Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India

About this Episode

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, India played a pivotal role in global conversations about population and reproduction. In this talk about her new book, Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, Sreenivas demonstrates how colonial administrators, postcolonial development experts, nationalists, eugenicists, feminists, and family planners all aimed to reform reproduction to transform both individual bodies and the body politic. Across the political spectrum, people insisted that regulating reproduction was necessary and that limiting the population was essential to economic development. This talk investigates the often devastating implications of this logic, which demonized some women’s reproduction as the cause of national and planetary catastrophe.

To tell this story, Prof. Mytheli Sreenivas explores debates about marriage, family, and contraception. She also demonstrates how concerns about reproduction surfaced within a range of political questions about poverty and crises of subsistence, migration and claims of national sovereignty, normative heterosexuality and drives for economic development.

This podcast is brought to you by the Clio Society of the Ohio State History Department, in partnership with the Bexley Public Library and Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.

Cite this Site

Mytheli Sreenivas , "Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Nicholas Breyfogle:

Hello, and welcome to Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, brought to you by the history department, the Clio Society and the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University and by the Bexley Public Library. My name is Nick Breyfogle. I'm an associate professor of history and director of the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, and I'll be your host and moderator today. Thank you for joining us.

Beginning in the late 19th century, India, played a pivotal role in global conversations about population and reproduction. In this talk today about her new book Mytheli Sreenivas demonstrates how people across the political spectrum insisted that to regulate reproduction was necessary. And that limiting the population was essential to economic development, and to transforming both individual bodies and the body politic. The book investigates the often devastating implications of this logic, which demonize some women's reproduction, as the cause of national, and planetary catastrophe.

Let's take a moment to get to know our speaker. Mytheli Sreenivas is Associate Professor of History and of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State trained as a historian of modern South Asia. She teaches courses in South Asian and world history on transnational feminism, and on reproductive rights, health, and justice. She's the author of two books and multiple articles on South Asian women's history. And she serves as a board member of Women Have Options, Ohio's statewide abortion fund.

With that introduction. Let me lay out the plan. Professor Sreenivas we'll begin with her. And then she'll take your questions, we'll open things up for discussion. If you're interested in asking a question, please write it in the q and a function at the bottom of your screen at any time. And we'll do our best to answer as many questions as we can. Now without further ado, let me pass you over to Professor Sreenivas. She will take us on an exploration of reproductive politics and the making of modern India. Over to you Mytheli.

Mytheli Sreenivas:

Hi, everyone. Thanks so much to Professor Breyfogle for that gracious introduction, also to Clara Davison for your help in organizing this event and making it happen. Also I'm grateful to the history department's Cleo Society, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Bexley Public Library for co-sponsoring the event today. And most of all, many thanks to all of you who are making the time to come here today on what is at least in Columbus, Ohio, a beautiful Thursday afternoon. I really appreciate your taking the time to come and listen. So although this is a virtual event, it's still of course happening in a place, or in many places. And I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge the history of the place from which I speak, Columbus, Ohio. The Ohio State University occupies the ancestral and contemporary territories of the Shawnee Potawatomi Delaware Miami Peoria Seneca Wyandot Ojibwe and Cherokee peoples. As an employee of Ohio State, I want to honor the resiliency of these tribal nations and recognize the historical context that have and continue to affect the indigenous peoples of this land. So I'll just pause for a second and share my screen. So hopefully you can all see that, and as Nick said, I'm here to talk about my new book, Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, and I've put up my email and Twitter handle on the slide. And please feel free to ask questions in the chat during the event. But if questions occur to you later, I'm most happy to talk further so please do feel free to reach out.

So historians, one of our jobs, I think, is to tell stories and so I thought I would maybe start us off with one. And this is a story of something that happened on November 24, 1952, when hundreds of delegates and observers gathered at the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall in the Indian city of Bombay for a conference about birth control and family planning. I said that and I see that my slides are not moving forward. My apologies. I'm going to try this again. Okay, so there goes my narrative flow, but this is the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall in Bombay that I was talking about. It's a really beautiful building and there's a map showing you in India where the city of Bombay or Mumbai is. So they gathered in this hall and the swelling crowd soon exceeded the expectations of the meetings organizers, including Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, who was the president of the Family Planning Association of India. And Rama Rau, who was a veteran of the Indian feminist movement had agreed to host the conference at the request of Margaret Sanger, the American birth control activist. And here are the two of them talking together. But Rama Rau had warned Sanger that attendance at the conference might be low.

