the United States. I was a stringer for the Washington Post, living in a rented apartment in Jor Bagh with my partner, Tandavan, a Frenchman of Tamil and Vietnamese descent in his mid-thirties. We had met by lucky accident one morning outside the nearby Lodi Gardens, and fallen in love instantly.

Tandavan was my first boyfriend. Until we began to live together, I had feared that gay men and women everywhere were doomed to living lives without lasting romantic love. Societies, it seemed, permitted only heterosexuals to have fulfilling, steady relationships; and they were, for the most part, bitterly opposed to our partaking of this basic human joy.

Tandavan, a Bharatanatyam dancer with a gift for making everything sensually intense, had brought colour, music and hope into my life. Our one-bedroom apartment was always full of friends: Indian, French, and of innumerable other nationalities, crowding around for impromptu dinners. Yet, despite the unexpected joys of living together, there was no escaping the chronic sense of fear that came with being gay in the India of that era. By being together constantly—in our car, on the verandah of our flat, walking and biking together, going shopping—we drew the attention of some of our neighbours, as well as of the domestic help and private guards in the area. From their comments and stares, I realised that Tandavan and I were the subject of a lot of discussion, some of it patently suspicious and unfriendly.

My tensions would cross over into fear whenever Tandavan and I were intimate with each other—whether it was kissing, having sex, or just cuddling together. I was aware that we were violating India’s criminal laws, even if it was in the privacy of our flat, and we could be arrested and imprisoned as a consequence. It was sickening to feel fearful every day, to think that I was a criminal just because I loved another man.

In 1989, Dominic D’Souza, a young gay man, was imprisoned in a deserted tuberculosis sanatorium by the Goa police when his HIV-positive status was discovered.

Then, one terrible evening, my worst fears—of being imprisoned, of being deprived of my freedom, of my ability to fight back or even to flee—became a reality. It left me with a terrifying new awareness of what it meant to be criminalised. That awareness was heightened by a larger, public fear, as the AIDS epidemic started to make headlines through India—a fear whose consequences were to be borne by some of the country’s most vulnerable men and women.

It was about 7 pm, one evening in the winter of 1988, when Tandavan and I entered the Jor Bagh police station, an unremarkable single-storey building located at a quiet crossroads near the colony. A few policemen sat in the hallway, desultorily talking to each other. They glanced at us but didn’t stir. Bare bulbs emitted a faint, depressing light. The place felt like one more outpost of an apathetic and callous bureaucracy, instead of a station serving one of Delhi’s most elite neighbourhoods.

Earlier that day, I had received a call from the station officer, who told me that some neighbours had complained about me, although he refused to say what these complaints were. Casually, he suggested I drop by for a talk. I should have realised then that trouble was in the offing.

One of the policemen led us to the station officer’s room, and, after he had checked with the officer, we were told to enter. I walked through the swing doors with Tandavan following me. The man sitting behind the desk looked at me with such aggressive loathing that I thought, momentarily, that he had mistaken me for someone else. He was short and powerfully built, with a clipped moustache, possibly a decade older than me. He burst out angrily, almost as if in a rage: “Mr Dube, I know all about you. I have received enough complaints about you. You are a homo! You have naked men dancing at your house, exposing themselves. Go back to America! If you want to live here, you will live as an Indian, not like an American!”

I stood breathless with shock. The officer must have misinterpreted my silence. Perhaps he lost whatever self-control he possessed. Banging his fist on the table, he shouted, “Watch it, I will come and arrest you! I will arrest you tonight! I will arrest you wherever I like, from the street or even from your house!”

My heart pounded, in a mix of rage and apprehension. I looked at this obnoxious man and suppressed an urge to punch him really hard. Instead, I collected myself and said, steadily but with anger in my voice, “Just try and arrest me and see what happens.”

All hell broke loose. The officer sprang up from his chair and charged around his desk towards us, his fists clenched as if he meant to hit me. Changing his mind abruptly, he pressed a bell on his desk. “Lock up these gaandus!” he yelled in Hindi—calling us sodomites—at the two policemen who rushed in. Then he approached me and stood practically nose-to-nose. From the way he pushed back his shoulders, then locked his hands behind his back, I could see the effort it was taking for him to keep from hitting me.

The author, seated centre, as a college student in Delhi, where he returned to work for the Washington Post in the late 1980s.

