Marital commitment means staying together in sickness and in health. But in India, if someone is diagnosed with leprosy, the spouse can seek a divorce on those grounds. An 1898 law going back to the British Raj days – when leprosy was incurable and those with the disease had to be segregated – allows divorce for this reason, along with 14 other outdated laws which discriminate against lepers.
With no prohibition against discrimination, people with leprosy are routinely fired, removed from buses and trains, and forced out of official buildings. Given how antiquated these laws are, it is time the government repealed them to make them conform to a more humane ethos that prevails these days.
The Leprosy Mission Trust India is currently lobbying the government to hurry up and outlaw the discrimination, and has launched an online petition. A repeal won't be a day too soon. It is the ultimate blow for a person to be both diagnosed with leprosy and then shunned by everyone in their lives.
At the leprosy hospital in New Delhi, which is run by the Trust, doctors say that patients only come to them when the disease is far advanced – virtually when their extremities are falling off – because they are scared of being recognized at the hospital. Leprosy has been curable since 1982, but it persists because people, fearing ostracism, fail to see a doctor.
All that India's discriminatory legislation does is to compound the irrational fears associated with this treatable disease. On this front, not much has changed since medieval times, when a leper wasn't allowed to come within six feet of any other human.
India declared that leprosy as a public health problem had been eliminated in 2005 – elimination is defined as less than 1 case per 10,000 people. But the fact remains that more than half of the new cases of leprosy each year are diagnosed in India – 126,913 out of a global figure of 215,656 according to WHO statistics for 2013.
At the leprosy hospital, a woman who has now been cured spoke of how her husband abandoned her the moment he saw the telltale white patches on her skin and the doctors confirmed leprosy. With the husband gone, her mother-in-law, unwilling and unable to support her, forced her on the streets to beg. Her children were denied admission to the local school.
The need to repeal the leprosy laws is urgent but there are also lots of other archaic and obsolete laws in India that date back more than 100 years, and should have been scrapped long ago. They range from a ban on publications that "tend to corrupt a young person" – which has been used by the police to arrest shopkeepers selling Bob Marley T-shirts on the grounds that they encourage youths to consume drugs – to a silly law that defines balloons and kites as "aircraft" requiring legal permission to fly.
Under India's archaic adultery laws, women cannot be prosecuted for adultery. Only a man can be an adulterer: The reason being the assumption is that the man is always the seducer and the married woman is simply a weak and passive victim of the ordeal. If a man can be held guilty of adultery, it is because he trespasses upon another married man's marital property. This law dates back to 1870 but is still, incredibly, in force.
In two years time the country will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence from Britain. One good way of marking the event might be to light a bonfire with these laws, once and for all.