The Family Planning Association of India was a brand new organization, and she was unsure if there would be any interest in the conference. But that evening of November 24 put Rama Rau's fears to rest. The main auditorium was soon full to overflowing and the balcony was standing room only. The organizers hastened to get more chairs, but eventually they were forced to turn people away. The first speaker to address this packed and over overcrowded Hall was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. And that's her here. Kamaladevi was a veteran of the Indian nationalist struggle against the British and was a towering figure in the Indian feminist movement. She was also a longtime proponent of birth control. In her younger days she had spoken forthrightly about contraception as a necessary component of women's freedom from the patriarchy. And she wrote in 1939:

“Masculine-dominated society always stresses the importance of woman as a breeder. Woman freed from the penalty of undesired motherhood will deal a death blow to man’s vested interest in her. He can no more chain and enslave her through children.”

In other words, Kamaladevi believed that birth control could challenge women's oppression.

But on this day in November 1952, Kamaladevi was more reticent about contraception's anti-patriarchal possibilities. She merely welcomed the audience and introduced the evening's main speaker, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Radhakrishnan was a scholar of comparative religion and philosophy and had recently become India's first vice president. Unlike Kamaladevi, he rarely spoke in public about birth control, but his speech at the meeting was forthright. He said, “The poorer we are, the more ill-nourished we are. Sex is the only indoor sport open to us, and large families are produced. It is the poor people that produce large families and not the rich ones… it is essential for us to control increase of population.”

So India's vice president argued that reproduction was an economic problem, because the birth of too many children was perpetuating India's poverty. Radhakrishnan's speech was met with a standing ovation by his audience, and the business of the conference soon began. Several days later at the conclusion of the proceedings, the delegates reassembled and voted to create the International Planned Parenthood Federation, or IPPF group that would become one of the largest and most influential organizations in the fields of contraceptive advocacy, family planning and population control anywhere in the world.

The IPPF would help to set the terms of reproductive politics both in India and globally for the rest of the 20th century and beyond. So as you may know the IPPF still exists today and continues its work as an international umbrella organization with national affiliates. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which I think we're all familiar with, is an independent organization affiliated with the IPPF. I'm sharing the story of the Bombay conference with you, because it speaks to four arguments of my book, Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India.

First, although historians often focus on the US as a driving force, I argue that India was central to a global history around population reproduction and the idea of Planned Parenthood. In fact, the conference in Bombay was just one example of what I see is the importance of India shaping the global history and politics of reproduction in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Second, I understand this history within a longer chronology of reproductive politics. Historians often assume that population control was a mid-20th century story. But I argue that the Bombay conference and the ideas behind it, both of them Dhanvanthi Rama Rau and Margaret Sanger were the products of decades of historical change, whose roots are found in the history of the British Empire in India. So my book takes this long historical perspective. And I argue that reproductive politics across a century of history from the 1870s to the 1970s was critical to the making of modern India.   

Third, the history of reproduction is often told as a movement from subjection to freedom, whereby women gained greater control over their reproductive lives over time, and history improved for the better. But it’s not so simple. Centering India and lengthening the chronology reveals a far more complex history. So in a way, my book is doing, what a lot of historians do right, which is suggest that histories that appear simple and sort of as a trajectory towards improvement in progress are not always so. That it's more complicated. And for us as we see from the Bombay conference, there were at least two competing ideas about the meaning and purposes of birth control and Planned Parenthood. One was Kamaladevi's idea that birth control was a means of liberation. The other was Radhakrishnan's argument that it was primarily an economic question necessary for ending poverty and promoting development. And, and here's my spoiler alert rather Radhakrishnan's would eventually win out.

I show that reproduction became an economic question in the modern era. And this eventually gave rise to global movements for population control. How this happened and why it did is the central story of my book. When I started my research, I was motivated by an initial question. When and where in India's modern history did reproduction become a subject of politics? Obviously people have been reproducing for a long time. Right. There are long histories, cultures, folklore, and beliefs about appropriate reproductive practices in every community. But I was interested in something a little bit different. What were the moments when reproductive practices, that is practices around sexuality, childbearing, birth control, marriage, fertility, etc., became seen as a public problem? And how did they become subject to public, often state, and legal intervention? This is the kind of reproductive politics that I traced in the book. In uncovering this history, I found that reproduction became a public question, not in the context of a feminist movement, as many might assume. Early reproductive politics instead began as a response to a series of devastating famines that swept across colonial India during the late 19th century. And I think we're very used to sort of this association between feminism reproductive politics and birth control. So the story I'm going to tell, it might seem a little bit counterintuitive.