Tandavan had been shocked and silent through all this. He was clearly finding it difficult to keep up with the Hindi, and even with the officer’s heavily accented English. Now, he grabbed my arm, no doubt worried that I would hit back if the officer struck me. The next thing we knew, we were being marched towards the back of the station. I presumed this was where the cells were, but the officer came to the door and yelled that we should be locked up in the constables’ duty room. The sole constable working there was taken aback when his colleagues brought us in; clearly, this was not standard procedure.

The policemen left. We heard the door being bolted. Through a large window near the door, I saw that one of the policemen had seated himself on a nearby stool to keep guard. Tandavan and I sat down on the benches in a corner. We were too shaken to speak. Everything had escalated too fast.

I forced myself to breathe deeply, so that my heartbeat could slow down and I could think more clearly. I put my hand on Tandavan’s, and wondered about the hate-filled threats the officer had spewed. My head swirled with angry recriminations. There was infinite time, too, to castigate myself for all my errors of judgment.

I had been foolish to listen to the officer on the phone that morning, I thought. Why had I assumed that being a government-accredited foreign correspondent would give me enough leverage to handle anything? Why didn’t I have the basic common sense to inform Pratap, my eldest brother, that I was coming here? Or I should have left a note for my close friend Siddhartha, who was staying with us that weekend, saying that we had gone to the police station. He would have been able to do something. Why, why, why hadn’t I behaved like a competent adult?

An hour passed. I knocked on the door, and when the guard opened it, I said politely that I was entitled to speak to a lawyer, and wanted to exercise this right. He said he would ask the officer, but came back to say that the station’s public phone wasn’t working. I told him that I’d spotted a policeman chatting on it on our way to the lock-up, but he ignored me.

It was now 9 pm, well past time for Tandavan to have his evening shot of insulin; he had juvenile-onset diabetes. My heart sank as I saw tell-tale beads of cold sweat on his face, and recognised the nervousness indicating that his sugar levels were plummeting. I knocked urgently on the door again, and asked the guard to check if they could free Tandavan. The neighbours’ complaints were against me, I pointed out, and Tandavan had not talked back to the officer. In any case, he was a French citizen, not an Indian, and this was a medical emergency.

The microbiologist Suniti Solomon (left), was the senior collaborator on research that led to the earliest detection of domestically contracted HIV in India.

The guard returned a few minutes later to say that the officer wanted to see Tandavan. It was now 10 pm. Tandavan was sweating profusely, clearly in medical distress, but before he followed the guard out, he tousled my hair and told me not to worry. It was impossible; he was all I worried for.

He returned a while later, looking ashen. The officer had said that he would be released only if he signed a statement saying that he had witnessed me insulting and threatening the officer. Tandavan had refused to sign. The officer had badgered him relentlessly. He was utterly drunk, Tandavan said. He hadn’t even tried to hide the bottle of alcohol he was drinking straight from.

The next hour was the very worst of my life. I pleaded with the guard to get a doctor for Tandavan. He was clearly sympathetic, because it was now obvious even to the untrained eye that Tandavan was ill. He went off once again, but returned to say that the doctor would be called only if Tandavan signed the statement exonerating the officer. Helplessly, I sat there watching my boyfriend, my love, tossing restlessly on the bench.

It was nearly midnight when the door opened and four policemen came in, all carrying their wooden lathis. They said they would take Tandavan to our house, where he could take his injection, and then bring him back here. By this time, Tandavan was pallid, and shivering uncontrollably. As he couldn’t walk, the policemen said they would take him pillion on one of their bicycles.

Just as he left, I told Tandavan quickly to phone Pratap, my brother, and tell him what had happened. About half an hour later, the policeman guarding the room unbolted it, and said, in a deferential tone, that I was free to go. One of the city’s most senior police officials—a college friend of my father’s—had just phoned the station officer.

I had to keep myself from running out of there. It was past midnight when I reached home. Exhausted and sick, Tandavan was already asleep. Siddhartha, the friend staying with us, was waiting up for me, his face grey with worry. He didn’t ask me to explain the events of the evening—and I said nothing, desperate to put them as far behind me as possible.

The only reason things hadn’t taken a more disastrous turn was because the homophobic officer had taken cognisance of my social status, and held himself back from doing worse. From all that I had seen during my years in India, I knew that in other circumstances Tandavan and I could have been beaten, raped, held indefinitely, and then blackmailed—our lives ruined, with no scope for recourse.

