General chronology of birth control activism in India

The Margaret Sanger Papers
Last updated
Feb. 10, 2011, 9:31 a.m. (view history)

In 1951 Sanger says that India is a country "clamoring for materials and educational supplies" (10/8/1951). We need to trace Indian birth control movement to get a sense of where it fits in. This will likely be used in the chapter openings for the volume as well as in specific notes.

[26] Ahluwalia notes that the rise of population problem theory actually started before there was demographic evidence to support it. The 1871 was the first census taken of India, but it was not until 1911 that they had representation across all states. So the 1921 census showed a decline in population due to influenza epidemics, so it was not until 1931 that there was solid evidence of population increase (10.6%). She finds it interesting that the "'population explosion' script was being written in India well before the demographic 'facts' were available to support such a thesis."

[26] Ahluwalia breaks the pre-independence into two parts, 1877-1900, dominated by male middle class activists, usually intellectuals or academics, who were worried about population. They came from a Malthusian approach, that there were too many people to feed with the resources that India had. These early activists made connections with Western neo-Malthusians and eugenicists, and while they made use of Malthusian theory, they did pitch it slightly different because of their colonial status. Early proponents in South included: Murugesa Mudaliar (Madras); [27] V.V. Naidu; Muthiah Naidu; D.K. Banerjee; Dewan Rangacharlu (Mysore). In North, mostly Swami Rama Tirtha, who held that until the population problem was solved they would not be able to advance as a nation. There is not a lot of materials documenting this period, and while she believes they were influenced by the British and American, documenting is hard. Says that in the beginning the emphasis was on documenting the problems of unrestrained population growth, how it hampered economic growth, especially in the situation where the country was under colonial power. Population growth was no longer seen as a positive step towards a more powerful nation. Ahluwalia says that it was left to BC advocates to link the demographic issue with a practical method to solve it.

[28] Later phase is 1910-1947, where she claims that the BC movement entered India and began "its oppressive trajectory." There was a bit of a lull between periods, leagues like the Hindu Malthusian League in Madras faded out and was revived in the 1930s. These birth control activists tied contraception to the nationalist imaginings, but also opened the door for interest in and control over the sexual practices of couples in and outside marriage. Sex and procreation became a topic fit for public debate and rational management. Prominent advocates were still mostly male, middle-class and upper caste. Gopaljee Ahluwalia; AP Pillay, RD Karve, NS Phadke,  PK Wattal, and Radhakamal Mukherjee. There were difference between their ideas.

Ahluwalia, biology prof. at Ramjas College, established the Indian Eugenics Society (Lahore and Simla) in 1921. He borrowed from Galton but introduced elements of moral and spiritual components as important in programs to improve the race. He also emphasized [28] that any program needed to have "regard for the Indian traditions and present conditions." [29] He moved to Delhi in 1922, established the Indian Birth Control Society. Corresponded with Stopes, and joined the "international birth control circuit" giving papers at the 1922 and 1925 International neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conferences in London and New York. In 1923 he was published in BCR.

[29] Bombay Eugenics Society formed in 1929, among its goal was to form contraceptive clinics for the married poor. Sholapur Eugenics Society (1929-1934) was directed by Pillay, who was in contact with Eugenics Society in London. Karve, a mathematician, was a social reformer who founded a woman's university in Bombay. Published a BC pamphlet as early as 1921, established a clinic in the Girgaum section of Bombay the same year--may have been first in Asia, was first in India Karve lost his job at university for his BC beliefs and was prosecuted by Colonial authorities for publishing obscene literature. Phadke, an upper-caste Brahmin from Maharashtra wrote Sex Problems in India (1927) which Sanger wrote a foreword to. Wattal, was an upper caste Kashmiri [30], a statistician, wrote Population Problem in India: A Case Study (1916) which relied on census records. Muhkerjee was an economist who convened the First Indian Population Conference (1936) and published the papers as Population Problem in India, which contained essays by leading economists, mostly saw the issue in terms of large forces, Malthusian law of diminishing returns meant that the overpopulated areas would be stripped of resources and water. "'Population' was seen as representing faceless numbers who constituted a 'problem' that needed to be 'combatted' and 'attacked.'" They looked at the issue from a lot of angles, but not from women's health or challenge to the existing class and social structure.  Not a "people-friendly" way of looking at things, instead the socially disadvantaged were blamed for mindless procreation.

[35] Manna claims that little attention has been paid to bc work prior to 1960s, and especially the work done by women.  Seeks to conduct a major survey of birth control debates in India 1920-1936.  Debates made by prominent government, religious, political, medical and women's movement leaders, both for and against BC. The basic issues in the debate were "fear of the Malthusian consequence of over-population" and the "aspiration of women to free themselves from the pain, hazard and bondage associated with uncontrolled pregnancies and childbirth."