So I'm going to sort of step back into a little bit of the history of the 1870s to talk to you about how this happened. So famine. Right, famine, the context for the development of this new reproductive politics and famine was no stranger to India. Historians have found evidence. The famines occurring during the mobile era and earlier. However, the late 19th century famines were different in their scope and their scale. They affected huge geographic areas, and they caused tremendous mortality. For example, a famine, that gripped southern and parts of western India from 1876 to 1878 led to the loss of at least 5 million lives.

In retrospect, historians have shown that India's specific position within a British imperial economy was a root cause of this tragedy. Right. In other words, India's position as a colony and its impact on Indian peasants. However, British imperial administrators at the time, rarely look to their own administration as the cause of famine, right? They were reluctant essentially to blame themselves. Instead, they found a Malthusian and explanations for the tragedy around them.

In his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population the English political economist Thomas Malthus famously argues that human population growth would always outpace its means of subsistence. This was because human beings could reproduce more rapidly than they could grow more food from the land. Given this tragic imbalance Malthus argued human population would only be controlled in two ways. One was through positive checks that increased death rates, such as famine, war, or disease. And the other was through what Malthus called preventive checks, which reduced birth rates. For Malthus this meant abstinence or late marriage because he did not approve of birth control. British administrators decided that they were seeing a Maltusian “positive check” when they witnessed the massive and unprecedented famines of the late 19th century. Indian population was growing rapidly they argued and these large numbers of people could no longer be sustained by the land. They believed that famine and death were the inevitable outcomes.

We know now that this was empirically untrue. Indian population was not growing, but was actually stagnant between 1870 and 1920. Nevertheless, in colonial India Malthusian ideas became the official explanation for famine. And moreover, following Malthus, colonial administrators assumed that Indian reproductive practices were to blame for India’s supposed population problems.

So here's one example, from a person named Sir James Caird, who was a member of a British commission investigating the famine of 1876 to 1878. And he wrote, “the greatest difficulty with which the Indian statesman is confronted his overpopulation with constant increase. [India is] a country already full of people whose habits and religion promote increase without restraint.”

 Similarly, Louis Mallet the Under Secretary of State for India concluded that, “a people with such practices as prevail in India with regard to marriage must be miserable.” And then the language of the day here by “miserable” meaning “poor.” British observers who are more sympathetic towards Indians also agreed. This included the feminist and birth control activist Annie Besant, who proclaimed in 1878, that British that birth control was an unnecessary remedy for the famine in India. She wrote, “the law of population is an irrefragable truth and these people are starved to death according to natural law. Early marriages, large families, these are the premises; famine and disease,  these are the conclusions. In other words for Besant, poverty was caused by so called “over”-reproduction.

It was not actually only British administrators and observers who shared these Malthusian ideas. Many Indian social reformers also agreed. They tended to abandon the more explicitly racist elements of some British imperial arguments, but they embraced the idea that Indian reproduction was an economic question. To address the problem of poverty they argued Indians would need to change their practices of marriage and childbearing. The social reformer M.G. Ranade made exactly this point about the famine of 1876 to 1878. And he wrote, “Among the principal causes of the brutal ignorance and degraded poverty and pauperism of the people of India, must be reckoned the Hindu law and custom of marriage… a source of fearful diseases and plagues, and of more fearful famines.”

All of these 19th century men and women--Caird, Mallet, Besant, and Ranade--they shared a drive to connect marriage practices to famine and fertility to poverty. This is how they made reproduction into a public and political question, right, through linking it to sort of the public questions of the economy. So I want to think of this 19th century moment as a kind of first chapter in the history that I'm tracing here that will eventually take us back to that 1950’s conference and beyond. So if that's the first chapter. The second one for me sort of starts in the 1920s when two new developments help to shape the course of reproductive politics in India. One was the global rise of eugenics as a “scientific” or supposedly scientific framework for thinking about reproduction and the human species, and the second was the rise of nationalism, as a mass anti-colonial movement in India. Both eugenics and nationalism came together to prompt an Indian push for all kinds of reproductive regulation. From the reform of marriage practices to the campaign for birth control.