A few mornings after the incident, my phone at the Washington Post’s bureau rang. At the other end was the officer from the Jor Bagh police station, his voice slurred, clearly from drinking too much. He said something incomprehensible, and then started to cry. I kept quiet because I was shivering uncontrollably, from both fear and hatred. Eventually, I realised that he was pleading, saying that he had been transferred to a military area on the outskirts of Delhi. He asked me if I could forgive him, and get him back his treasured Jor Bagh post. At some point, I heard him say plaintively that he had meant me no harm. Filled with revulsion, I hung up without saying a word.

SOME MONTHS AFTER that traumatic night, Tandavan and I learnt of a young man in Goa who had been arrested and was being held in isolation, under armed guard, because his HIV-positive status had become known to the police and health authorities. We feared that this was the first salvo in a campaign against gays triggered by the AIDS scare, which was intensifying as a growing number of Indians came to be diagnosed with HIV.

We had long dreaded that hysteria about the disease would further demonise us, as had happened, starting in the early 1980s, in Western countries. We feared it would result in the systematic persecution of men known or even suspected of being homosexual, and that we would become subjected to forced testing, quarantine, and other abuses. “AIDS is the last thing the Indian homosexual needed,” a Sunday magazine cover story about gay men noted sympathetically in 1988. “Proscribed by law, ostracized by society, he now faces the prospect of being held responsible for a scourge that is not of his making.”

My own recent hardships sharpened my horror at the ordeal of Dominic D’Souza, the young man in Goa. On 14 February 1989, in Parra, a rural parish of northern Goa, Dominic had had breakfast with his widowed mother and aunt, like he always did. They left home before him, and so missed meeting the lone policeman who arrived a short while later, and asked Dominic to come to the police station in the town of Mapusa as soon as possible. The policeman offered no explanation for why he was wanted.

Dominic was surprised, but Goa was then a tranquil place, and his was a respectable Catholic family. It didn’t cross his mind to leave an explanatory note for his mother and aunt. Having phoned his boss at the Panjim branch of the World Wildlife Fund to say that he had been delayed unexpectedly, he simply started off on his motorbike for the Mapusa police station.

His life changed irrevocably from the moment he arrived. Without being told why, he was driven in a police van to the nearby Asilo Hospital, a place he knew well because he went there regularly to donate blood. Suddenly, several doctors appeared and began to look closely at him, almost as if they wanted to conduct a medical examination without touching him. They badgered him with questions—asking if he frequented sex workers, was homosexual, injected drugs, or had had sex on his recent holiday in Germany—but not one would answer his increasingly anxious queries.

Dominic’s fears turned into terror when he spotted one of the doctors entering his name into a register with “AIDS” printed across its cover. The trauma of seeing this was such that he did not protest when he was handcuffed and driven to an unused tuberculosis sanatorium a short distance from Mapusa. There, with handcuffs removed, Dominic was locked, alone, in a vast room littered with rat and pigeon droppings, bare but for broken-down metal beds. Armed police personnel were stationed at every exit. “(I) was left all alone with my helplessness and fright,” Dominic wrote later of this moment. “My arrest and isolation were the most traumatic and terrifying experiences of my life … (they) seem almost like the acts of a sadist.”

The journalist who challenged the imprisonment of HIV-positive women in Chennai, Shyamala Natraj, (left) remembered the “anguish” of Selvi in detention

Dominic’s family and friends—led by Lucy D’Souza, his mother and a retired nurse, and Isabel de Santa Rita Vaz, a well-known professor of literature whose amateur theatre company Dominic had been a part of—immediately came to his defence. D’Souza and Vaz pleaded with Goa’s health secretary, legislators, chief minister and governor to release him. They cited World Health Organisation guidelines, which specified that people with HIV should not be incarcerated or quarantined. They emphasised that Dominic posed no threat to anyone, and that they would guarantee that he stayed put at home.

For over a month, they made little headway. Dominic remained incarcerated. Officials and politicians, however sympathetic their tone, said they were constrained by the law. In 1987, Goa’s legislators, concerned that their tourist-friendly state was particularly vulnerable to an HIV epidemic because of its fame as a drugs-and-sex-filled hippie haven, had approved punitive anti-AIDS measures that effectively turned HIV-affected people into criminals.

The state’s health officials were empowered to demand HIV tests of anyone they suspected of being infected. Those who refused could be arrested even without a court warrant. Doctors were required to notify the authorities if they learnt that someone had HIV, rather than protect the patient’s confidentiality. Infected foreigners were to be deported, while Indians were to be imprisoned indefinitely in isolation.

