Article by Ajoy Bose
Ajoy Bose is a veteran print journalist, television commentator and author who has written several books on politics, social movements and culture. His latest book Across the Universe: The Beatles in India inspired his debut as director of the award winning documentary The Beatles and India. He has also been involved over the past two decades in political advocacy and messaging on public health helping bring together various stakeholders to devise a common strategy.
Anjali Gopalan is fiercely dedicated to making life better for every living being that is in need. Over the past many decades she has progressed from helping migrants in the United States to playing a pioneering role in the fight against HIV/AIDS in India along with championing LGBT rights as well as being a leading crusader for animal rights. Indeed few social activists can match her range of activities.
After returning to Delhi three decades ago from New York where Anjali had worked with community based organisations to help South East Asian migrant communities get valid documents, she plunged into the emerging campaign in the country to fight HIV/AIDS that had cast its long shadow across the world at that time. In 1994 she opened the first HIV clinic in the Indian capital, Delhi, and started the Naz Foundation Trust geared to provide HIV prevention and care. Within six years she had pioneered India’s first holistic home cares for orphaned vulnerable HIV positive children and women training health professionals how to provide them with multi-faceted treatment and care.
As a strong advocate for the sexual health and rights of the then criminalised LGBT community which was hugely vulnerable to HIV, Anjali and her Naz Foundation spearheaded a historic legal battle against the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that deemed same sex relationships as a punishable offence. After fighting in courts for eight long years she and her collaborators won a momentous 2009 legal ruling by the Delhi High Court ending the widespread harassment and discrimination against innocent citizens because of their sexual orientation.
The intrepid activist is as much committed to animal rights as those of humans. Passionate about the well being of animals since she has been a child Anjali has increasingly turned her amazing organisational ability and activist energy to start a sanctuary for injured and abandoned animals in desperate need for care and shelter. The sanctuary on the outskirts of Delhi started a decade ago to look after stray dogs (India has the largest street dog population in the world) has now grown to be the home of a mind boggling variety of animals that include rescued goats, horses from circuses, sick cows, bulls, buffaloes, abused mules and donkeys, injured peacocks, even emus.
Her remarkable range of achievements has received widespread recognition and plaudits in India and abroad. Named a decade ago by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential people in the world Anjali received the Commonwealth Award in 2001, the Woman Achiever Award from the Government of India in 2007 and in 2013 France’s highest award Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.
Conversations with Anjali over the years have always yielded not just her passion to care for the suffering and marginalised but also a keen holistic perspective on the state of public health care and civil rights. In an interview several years ago while expounding on the lessons learnt from the remarkable strides made in controlling HIV/AIDS by India she had pointed out that this was the first time in the country people affected by a disease had raised their voices so strongly, civil rights organisations had got deeply involved and there was huge international pressure. But she regretted that there was no such campaign to fight other lethal diseases like cancer and diabetes.
She had told me “Today if someone comes to me and says they have HIV I am far more relieved than if someone came and told me that they have cancer.” At the same time she was worried then that having turned the corner on HIV/AIDS there were already signs that the campaign against it had lost momentum that could have implications for the future.
When I spoke to her this month Anjali lamented that her fears had come true.”HIV/AIDS is no longer the flavour of the month! Donors have pulled out, the government is not taking it very seriously and even in the capital Delhi you will not a single poster or advertisement on HIV prevention or medication,” she remarked adding “Yet we who are on the ground still providing care and services see a definite rise in new cases”.
Strongly advocating a return to the old policy of the government collaborating with civil society on improving public health particularly major diseases Anjali asserted “We just need to go back to the old policy when this partnership is what worked so well in checking HIV/AIDs”. She regretted that instead of that policy of government involving the affected community and NGOs working at a grassroots level with public care that had worked so well with battling HIV/AIDS being widened to include other diseases as well exactly the reverse has happened.
As for the fight for human rights involving the LGBT community, Anjali clearly feels vindicated that her crusade to decriminalise them has succeeded but is distressed that it has not led to more rights over the past decade. Apart from a few concessions to the transgender community the government has taken no steps to remove the discrimination against same sex relationships denying them rights available to other citizens on marriage and property. She pointed out that the women are most affected by this since while men are allowed to lead private lives with other men as long as they have a token marriage with a woman, lesbians are constantly harassed for what is seen as being a serious threat to the deeply patriarchal social milieu in India.
Interestingly, in the legal case pleading for decriminalising same sex relationships the Naz Foundation had pointed out that the argument that these went against nature was invalid since this had been scientifically observed in several hundred living species apart from human beings. Anjali’s current campaign advocating the rights highlights the need to take care of other living beings with same compassion as that for humans.
“The Covid pandemic and the devastation it has caused across the world only underlines the importance of being aware of other species that share the planet with human beings and that they too have rights,” the activist declared.