And as I said this year, this year of the 1920s and 30s is sort of a second chapter of the story I'm telling today. So let's start with eugenics. During the 1920s eugenics was understood as a means to manipulate natural selection within the human species. Eugenicists examined the heritability of traits and aimed for the planned conscious improvement of individual bodies, entire populations, and so-called races. So at its heart, eugenics was a reproductive project. It aimed to consciously control the reproduction of individuals, to affect the so-called improvement of the species. Of course, we know that eugenics always considered some people's lives is intrinsically more valuable than others. This was at the heart of racist and ablest eugenic sterilization laws that were first instituted in Indiana and 1907 and whose models were later adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany. The racist, anti-semitic and genocidal implications of eugenic ideas rightly led to the widespread condemnation of eugenics after World War Two. But I think what we need to remember, and as historical research tells us, in fact, during the 1920s and 1930s eugenics was actually an ideology of both the political left and the right. It was in a way that's hard for us to imagine today. It was widely accepted as a mainstream so called scientific framework, and India was no exception to this. Indian eugenicists argued that by intervening and reproduction, they could improve the health of the Indian “race.” I put that in quotes--always strengthen its citizens and counter the negative effects of imperial rule. During the 1920s eugenics as a kind of mainstream scientific framework in India met anti-colonial India nationalism as a dominant political ideology. This decade witnessed the remarkable growth of Indian nationalism as a mass movement, thousands and eventually millions of Indians joined the struggle against British rule. And at the same time, some of them began to imagine what an independent India free from colonial rule might look like. Important for our history, they began to recast reproductive politics as nationalist politics. Indian activist argued that by reforming reproductive practices, they could rebuild the Indian nation from the ground up. Reproductive reform would both prepare India for independence and ensure the new nation’s success on a world stage.

The feminist and nationalist Lakshmibai Rajwade already made exactly this point, when she called upon the Indian women's movement to endorse birth control. In her words, “If India is to take her place in the comity of nations she must produce men and women who will be worthy of that name. We must bring the science of eugenics into our practical lives.” And for Rajwade birth control was the only way to do this.

 Women like Rajwade ushered in a new reproductive politics in India during the 1920s and 30s. Indian feminists, eugenicists, nationalists, scientists, and others, all argued for reforms in the customs around marriage, pregnancy, childbearing, and infant care. And importantly, birth control. In fact, this is how contraception entered into the realm of public politics in India. It became part of a nationalist project to produce healthier mothers and stronger citizens. This idea became the dominant position of the Indian feminist movement in this period. And here's an example from Hansa Mehta, who was president of India's largest women's organization, the All India Women's Conference in 1946--on the eve of Indian independence. And this is the sort of longest quote, so you'll have to bear with me.

Mehta said, “Woman shall have a right to limit her family. It is the woman who has to suffer bearing children, looking after them and bringing them up in a civilized way. The right to decide the family should therefore belong to her. Woman should be conscious of this right which she must learn to exercise for her own good, for the good of the family and for the good of the country. India is over-populated and its population is going up while her resources are limited. Unless something is done to check this upward curve of the population, poverty, starvation, and all the evils that follow in their train will be our lot.”

So, she was making two points. One is that birth control is a woman's right echoing back to Dhanvanthi Rama Rau’s speech in Bombay.

 And second, the birth controls and national need to improve the population, that's an idea that's linked to eugenic thinking, and also control its growth, an idea linked to Malthusianism. The second rationale would become central to Indian reproductive politics, after independence. Of course, with the end of British colonialism in India, the need to address questions like poverty, hunger, poor health and unemployment was urgent. Two centuries of colonial rule had left India one of the poorest countries in the world, whose rates of maternal childhood and infant mortality were among the very worst among all nations globally. A massive famine in Bengal in eastern India in 1943 had resulted in at least 3 million deaths and made clear the terrible costs of the Empire to India. The Indian nationalist movement had come to power, but with the promise of reversing the centuries of economic decline and impoverishment during the British period. But at the same time, the new government under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was aware that the country's population had begun to increase. Unlike the late 19th century era of famines, there was now empirical evidence that India's population was growing at a rapid though still not unprecedented rate. Interestingly, it was Indian feminists who brought these two concerns together: the fears of Indian population growth and the dreams of ending Indian poverty. They argued that regulating reproduction could address both goals at once. Contraception could help to end the poverty by controlling the country's population. This was behind the energy animating the meeting of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Bombay in 1952 that I started us off with. It was also the logic behind the formation of the Family Planning Association of India, under Dhanvanthi Rama Rau. And it was behind Margaret Sanger’s hopes of making India central to a global campaign around population and birth control. Feminists were not the only ones making this case, but they did play an important role in bringing birth control into state policy in India.