In late March, Lucy D’Souza filed a case before the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court, challenging her son’s imprisonment on the grounds that it violated the Indian constitution, as well as WHO guidelines on HIV—a set of principles that the Indian government had endorsed. She and Vaz also rallied public support for Dominic’s cause. The Parra panchayat passed a resolution demanding that the authorities release Dominic and let him return to his village. In tiny Goa, with its population of just 1 million, this was a powerful statement by his community to the government.

On the day before D’Souza’s writ petition was entered in court, she and Vaz led a massive demonstration through Panjim to seek Dominic’s release and the repeal of Goa’s draconian anti-AIDS law. They were joined by neighbours, women’s groups, and local activist organisations. D’Souza herself carried a placard that read: “I have AIDS, please hug me.”

The support for Dominic was so strong that the Times of India commented, “It appears that the government has been taken aback at the barrage of protests and outrage from citizens, organisations and the medical community from within and outside the state over Dominic’s incarceration.” At least in Goa, the state’s over-reaction to AIDS could not be blamed on public sentiment. It sprang, rather, from the paranoia of government officials and the judiciary.

Eventually, on 18 April, more than two months after the beginning of Dominic’s ordeal, the court passed an interim order freeing him from the sanatorium, and instead placed him under house arrest. The court gratuitously instructed Dominic to “refrain from having sexual intercourse with any person,” and not to donate blood or act in any manner so “that the dread disease is communicated to others.”

To my surprise, however, there was no punitive campaign against homosexuals as part of AIDS-control measures. Remarkably, the government, as well as the media, treated Dominic’s case without making a single reference to something I and some of my friends knew for a fact—that Dominic was gay. His assertion that he had contracted HIV while donating blood, via contaminated equipment, was accepted unquestioningly, even though this was highly improbable.

When I look back at that time, it is fascinating to see what saved us. Here we were, gay men who felt so nakedly visible and threatened, certain that a hostile government—probably some department of the police or home ministry—was keeping close tabs on us. What we didn’t realise, until years later, was that we had done such a good job of hiding ourselves that we truly were invisible, individually and as a group.

Consequently, homophobic policymakers could easily deny our existence and assert that India had no homosexuals, or very few of them; that homosexuality was a Western import with no real roots in India. In an interview with my friend Siddhartha in 1989, the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, Dr AS Paintal, insisted that homosexuality didn’t occur in India simply because it was banned and entailed a serious criminal penalty. However absurd this argument was, Paintal and other policymakers seemed to genuinely believe it.

And so it was that, in those early years of the epidemic, the spread of the disease was not blamed on gay men. Those of us who could see that gay and bisexual Indian men were indeed contracting HIV in large numbers kept quiet about the trend.

But there was also a second, pivotal reason why we were spared the blame. As panic about AIDS continued to spread, it was another criminalised and reviled set of sexual outlaws who were made the scapegoats for it—women sex workers.

IN APRIL 1986, a few months before I returned to India from New York, I read reports in Indian newspapers about six sex workers detained in a Madras reformatory who had been diagnosed with HIV. This marked the first scientific confirmation that the virus was spreading between individuals who had contracted the virus within India, rather than abroad.

I was not surprised to learn that the epidemic had spread to within these borders. It was five years since the first known cases of AIDS had come to light in the United States, and two years since Asia’s first cases were confirmed, in Thailand. I thought with dread that India’s abysmal public health system, its largely illiterate population of 750 million, and its cultural prohibitions against discussing sexual matters would make it impossible to contain the epidemic, especially given the example of India’s scant progress in coping even with age-old infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and cholera.

By the time I began to research the lives of these six women many years later, there was only one about whom anything much was known—Selvi. Like many Indians, she used only her given name. No efforts to investigate the other five women turned up a traceable history, photographs, or even surviving friends and family. They had vanished without a record, their lives and histories obliterated by the fact that they were mere specks among the masses of India’s poor.

Only a little is known of Selvi’s early years, which ended with her imprisonment. She came from a destitute Tamil family of landless labourers, and was educated through class five. She had left her abusive husband, and was fending for her toddler son by working as a sex worker on the streets. Sometime in March 1986, this small, dark-complexioned woman, aged 23 or so, was arrested for prostitution in or near Madras.

The police took her to the Madras Vigilance Home, a government-run, women-only reformatory in the city’s Mylapore neighbourhood. Selvi should have been produced in a local court within a day or two. This being her first arrest, she should have been released after paying a fine of about fifty rupees. The whole saga, however harrowing, should have lasted no more than a week or so.

