The collaboration between a community based group CoNE (Community Network for Empowerment) and the Manipur State Legal Services Authority to render free legal aid service for marginalized communities affected by or vulnerable to HIV and AIDS is a positive step. Often certain communities like sex workers, drug users, transgenders and people, infected and affected by HIV and AIDS not only face stigma and discrimination but are also prone to have their fundamental rights violated. There have been numerous cases where people belonging to the aforementioned communities have been thrown out of their jobs and their children turned back from schools, where people have had to leave their jobs or widows turned out of their marital homes once their husbands died. Fortunately, such cases are no longer prevalent as compared to the situation in the 90’s and later on owing partly to the lack of a growing awareness about HIV and AIDS but mostly because of the steps being taken by various grass roots NGOs and activists working in the sector who engaged with the legal and constitutional frameworks of the country to make people belonging to marginalized communities to be recognized first as citizens of the country and hence, equal before the eyes of the law. The widespread global alarm and fear of HIV and AIDS in its initial years would slowly give way to intervention programs to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic with no mention of the word ‘rights’ till the year 1995 when Dr Jonathan M Mann, former director of the World Health Organization`s Global Program on AIDS gave a call for the centrality of human rights in addressing the HIV epidemic. Notwithstanding the call, there have been many instances where HIV and AIDS have become the cornerstone of stigma and discrimination and the fundamental rights being denied in many countries including India and Manipur.
The country’s first legal case involving the rights of a person with relation to HIV took place in the late 80’s when a Goan resident was found HIV positive following testing on his blood that he had donated to a hospital. The HIV test was performed without his knowledge or consent, and the results were revealed not to him, but to the local police leading to his arrest and confinement in an unused TB sanatorium. At that point, this action was as per an amendment to the Goa, Daman and Diu Public Health Act that authorized the State to mandatorily test any person for HIV and isolate them if they tested HIV-positive. But the man’s mother filed a writ petition arguing that the provisions of the Act violated her son’s fundamental rights on various counts following which, the policy of isolation was not ideal but practical since the interest of public health supersedes an individual’s rights. More interesting was the debate and discussion in the public domain where increasingly, the rights of the general population of people to be informed if someone was HIV positive was held more important than the right of the individual to have his confidentiality protected and his consent taken before being tested for HIV.
But from this case till date, there has been a legal awakening to the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and those who may be at risk. The graph of awareness and sensitivity can be seen from the fact that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was overturned following a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court seeking legalization of same sex sexual behavior between consenting adults. Incidentally, the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Manipur in 1998 was based on an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) study that took the blood samples of drug users who were in jail. The samples were collected without informed consent and the results of the test published without any counseling to those being found to be HIV positive, thereby violating the rights of the persons concerned. However, no legal action was taken with regard to the manner in which the HIV test was being carried out. In the backdrop of cases of stigma and discrimination taking place off and on and instances of rights violations happening with certain communities like drug users, sex workers in transgenders in the state, there have been sporadic incidences where a few legal cases have been taken up. However, there is still much hesitation within the various constituents of the marginalized community to seek legal recourse when they face violation of the rights that are due to them. Hopefully, the launch of the free legal aid service would also be supplemented with raising legal awareness starting with informing certain ‘civil society groups’ which go about seizing drug users and naming them in their press releases.