This connection between reproduction in the state marks the third chapter. The third and last one in my story today. In its first five-year plan for economic development which began in 1952, the government announced that population can be achieved only by the reduction of the birth rate, to the extent necessary to stabilize population to a level consistent with the requirements of the national economy. This is sort of bureaucratic language here. But the point being that the country needs to control its births in order to meet its perceived economic needs. So the Indian government duly launched a program to reduce the birth rate through birth control education, access, and research. And this made India, the very first government anywhere in the world to launch a program of population control as part of its national or state policies. Of course, some people were able to use these programs to gain control over their own fertility and make their own reproductive choices. Following Dhanvanthi Rama Rau’s contraception may have played a role in some woman's resistance to reproductive control and patriarchal oppression.

But ultimately, this was not the purpose of the Indian government's birth control programs. Instead birth control became part of population control. It was not centered on promoting reproductive freedom. Instead, the great promise, the great seductiveness and appeal, the reason that people agreed or sort of followed along with some of these policies, was that it claimed to end poverty. Moreover, they claimed to end poverty, without challenging, any of the underlying economic any qualities that is, any qualities of caste, or gender, or land ownership, or class. So, this is this moment when of the two visions, put forward at the Bombay conference in 1952, Vice President Radhakrishnan’s economic argument begins to win out. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s insistence that birth control was a blow to the patriarchy was never part of the government program.

This neglect of contraception as a means of reproductive freedom, combined with the drive to make reproductive control part of macroeconomic policy, set the stage for top-down population control programs that began in India and the 1950s and grew to massive proportions by the 1960s. And I'll share with you just one example of how these programs worked and their effects. During the 1960s as you might know, there were growing fears in India and in the US, that the world was in the midst of a population explosion that produced a lot of graphics that look like this one. Americans saw India as the epicenter and the fuse of a global population bomb.

So here you can see, quite literally, population control is the scissors that's going to cut that fuse. In response, scientists looked for more effective means of contraception. The birth control pill had just come to market in the US, in 1960, but many scientists and population controllers worried that an individual woman who has to decide every single day whether or not to take a birth control pill would not effectively curb national birth rates. So the problem in the words of Alan Guttmacher, the president of the IPPF’s World Population Division was that, “our methods are largely birth control for the individual, not birth control for a nation.”

 So the drive to find a technological fix, right, to find this birth control for the nation was behind the research that created the intrauterine contraceptive device or IUD. And here's a picture of the Libby's Loop, an early IUD that was used in India. So the research for the Libby's Loop and other IUDs was funded by the Population Council, and American organization, in hopes of creating a reliable contraceptive that could be applied on a mass scale, and that did not depend on an individual woman's daily decision making. India seemed just the right place to test out this new birth control for a nation, and the Indian government was eager to participate with limited testing. The Indian government soon included the IUD and its population control program.

The government aimed for mass insertions at family planning camps where hundreds or even thousands of women would be treated daily. In the beginning this approach seemed to work. The country went from nearly zero insertions before March 1965 to 800,000 within the next year. But I think we, we have to then remember that the women who were targeted in these camps tended to be the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable members of their society. And the very poor conditions in the camps soon became apparent to these women who went or sometimes were coerced into, attending them. The IUD campaign initially depended on 1 million IUDs donated by the Population Council, but these arrived in India unsterilized with only one applicator for every 20 devices. Conditions and family planning camps made it very difficult to sterilize the IUDS properly. Medical personnel were poorly trained in insertion and removal of the device, and a limited number of doctors increased the pressure to perform insertions as rapidly as possible. Many women received little to no follow up care after an insertion and complaints of pain, excessive bleeding, or other complications were often ignored. As news of these problems began to spread IUDs fell rapidly out of favor and women refused in large numbers to be inserted with the device. The result was a dramatic decline in insertions after 1967 just two years after the program started.

So in many ways, India's experience with IUDs serves as a cautionary tale. It can tell us what happens when reproductive choice and health are so thoroughly completely pushed aside by an economic logic whose aim is to control population. The logic produced an IUD campaign, whose primary goal was a top-down approach to controlling fertility, which considered health and safety only secondarily, and sometimes not at all. This logic thoroughly defeated that other strand of the birth control movement, which I've been trying to follow along--the strand that understood contraception as facilitating reproductive autonomy and maybe even as a feminist or anti-patriarchal technology. In other words, women could have used the IUD to control their own fertility, but it instead became a mechanism to assert state control over women's bodies, and it justified this control by insisting reproduction was an economic question, even at the cost of women's lives.

