Restor­ing dig­nity

The time has come to end the stigma and dis­crim­i­na­tion against the lep­rosy-af­fected

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL -

It has long been a blot on In­dian society that while lep­rosy is com­pletely cur­able, there lingers a so­cial stigma at­tached to it. Even more shock­ing is that colo­nial laws that pre­date lep­rosy erad­i­ca­tion pro­grammes and med­i­cal ad­vance­ments re­main on the statute book. These were un­con­scionably dis­crim­i­na­tory from the be­gin­ning, but even in in­de­pen­dent In­dia, where the law has been an in­stru­ment for so­cial change, the process of re­mov­ing them has been baf­flingly slow. The Lepers Act of 1898 was re­pealed only two years ago. It is time for con­certed ac­tion to end the en­trenched dis­crim­i­na­tion in law and society against those af­flicted by it. Two re­cent de­vel­op­ments hold out hope. One was the in­tro­duc­tion of a Bill in Par­lia­ment to re­move lep­rosy as a ground for seek­ing di­vorce or le­gal sep­a­ra­tion from one’s spouse, and the other was the Supreme Court ask­ing the Cen­tre whether it would bring in a pos­i­tive law con­fer­ring rights and ben­e­fits on per­sons with lep­rosy and deem­ing as re­pealed all Acts and rules that per­pet­u­ated the stigma associated with it. The Per­sonal Laws (Amend­ment) Bill, 2018, is only a small step. An af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion law that recog­nises the rights of those af­fected and pro­motes their so­cial in­clu­sion will serve a larger pur­pose. It may mark the be­gin­ning of the end to the cul­ture of os­traci­sa­tion that most of them face and help re­move mis­con­cep­tions about the dis­ease and dis­pel the be­lief that phys­i­cal seg­re­ga­tion of pa­tients is nec­es­sary. It is sad that it took so long to get such pro­pos­als on the leg­isla­tive agenda. Since last year, the Supreme Court has been hear­ing a writ pe­ti­tion by the Vidhi Cen­tre for Le­gal Pol­icy seek­ing to up­hold the fun­da­men­tal rights of peo­ple with lep­rosy and the re­peal of dis­crim­i­na­tory laws against them. The court has been ap­proach­ing the is­sue with sen­si­tiv­ity and is seek­ing to find le­gal means to en­sure a life of dig­nity for them. The 256th Re­port of the Law Com­mis­sion came up with a num­ber of sugges­tions, in­clud­ing the re­peal of dis­crim­i­na­tory le­gal pro­vi­sions. It listed for abo­li­tion per­sonal laws and Acts on beg­gary. The re­port cited the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly res­o­lu­tion of 2010 on the elim­i­na­tion of dis­crim­i­na­tion against per­sons with lep­rosy. The res­o­lu­tion sought the abo­li­tion of laws, rules, reg­u­la­tions, cus­toms and prac­tices that amounted to dis­crim­i­na­tion, and wanted coun­tries to pro­mote the un­der­stand­ing that lep­rosy is not eas­ily com­mu­ni­ca­ble and is cur­able. The cam­paign to end dis­crim­i­na­tion against those af­flicted, and com­bat­ing the stigma associated with it, is decades old. While gov­ern­ments may have to han­dle the leg­isla­tive part, society has an even larger role to play. It is pos­si­ble to end dis­crim­i­na­tion by law, but stigma tends to sur­vive re­form and may re­quire more than le­gal ef­forts to elim­i­nate.

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