[36] 19th Century: In India, as in the U.S. and England, BC activists shared both concerns, and some sympathetic men joined them. Liberal Indian men started paying attention to nutrition and care of pregnant and new mothers and efforts to improve hygiene. Women's magazines discussed nutrition and mother and child health care. The high and rising infant and maternal mortality rates was a concern to all, and they were attracted to the reproductive health arguments for birth control. The main debate centered on methods--whether artificial means of birth control were acceptable. [37]There was a fear that modern methods would damage the health of those who used them. Moral argument that birth control could be used by the immoral to "satisfy sex lust without the fear of pregnancy." When it came to population control, there were disagreements about whether "India was at all on the way to the Malthusian equilibrium or was it simply propaganda by the Imperial Government to hide its incapacity behind the veil of overpopulation." They feared that the expansion of races would be threatened, questioning whether the population of all classes or only that of the "'culturally inferior poor people.'"  [38] There is a focus on Bengal in the article because of the author's familiarity.

Opponents [37] They focused on "question of morality and race degeneration." [39] "Society tries to compensate women by attaching high social prestige to motherhood. Contraception makes motherhood optional only in a biological sense. It does not alter the social conditions and compulsions under which women give birth." Indian mothers were glorified for having many children. This made it harder for some of them to accept birth control, because it struck at the root of what they thought their role in society was. [41] AIWC "showed that elderly and unmarried women, who had either passed their reproductive age or never experienced the pain, opposed birth control." Margaret Cousins reported a young married woman who claimed that "no matter how the elders and unmarried women disapprove, we younger women are going to have birth control." (cites Cousins, "Impressions of the Women's Conference in Calcutta," 1934).

Supporters [37] focused on "causes such as women's and children's health, improvements of the quality of children, and a reduction of the economic burden on the family and the economy." Women stressed the protection of health more than they did population control. "In another 15-20 years the issue of reproductive health was sidetracked and the control of population was considered a must, in the interest of the social economy." Nehru argued that without population control they would not be able to meet their economic development goals. [More here on the post 1967 population control planning that we don't need for volume.]

[39] Claims that when women are to regulate their fertility for the good of society, they are giving over ownership of their children to the state in a sense. They still have to face the risks and dangers of pregancy, and risk of death. "It is, thus, only rational to presume that Indian women whole-heartedly welcomed something like modern birth control methods which gave them the option to avoid reproductive hazards whenever they desired."

[39] Mannu notes that women contemplating birth control methods need to weigh the benefits against the loss in social prestige. The amount of information she has access to, the support or lack of it from her family and peer groups also play into the decision. [40] Education is believed to predispose women towards birth control, that "they can more easily adopt and effectively use modern birth control methods." Educated women are also more likely to be competitive for jobs.  Mannu argues that it does not mean that because a woman is ill educated means that she will resist birth control, doesn't mean that she can't decide that she wants fewer children.

1920s [40] "In the early 1920s, the availability of contraceptive facilities was limited. The Society for the Study and Promotion of Family Hygiene, with financial help from the American Birth Control League, opened birth control clinics in Bombay, then in Madras, Calcutta, Lucknow and other cities. Since most of these clinics were located in the towns, uneducated rural women hardly had any access to the knowledge and services available in them." Women's Free Welfare Clinic was attended by cotton mill workers;the lack of formal education did not hamper them in their access, even as educated women in India were hesitant.

[41] Urban middle class could afford devices and purchased them at shops, "Young married women from the middle class were the most enthusiastic acceptors both for reasons of economy and health." At this time there were few educational or employment opportunities for these women because of the social customs, and the lack of "respectable jobs."

1930s [41] The All India Women's Conferences discussed BC since 1930. Sanger's experiences confirm the interest of ordinary Indian women in birth control. At a meeting of mothers organized but he local Health Office, the health officer mentioned that the women would be too shy to discuss it with her because "these women have been brought up to the duty of having children and are so shy and modest that they would not listen to anything on birth control." Sanger recalled asking one mother if she wished to postpone having children until the others were healthy, and all the women jumped up saying "I do! We do! Has this lady something like that? That's what we want." (Cites, MS Auto, 480-81).

Debate was predominately between middle and upper class women. The AIWC and the Women's Indian Association (WIC) pushed for BC and represented "the elites and educated middle class women." Their meetings were held in major cities and they were reported in the press and radio. Says that even if information reached the rural poor, the services didn't. Says this is to counter the argument that "large families sizes in traditional families is the result of high demand for low cost children." Even if having children did not cost as much to rural poor as it did to urban poor, it took a cost in women's health and there was an unmet demand for contraceptives.