So in this way, the IUD campaign tragically continued, a way of thinking about reproduction, population and the economy that we can trace all the way back to the late 19th century. Moving from this history into our contemporary world. It may seem that the era of population control has now ended. At least in some ways, as global population growth has slowed fears of a population bomb have receded.

Here's just a couple of recent headlines that came out from this summer. Indeed, in some countries in Europe and Asia the fear is now reversed and focuses on population decline. For instance, the 2020 census in the US revealed stagnating numbers. Meanwhile in India fertility rates have fallen to near replacement levels and there is no population explosion to be found. But we know from history, the fear of population growth and the reproductive politics and policies that follow from that fear. We're never about numbers alone. Population numbers were always understood within specific social and political context. This was true during the famines under British colonial rule, during the rise of eugenics and nationalism in the early 20th century, and during the drive for economic development after independence. And so it should not surprise us that declining population numbers do not actually spell an end to the logic of population control, nor does it signal an end to the logic that makes reproduction into an economic question, and that justifies reproductive regulation, as a means towards other goals. I was reminded of this a few months ago in July, when India's largest state released a new population legislation that looked very much like the old measures of population control.

The Uttar Pradesh Population Control, Stabilization and Welfare Bill combines carrot and stick measures to enforce a two-child norm on people on the grounds that top down control of reproduction is an essential component of economic development, and that is from the head of the government, with the British sort of making that argument. So in this way, the logic of population control certainly lives on in India and I can talk more about that in the Q&A if there's questions. But finally, both in India and globally, this history has also taken new life in contemporary debates about climate change. In 2016, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, put out a report calling for international affiliates to center climate in their birth control advocacy.

In their words, “Family planning is a critical, human rights based, and cost effective approach to climate change adaptation and resilience building.”

Consequently, they argue that limiting human population is a good way to limit human impact on the climate, and they call for contraception as a way to do this. So this perspective takes a vital and important need--that is the right to contraceptive access and reproductive health care—and it then connects that need to a vital and important global problem, the imperative to address climate change. For this reason, it might sound convincing. However, putting these two things together, I believe, echoes the logic of the 1960s’ population bomb, and its reproductive politics.

Perhaps unintentionally the IPPF logic makes reproduction responsible for a global crisis, and it justifies reproductive regulation as a means to solve that crisis. But at the same time if we step back and think about this a little more, turning population control into a measure to address the very real consequences of climate change tends to place the blame and responsibility for rising global temperatures on the reproductive practices of poor women, right, precisely those poor and marginalized women who are the least responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions. So at the very least, knowing this earlier history that I've been talking about today should prompt us to think a little more deeply about this logic and to ask some questions about it. And so I'd be happy to discuss that further in the Q&A itself. But I now suspect I probably met or exceeded my time so I'll wrap up here, and thank you so much for listening.

Nicholas Breyfogle:

Thank you so very much for that really fascinating and really thoughtful talk. We have a ton of questions that have come in. While you were talking, and if there are others who would like to ask questions, please please please don't hesitate to put them into the kind of Q & A function at the bottom of your zoom screen. But let me start with, we actually have three questions that are all kind of connected with kind of religion or diversity in one form or other. So let me ask all three, because I think they are kind of linked together. The one was, did India's diversity in terms of caste and religions, help or hurt the advancement of reproductive rights? Related to that, is the position of Hinduism or Islam similar to that of Catholicism about family planning? And a third question, which was, so where does the rapid sterilization of Muslims play into this? So these kinds of three questions about the kind of religious world in particular, but also I guess, more broadly with the question about casts but kind of diversity in that regard as well.

Mytheli Sreenivas:

Yeah, thank you, thank you for all of those questions which are wonderful. I'll answer the second one first, which is that, which was about Hinduism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam in comparison to Catholicism.

