Indian Views on population and birth control

The Margaret Sanger Papers
Last updated
Feb. 8, 2011, 10:40 a.m. (view history)

Question about whether women and men had different views on BC for population control or women's health.

[43] Jyotirmoyee Devi, an attendee at the 1935-36 AIWC where MS spoke, observed "foreign women" blamed India's population for its poverty., which Indians protested. Devi was a proponent of small families as a means of improving child care due to the limited resources available to middle class parents. Many Indians saw population control as a "conspiracy to reduce the races of India and accused the Imperial Government of promoting birth control in Indian in an indirect manner." Since 1911 Census commissioners had complained about India's increasing population; and while the French banned all birth control in their colonies, the British stand was "somewhat ambiguous. Except for occasional raids on shops selling books on family planning on charges of obscenity, the Government did not interfere in the birth control activities."

Talks about 1933 population reports made by Colonel Russell the Public Health Commissioner who found a fall in the death rate since 1918, and a population increase of 18 million between 1931-33. Indians were not all happy with his statistics, [44] nor those spread by the 1936 Indian Population Conference in Lucknow, which was "made alive by statistics and counter-statistics from both supporters and opponents of birth control." Radhakamal Mukherjee, an "eminent members of the Society for the Study of Family Hygiene," claimed that while the Indian population rose by 22% from 1911-34, food cultivation rose by only 6%, which led him to claim that there was a food shortage of 48.8 billion calories.  Professor P. J. Thomas, opposed their numbers saying that food production rose 29% while population only 13%. 

Tagore supported the women's reproductive health reasons for BC, but he was less clear about his stand on overpopulation. He thought that overpopulation was a cause of war and aggression, but did not get into discussion of the relations between India's surplus population, the government, and poverty.[45]  Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose spoke in favor of BC for population control, saying that once India is free, that was its first job to tackle. Debates over the micro effects of BC for the individual and family versus macro effects on society.  Periodicals Prabasi and Bichitra and Modern Review all opposed modern methods on "race degeneration" grounds, which showed a bit of "Hindi chauvinism" and fear that the middle classes would be overwhelmed.  Similar to the fears of supporters of white supremacy, who feared that the populations of "yellow and mixed race was increasing and that of the white race was falling." Europeans, seen by some as the most superior, were decreasing the fastest.  Belief that they were using BC and late marriage to bring down numbers. These opponents reminded women that they needed to maintain the race.  [46] Prabasi "reminded modern women that though they ridiculed those women who give birth to too many children, in actual practice the mother of many children is bestowed with great honor." A Hindu guru was supposed to have said that the "most glorious death for a Hindu woman is to die in the process of giving birth to as many children as possible.....Hearing this his devotees cheered and clapped. In the second story, a doctor advises a wealthy gentlemen not to risk having any more children as this would endanger his wife's life. The man replied that, he could remarry if the wife dies, but he is unable to do the cruel act of preventing the birth of his children." Says that these journals generally had a liberal attitude towards women, except for modern birth control methods. They argued that it damaged women's health, exposed them to diseases, also that it was unnatural, and supported only natural methods like safe period, coitus interruptus, and withdrawal.

[46] Those with a moral objection to BC would not accept the use of natural methods. Supporters of BC had to be careful not to be seen as immoral. Indian Medical Association, for example, had to revise their acceptance of modern methods, providing that the users had to be married. Ideology of Brahmacharya or moral restraint was a popular alternative to birth control, most famously supported by Gandhi [47] who at one point in his life was not opposed to "natural" methods, but later on he rejected everything except moral restraint. He met Edith How-Martyn and Sanger who failed to sway him, and his rigidity "made him immensely unpopular among the supporters of modern birth control methods." His theory was that women decide when to accept intercourse for procreation (otherwise a sin) and granted them the right to refuse to have sex with their husbands because they chose to be sexually passive. Critics said that it was an impractical method because until everyone was able to do it, there would be many accidents and unwanted children. Lajpat Rai claimed that "ordinary people simply cannot practice it."

Muslims accepted the Brahmacharya ideal as well. While they invited discussion about BC and the need to protect women's health, they found modern methods too difficult to accept. Torab Ali said they were a sin and advised that girls should only be married to the husbands of "sick and feeble wives" after they had become mature and attained moral restraint.

NeoMalthusians welcomed modern methods of birth control to control the population, but also focuses on reproductive health of women. The opponents of modern methods expected women to bear many children [48], while the more liberal opponents expected women to use moral restraint to limit their families. 

Nationalism was popular during the 1920s and 1930s, as Indian women were not only trying to become better wives and mothers, but also aspiring to be modern Indian women. BC was brought into the country by Anglo-Irish women like Margaret Cousins and Annie Besant--they formed the progressive organizations that would push for BC. Women's focus on birth control was on reproductive health and maternal and child welfare. Medical women investigated links between excessive childbirth and maternal health and mortality. Many of these women were educated, well off, wives and daughters of Indian royal families, officials, as well as professional women.  Opposing women charged them with being anti-mother and of encouraging immorality. They also criticized modern methods as tools which would allow women to be immoral without risk. Organizations like the AIWC clarified their support for BC by noting that they believed only in spacing births and restrictions only in cases where "conditions of health or poverty made it incumbent." It did not support "total birth control" or to limit births, more to regulate them.

In more feminist Indian journals, run by women, birth control was supported on a women's rights platform. Stree Dharma quoted Sanger, saying  women needed the freedom to choose when and whether to be a mother. They refused to suffer under the rule of men.