A bizarre practice of wrapping corpses in polythene bags and burying people who have died of HIV/AIDS in the Christian majority northeastern Indian state of Mizoram has outraged people living with the virus.
"It is indeed shocking to find people in some parts of the state packing the dead body of a person who has died of HIV/AIDS with polythene sheets or bags during burials," Sawmtea, president of the Mizoram People Living with HIV/AIDS Society, told IANS.
With a little under one million people and bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh, Mizoram is one of the high risk states with an estimated 1,639 people declared HIV-positive and another 167 suffering from various AIDS-related illnesses.
"Ignorance is the main reason for some people reacting bizarrely thinking someone might contract the virus from the burial ground," Sawmtea, who has been living with HIV for the last seven years, said.
Authorities in Mizoram, India's second highest literate state with 88.49 percent literacy rate, denied such a practice was prevalent now.
"There were some reports in the past, but now no such things are taking place here with the level of awareness about HIV/AIDS increasing," said K. Ropari, head of the Mizoram AIDS Control Society.
But many people living with the virus and anti-AIDS campaigners in the region says such practices were still on in the Mizo tribal society.
"Such is the reaction that that when a person dies of HIV/AIDS, we invariably find attendance of the locals in the cemeteries very less compared to a person who died of some other ailments," Sawmtea said.
The influential church, a majority of the Christians in Mizoram are Presbyterians, says it would take up steps to prevent showing disregard to a dead man just because he passed away after contracting HIV/AIDS.
"The church is actively involved in spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS. I have heard people burying a dead person packed in polythene bags although I have never seen it myself," Reverend Rosiam, senior executive secretary of the Mizoram Presbyterian Synod, told IANS.
"I promise to take steps if at all such things are still happening."
People living with the virus say stigmatisation has prevented them from leading a life with dignity.
"HIV is much harder to contract than hepatitis B although such victims were given normal burials," Vanlalmuan, president of the Positive Network of Mizoram, said.
Sharing of needles by intravenous drug users and people having multiple sex partners are reasons attributed for the alarming rise in HIV cases.
"The HIV scenario in Mizoram can be best described as an epidemic in transition with the opportunities for effective containment that existed in the turn of the millennium are now showing signs of being lost," a recent report published by UNAIDS said.
The plight of HIV infected people has become all the more serious with some local vigilante groups taking law into their hands to punish drug addicts and traffickers leading to at least half-a-dozen deaths in the past one year.
"People here have failed to understand the problem of HIV/AIDS and have been equating those living with the virus as being drug addicts and punishing them in public," said a HIV-positive youth, who wished not to be named.