So the short answer is no, I mean of course in all sort of religious communities there's, you know, different views, divergent views and debates, but there's nothing comparable to, for example, the Catholic Church's stance on both contraception and abortion. And we can't find anything comparable I think either with Hindu or Islamic leaders. And so consequently, for the most part, this was sort of more of a bigger debate in the 1920s and 1930s when a global kind of birth control movement was emerging. And many Indians, like secular Indians, like to point out that there wasn't major religious objection, although I will add that there was and is a substantial Christian and Catholic minority in India, and that the Indian Catholic Church came out just like those sort of Catholic Churches overall in being really critical of birth control and, of course, abortion. I think the question about the first and third questions around caste and religion and the generalization I mean, I think the sort of a strand of debate about population and reproduction that I didn't discuss a lot in the talk, but that I discussed much more in the book has to do with what some historians call communal demography.  And communal in the Indian context refers to a sort of politicization of religion and kind of an assumption of a religious opposition between Hindu and Muslim communities.

And so part of the sort of politics around population in India since the 1930s has been claims that marginalized and oppressed communities--so this often includes lower caste and valid communities and it also includes Muslim communities--there's a claim that their reproduction is sort of propelling Indian overpopulation. We know that to be false. But nevertheless, it's a very, it's a narrative with a very long life. It got started in the 1930s with debates about sort of partition and the shape of Indian independence, and it continued along all the way through post-independence into the 1960s and 1970s. So one way to kind of demonize minority communities came to sort of suggest that well, it was their reproduction that was the problem. So the parallel here, right, is you know, if the British in the 19th century were saying you know what the problem with the quote unquote natives, is that they reproduced too much, some Indian elite sort of turned that on the support members of their community, both Muslim and Hindu lower caste, to say well actually, they're the ones who are reproducing too much. So we see a kind of echo of some of the colonial language even in the way that these communities were talking about.

Nicholas Breyfogle:

And we just have a couple of questions about, so China's one child policy, and its relationship to India. One of the people in our audiences has asked, what did the people or government of India think about the one child policy in China? And then a kind of related question about why India didn't implement something similar to the one child policy. It's more efficient or strict, especially since there's so much stigma around birth control.

Mytheli Sreenivas:

So I think, um, well, that's also a really good question. I think one part of it is that the Indian population control programs predated the Chinese ones. So, back when the Chinese government was still talking about sort of population as its great strength, and was sort of putting forward a critique of Malthusian ideas back in the 1950s, the Indian government was already well on its way. And the height of the Indian population control program in the 1960s, and through a period known as the emergency in the 1970s was all kind of before, just at the very early stages of the Chinese case. So I think that chronology is important because by the time that the Chinese government put their one child policy into place, India had already been experimenting for decades with attempts to lower fertility rates. Of course, the Chinese government was far more quote unquote successful in meeting those sort of targeted fertility rates than the Indian government ever was. That had to do I think with the sort of nature of policies that were put into place and the willingness of the government and ability to sort of enforce authoritarian policies often at great cost right to the, to the populate in particular. But I would say, you know, most recently, like I talked about, the sort of new population legislation that's been proposed and up which is India's largest state. There's been a lot of talk about you know that India has been pushing a sort of two child norm. And there's been a lot of talk about well maybe we should be pushing a one child norm. You know, sort of along the Chinese model with even more draconian policies that are even more curtailing of women's reproductive autonomy, so definitely that idea is out there. I'm close to the 1970s. When people know I was interested in knowing about the sterilization program of Indira Gandhi and then can send me as a result the view of birth control as an economic need. Yes, I think so. I mean I think I didn't talk about, or I didn't get to talk about the emergency in this talk, but in the book I really think about how often the emergency is seen as a kind of aberration, as like this two-year period. And by the way for folks who don't know the emergency under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was this two-year period, where as Prime Minister she suspended sort of the form of parliamentary democracy and a lot of political and civil liberties and really ramped up coercive population control strategies at the same time. So many people sort of see that emergency period as like this aberration within Indian history, but what I'm trying to show is that it's not at all an aberration. It is a more draconian set of policies than what preceded it, but it was very much only possible because the infrastructure and the ideas of population control were already there and they were already in place. And in response to that part of that question, it was very much a set of claims around controlling population in order to promote economic development and Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi who was sort of in charge of some of this was very open about saying that that was the case.

Nicholas Breyfogle:

We have a couple of questions about the feminist movement in India, related to two questions of reproductive rights and population control. So one asks, do you think that a rise in the feminist movement in India will be or has been the main factor that would encourage the use of birth control? And then also a question asking, how did India's feminist movement react to the population control measures of the 1960s and other points I suppose, too?

