Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Leprosy : The shadow lingers

One of the hallmarks of a developing and progressive society is the degree to which it is inclusive – inclusive of minorities, marginalized and other vulnerable sections of society who may normally not expect to find a place under the sun. Such a place of equality is what the Indian constitution guarantees in Article 14(equality) and Article 15(no discrimination)

It is this provision that one takes shelter under to fight for one’s rights; whether it be gay activists, or those who are fighting discrimination against one’s HIV status. And yet, in the gargantuan labyrinths of the Indian states, discrimination is in built in to our laws itself; effectively legitimizing them.

Usually it is assumed that the law is ahead of times when it comes to social legislation for it is understood that while society has many obscurantist and divisive influences, law makers at least in theory are above such influences and will enact laws that are progressive and inclusive. That was how laws that made Sati illegal or raised the age of marriage got into the statute books ; not because society as such was ready for them but because legislators of the time thought beyond their times and into an equitable future.

So what is one to make of the recent Supreme Court ruling that those leprosy patients cannot contest a civic election or hold municipal office in Orissa state? The case was brought to court by two men who were elected to a civic body in Orissa in 2003, but were later disqualified as they had leprosy. The Orissa Municipal Act of 1950 bars people suffering from tuberculosis or leprosy from holding such posts. “The legislature in its wisdom has thought it fit to retain such provisions in the statute in order to eliminate the danger of the disease being transmitted to other people from the person affected,” Supreme Court judges CK Thakker and DK Jain said in their ruling,

In the colonial era, the central government passed the Lepers Act of 1898, which provided legal provision for forcible confinement of leprosy sufferers in India. A hundred and more years have passed by ; politically India is an independent state, has become a signatory to the UN resolution which says discrimination against leprosy patients must be ended. Medically, leprosy is detected early and thanks to a multi drug regime, cured early too. And yet a few years short of the second decade of the 21st century, piles of archaic legislation keep those who happened to have contracted leprosy at some point on the margins of society.

The Life Insurance Corporation Act of 1956, which specifies a higher premium to the leprosy-affected, is one such law. The Special Marriage Act, Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act 1939, The Hindu Marriage Act, 1956 or the India Divorce Act, 1869, all have provisions for divorce on the grounds of a partner suffering from incurable and virulent leprosy. Similarly, the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act 2000 says a child found to be affected by leprosy should be dealt with separately.

A leprosy patient cannot stand for local body or panchayat elections in states like Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.This prohibition extends to tuberculosis patients in Orissa’s Panchayati Raj Act. Further, if a member of local office contracts tuberculosis or leprosy during his/her tenure he/she may be declared ineligible for the job. While there are heaps of organizations fighting for the rights of those who are HIV positive, and there is pressure to constantly enact laws that are sensitive to some one who is HIV positive. There is a ringing silence when it comes to the rights of those who are being victimized for having once contracted a disease that is now completely curable.

Mahatma Gandhi, in his life time had made tending to leprosy patients and bandaging to their wounds as a personal initiative in his mission to create a society that was inclusive. Sixty years after his death, the work of fighting stigma and discrimination in alls spheres of course continues; but more pertinently in leprosy; the battle is even against an insensitive State and the laws it has kept on the books; not only sanctioning discrimination; but actually making it legal. And that feels worse !

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