NACO Report 2017 estimates over 2.14 million people with HIV live in India. As elections sweep across the country and political engines get at each others’ throats – this is a vote bank easily ignored.
Maharashtra, Telangana, UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal together constitute 75% population of people with HIV in India. Not coincidentally, these states also happen to be the largest Lok Sabha constituencies. Sigh! If only political parties raised their standards to be more inclusive of the minorities, side-tracked on the basis of sexuality, health, caste, identity, sectarianism, and more.
Ever since I came out in the open through my articles on Youth Ki Awaaz and Safe Masti about living with HIV, I have had the good fortune of talking to, counselling and being there for several others. Every month, I get to talk to at least a handful of people who have recently found out about their own HIV statuses. They are scared, have no one to go to, and no idea where to go – I relive my own journey of accepting my HIV status every time I help them accept theirs.
From people who don’t use WhatsApp or email, to people who I have had to converse with using Google Translate because I do not speak/read Kannada, Telugu, Tamil or Bengali, to people who are married and are scared for the lives of their family and children, to highly educated designers, accountants, bankers, hoteliers, shop-owners, college students – I have been able to hear their fears and understand the inherent hatred that comes with the first realisation that HIV has permanently changed your life.
The rich diversity of people I have been able to speak to, has been painfully humbling. People from every and any walk of life you could think of, no matter how educated or uneducated, rich or poor, hailing from whichever region of India – have felt connected to each other through me – not because of their political inclinations, but because of suffering, pain and the stigma against them. Each one unique, each one the same.
I do not speak only for myself, here. I speak for the people I meet in waiting areas of Safdarjung Hospital ART Center, the newly relocated and centrally located AIDS Health Foundation, the Monga Clinic in Galleria (Gurugram), Medanta’s Department of Virology’s Specialist Dr. Kataria’s office, and Virology Department of Microbiology in AIIMS – sullen faces with facial wasting smile at me knowingly; excessively lean arms on a large, thick frame wave a quiet hello of recognition; downcast, dark-circled eyes glance sidewards at me, as we count the months that passed since we visited the clinic at the same time. A rickshaw puller sits beside me on a wooden chair waiting with empty bottles of Viraday in a pouch asking me if I, too, got HIV from a sex worker at GB road, two friends stand across the hall with sling bags hung loose on their bony shoulders whispering of MD, Heroin, Chitta, and some other drugs I cannot quite catch, a 5’8” heavy-built eunuch decked in a sari and traditional South-Indian jewellery converses loudly with a counsellor about the incorrect count of ART rationed to her, a nervous 21-year-old sits across me on the couch talking to someone in pseudo-American DPS-English, a married couple stands at the reception desk with their young son, failing to remember their file-numbers.
Each of these chance ‘un-encounters’ makes a profound impression in our collective sub-conscience – we know we aren’t alone in battling the cruelties of life. We are connected by the tragedy of HIV and its many self-deprecating, debilitating, side-effect-heavy experiences. We all have something common – a drug combination that is supplied mostly by Mylan and CIPLA. Even though each of our lives is vastly different, this Virus with many different strands of rapid mutations reminds us of what we have in common aside from the virus itself – our humanity.
Here is a small lesson for the Gandhis, Mayawatis, Jayalalithas, the Patels, and the Rajputs who uphold a divided regional-identity above collective global-Indian selfhood. Leadership should talk about how individual-insufficiencies can combine into a collective abundance. Remembering that, while we don’t have enough individually, we have more than needed collectively. When we focus on completing, instead of competing with each other – we are moving forward together as a people.
This is why I believe HIV is a greater equaliser than the current-day sectarian-democracy. While political parties divide us to carve a vote bank out of us, HIV connects the people I meet at medical centres in this common shared experience of dealing with HIV – the discrimination, the fear of being discovered, and the concern for medication, and lifelong health.
HIV enables my fellow HIV + countrymen and I to set aside our differences of caste, religion, regionality, political views, socio-economic status. It enables us to see ourselves as brothers and sisters. It fosters dialogue between people who hold differing views, beliefs and experiences of the world – encouraging us to share, to talk and to listen to each other’s stories in solidarity.
My belief in the principals of democracy have been strengthened, since I became HIV positive. My belief in Indian politics remains undecided, though, partly because of polarised conflicts between groups of people. I belong to a group of people, too, the People Living with HIV (PLHIV) – and citizens of the world’s largest Democracy.
Remember to vote, and hope, for better leaders to emerge.