Mytheli Sreenivas:

Yeah, those are both really good questions, I think, to talk about the second one first. I think that the the Indian feminist movement has a kind of, I would argue a kind of troubling past in relation to population control. So it's certainly true that feminists in the 1960s spoke out or were among the first to speak out against some of the abuses that they were seeing in something like the IUD campaign. And I, and this is sort of a shout out and an acknowledgement to really the incredible feminist work that's gone on since then, in order to make those violations of women's reproductive autonomy kind of visible and to hold governments publicly accountable. So absolutely the Indian feminist movement now has been really key. But in the past, the 1950s, and in the early 1960s actually many Indian feminists, sort of the mainstream and affiliated with the nationalist Congress Party saw themselves as the primary vehicles whereby population control or reproductive control could be brought to the masses. They actually saw that as a kind of a feminist art. And one can understand why, right? There were certainly, there was certainly part of the story that I tried to show, was a real desire among these feminist groups to give women control over their own reproduction, but it was constantly coming up against this other I think more nefarious logic that was about, you know, controlling reproduction for economic development and, as that won out, some feminists sort of turned away from the whole campaigns. But others including the Family Planning Association of India. That kind of got the whole ball rolling and Bombay was really active through this whole period and participated in the program, of course sterilization for example, during the emergency. So, that's part of this kind of complex history, too. But asked for just briefly whether feminist movements have been important in women using birth control, I mean, you know, on one level it's hard to say but I do think that one of the things that we've learned from all of these decades of looking at these top down programs is that people make the choices that they want to make, and they're not usually because of government directives unless they're actually coerced. And so in that case I think that people had, you know, when they had access to contraception they made choices on whether to use it or not, based on their own sort of desires and needs and goals for their own families. So I wouldn't necessarily say that, for example, feminists in the 1950s and 60s had a big impact on those individual decisions, but certainly I think the rise of a feminist movement and since the 1980s a sort of new wave of feminism has sort of opened the doors for at least more conversations about these subjects in public.

Nicholas Breyfogle:

Oh, related to that we have a couple of questions kind of thinking about the ways in which, kind of, blame is placed upon the poor or marginalized women, are the ways in which these poor women often are losing control of their bodies in this whole process. And so one of them asks, please elaborate on the ways that women were coerced to attend IUD camps. Is there information on outcomes for women who received IUDs when there was only one tool for 20 IUDs more towards the present? Since most of the blame is put on poor and marginalized women, is there any information on any practices that they are still forced to do? We don't know about, so they just do it?

Mytheli Sreenivas:

So, I think, coercion is. I'll say this a million times now this is a complicated story, right, because there was, the programs were not explicitly coercive. In other words, there was no law that said a particular person had to get an IUD, but there were all kinds of ways in which people's context could become coercive. So for example, there were incentives that people would, that the government put forward in order to sort of, you know, encourage people to get an IUD. But that incentive, if you had plenty to eat, and a good income, a small cash incentive might not matter to you. But if you didn't, that quote unquote incentive could operate in a coercive fashion, right? If it became one way or potentially an only way that a person could sort of obtain, you know, their next meal or the food they needed or the cash they needed for other expenses. So the context of these camps could become coercive and we know from some evidence they were. It's interesting, like, you know, people who were involved in these programs, did not tend to document instances of coercion, right. They didn't want to implicate themselves. So you in the archives I found, sort of like, funny dancing around this issue, you know. Where like a police commissioner may write, you know, I strongly encouraged these women to go get an IUD or I would report them for having an illegal marriage, for instance, right. This is not necessarily widespread but clearly there were all kinds of coercive mechanisms within the society that people mobilized very quickly. As for outcomes, there has been some research done about, for example, you know, the numbers of people who got infections, etc., from it. I don't have all that data in front of me, but we do have better data for the more recent period when there have been cases for example of conditions where devices, were not sterilized or where other precautions were not taken that have led to the deaths of women, most recently a few years ago. So definitely those kinds of abuses still continue.

Nicholas Breyfogle:

I hate to cut you off. Such really interesting thoughts and commentary but I know we're coming towards the end of our time. I just want to say that if any of you are interested in learning more on the subject, please, we send you to Mytheli's new book. We'll just pop a little promo code, and the title of  the book into the chat if you're interested in going to find a copy. These will be there. You can find all of this and more. Let me just thank you all so very much for joining us today. I am extraordinarily grateful to Mytheli Sreenivas, for sharing your expertise with us today and her passion for history and her passion for this topic. Please join me in giving her a virtual round of applause. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I'd also like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences, especially Clara Davison, as well as the history department, the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching, the Clio Society and the Bexley Public Library for their sponsorship.

YouTube Video