But the morning after Selvi’s arrest, a young medical researcher named S Nirmala drew a syringeful of her blood—and did the same with other sex workers rounded up the night before. None of the sex workers dared to question or refuse her, given both the trauma of imprisonment and the enormous chasms of class and caste that separated her from them.

The next day, Nirmala carried vials of their blood, along with that drawn from other sex workers over the previous two months, to the Christian Medical College in Vellore. That evening, she urgently called her senior collaborator in Madras, the microbiologist Suniti Solomon, to say that six of her samples had tested positive for HIV.

The six women who tested positive—including Selvi—were not taken to court, unlike the others arrested. No explanations were forthcoming. A day or two later, Solomon and Nirmala arrived at the reformatory to interview them. The director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research had asked Solomon to find out if these sex workers were having sex with foreigners or Indians, in order to learn if HIV was beginning to spread domestically. All six said that their clients were all Indians.

Only a handful of top officials in the government’s health system were informed about the results. The six blood samples were secretly flown to the United States for confirmatory testing at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, a process that took several weeks. Selvi and the other women were told nothing of this, and the reformatory authorities did not seek permission from the courts to keep them in custody. They simply remained imprisoned.

Selvi’s parents somehow tracked her to the reformatory from their home in Ulundurpettai, a nondescript town 50 kilometres away. Though they were allowed to meet her, the warden curtly told them that Selvi could not be released because she had a “blood infection” that required treatment. They did not argue. They were impoverished and illiterate, and the warden, who ruled this jail with its imposing buildings and high walls, embodied the unchallengeable power of the Indian government.

At the end of April, the National Institutes of Health informed the ICMR that all six women were definitely HIV-positive. On the morning of 29 April, India’s health minister, Mohsina Kidwai, announced the news in parliament. There was pandemonium in the vast hall of the Lok Sabha. Kidwai reassured her colleagues that officials were monitoring the situation closely. But press reports—which inaccurately suggested that the women were suffering from AIDS—fed a public frenzy.

The panic was most intense in Madras, after The Hindu ran a front-page article on 30 April reporting that AIDS cases had been traced to a vigilance home—the reformatory—in the city. The next day, it reported in another front-page article that the women “were under strict surveillance and follow-up action was being taken to see that the virus did not spread.”

Selvi and the other five women paid a price for the panic. They were immediately separated from others in custody, and held in a small, barred room some distance from the main building. Selvi later described it to a friend as being “like an isolated cell for the condemned.”

Food was pushed in through a small window. The women were forced to do everything in that small room—eat, sleep, go to the toilet, wash their clothes. Despite their anguish, they were given no counselling about this unknown and fearsome affliction they had been told they were suffering from.

Within weeks, the focus of the panic shifted to the scores of other sex workers and individuals across India being found to be HIV-positive. Selvi and her companions were entirely forgotten. Neither Indian nor international women’s groups, human rights organisations or the medical establishment, including Solomon and Nirmala, challenged their imprisonment or its terrible, punitive conditions. The state government continued to summarily imprison every sex worker found to be HIV-positive. By 1989, just the reformatory where Selvi was locked up held over two dozen HIV-positive sex workers.

A journalist who began a public-interest litigation challenging the detention of these women would later remember seeing Selvi for the first time. She recalled that Selvi “didn’t say a word. She just cried silently. And she was this sort of a child-woman, very young and innocent-looking, with this plump, round, child-like face. I noticed Selvi because there was so much anguish on her face. That’s what struck me, this anguish.” Not until July 1990, when the Madras High Court passed an order for the women’s release, did Selvi win freedom from those squalid cells.

In India, as elsewhere, the AIDS pandemic forced women sex workers squarely into the public eye, and onto political and bureaucratic agendas. The attention would have been a blessing had it led to measures to actually protect them against AIDS. Sex workers had always faced persecution, but now it intensified to an unprecedented scale. Unlike us gay men, they were easy to locate—in brothels or on particular street corners. They were impoverished. And they were “sexual” women, something that made them prey to a particular scorn and abuse in India, where misogyny operates at its worst against women regarded as sexually immoral. The trauma Tandavan and I faced at the police station was nothing compared to the ordeals that Dominic had to go through; and his suffering, in turn, paled in comparison to the calamities heaped upon Selvi and countless others like her.

Adapted from No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, tobe published by HarperCollins India in November this year.

Siddharth Dube is a contributing editor at The Caravan. His memoir, No One Else:
A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, will be published next month.