Dhanvanthi Rama Rau - basic bio

The Margaret Sanger Papers
Last updated
April 18, 2011, 12:17 p.m. (view history)

Lady Dhanvanthi Handoo Rama Rau (1883-1987), president of the Indian FPA and a prominent woman’s activist, was organizing the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood at the behest of the ICPP. Rama Rau had discussed an overall scheme for the conference with Abraham Stone when he was in India in November and December of 1951. (New York Times, July 20, 1987; Santa Barbara News-Press, Oct. 27, 1953; Dhanvanthi Rama Rau to Ellen Watumull, Jan. 24, 1952 [MSM S36:412].) [ch]

[89] DRR took over as president of the AIWC when the previous two presidents were arrested (Lakshmi Pandit and Urmila Mehta).  “As wife of a senior Indian Civil Service officer, she could take political action resulting in jail, although her sympathies were clear. [102] Says that RR and Kamaladevi convinced her to take money for working for AIWC because of the principle; had to be all right for women to work for money and not lose status. Says she [103] knew RR since she was 14.       

[233] DRR’s back trouble led her to send Wadia to New Dehli to deal with the conference arrangements; she pretty much did all the work, it sounds.

[132] She had a miscarriage in 1924. 

[144] She mentions that Pandit Motilal Nehru, the father of Jawaharlal, was "an elder in my own Kashmiri community, the leader of the bar in the High court of Allahabad, where my parents lived, and stories about him and the elegance of the way he lived sounded like fairy tales to us." Says under his son's influence he began aligning himself with the Nationalist cause.[145] Says that she was "distantly related" to him.

[166] Husband was to be posted to England for a year in 1929, to work on the Simon Commission report.  [175] They returned to India in 1930, but “soon” returned to England until 1934 when Benegal was named secretary of the Round Table Conference.  [180] At end of 1934 he was appointed Indian Deputy High Commissioner in London for three years. [181] In 1938 they were planning to return to India but husband got commission to South Africa as India’s High Commissioner there.  [194] When WW2 broke out, her daughters who had been schooling in England were visiting in South Africa, and they decided to return to India, leaving husband to finish his tour there. [195] Had been gone for 12 years.  [204] In 1941 husband came back, became Chairman of the Bombay Port Trust, an important post because of the war. [205] Sent daughter Santha to Wellesley College

[219-221] Discusses the Health Van program. [224] Elected President of AIWC in 1946, one year term.  [227] In June 1947 her husband was named Indian Ambassador to Japan, she could not accompany him because of AIWC responsibilities, daughter Santha did instead, Dhan joined him in Feb. 1948.  In June 1948 he was assigned as Indian Ambassador to the U.S.  DRR joins him a bit later.  [237] Husbands next post was back in India, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. [240] She renews contacts with AIWC  [243] Describes her awakening to family planning need on return to India (1949?)

Partition [227] Rama Rau quoted on the upheavals after independence: “All Indians lived through terrible, dark months after Independence. With the Partition of the country and the unexpected, cruel, and unhappy exchanges of populations between Pakistan and India forced on peoples of both countries, tragedies of a magnitude and intensity beyond the grimmest imagination of any leader were enacted.” [228] I cannot describe adequately the horrors of that time. Many historians have already recorded the tragic occurrences that followed immediately on Partition. The rejoicing of our nation on its liberation from nearly two hundred years of colonial rule was turned to mourning at the suffering of our people who were driven from their homes in Pakistan. All social workers, and naturally those who were already organized in associations dedicated to work for the underprivileged, turned their attention to the eight million refugees from Pakistan....It was a monumental task, for those who arrived in India had suffered irreparable loss, were brokenhearted from private tragedies--wives murdered, husbands slaughtered, daughters raped, children separated from parents--as well as the material misfortunes of property confiscated and homes looted.”

West/Japan [230] Her husband was named Indian Ambassador to Japan immediately following WW2. [231] Stunned by the devastation from American fire bombing in the last stages of the war. “As the months of my stay went by, I can’t, in all honesty say that I came to feel any great affinity with the relatively few Japanese whom I met, but it hurt me to see an Asian country--one that had defeated most of the European colonists in Asia--so humiliated by the West. It was difficult to see the Japanese in the light which they had hoped would illume them--as liberators and saviors of shackled Asia. Gandhi and Nehru had both rejected their Pan-Asian appeal against the Western powers.” Notes that some Indians did defect to Japan to fight against the colonial powers (Chandra Bose) and were welecomed back as heroes.  [232] She comments on how ungraceful General MacArthur was, but [233] “now that I have seen so much of the diplomatic life, I admit that perhaps the MacArthurs were wise.”          

Return to India [240] Once her husband took the position of Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in Bombay, she was delighted to be back in India, but “the high spirits in which I returned home were dashed to the ground when I realized that conditions around us showed no perceptible improvement.” New construction begun, but the “slum conditions in the industrial areas seemed worse than before.”  There were no provisions for housing the unskilled workers coming to the cities to join in construction trades and "Colonies of squatters were springing up in vacant spots in the city. THe men and women were employed, it is true, but they lived in deplorable conditions.....We were used to the old slums of Bombay. The chawls, tenements for the very poor, had existed ever since the development of industries, factories, and mills in the days of the British. We knew that these could not be wiped out in a day. But here was a worsening situation, for the evil was not confined to the industrial areas of the city, but was spreading all over wherever new building projects were undertaken. Children swarmed around the huts, naked and undernourished, uncared for while parents were at work. More were being born every day into those squalid conditions, to live like maggots in a pile of refuse."

Decides to focus on BC [242] Says that she can pinpoint the events that helped her decide how to try to help. Tells of meeting wretched women, too sick to have more children, too weak to go for medical help; another family with two handicapped boys, two normal girls, mother pregnant again and the father fears that if it is a boy it will be a "mental defective." At that time "an induced abortion was a criminal offense." "It was when i thought over these glimpses of slum life that it became perfectly clear to me that, however much our social workers tried to improve conditions, nothing could be accomplished [243] while unlimited number of children continued to be born in crowded houses where expansion was impossible." Says most simply accepted the situation passively. 

"The idea of birth control, as it was then called, had been introduced many years ago. In fact, in 1936, the A.I.W.C. had invited Margaret Sanger, the great American pioneer in birth control, to speak on the subject at the annual conference. She had been received with great interest and respect by the mixed audiences she had addressed, not only at the conference but afterward in several of the large cities of India, where she traveled. [245] National Planning Committee started in 1949 to prioritize government spending held consultations with experts and officials. "I felt very strongly that family planning should be a priority program. Advocates of birth control had openly voiced their fears for the future, but had received no encouragement. It was necessary to make a concentrated effort to bring the subject prominently before the Planning Commission--not only as a [246] general welfare measure but also a concrete program, with special financial backing and provision for trained personnel with governmental support rather than through voluntary welfare organizations. It was with this conviction that I embarked on creating a new organization of both men and women to spread the message of family planning, to approach scientists for help in drawing up a program of work and guiding us in its execution.

[284] Some discussion here about adding abortion and sterilization up to ca. 1955.  Feared opposition to abortion, which was illegal in India, might undercut support; sterilization, esp. vasectomy was somewhat more palatable. At end of Second 5-Y Plan they created a Ministry of Family Planning, still part of Ministry of Health, but provided a Minister who could focus on the problem.  Offered radios (prized) to men who would agree to be sterilized.  [286] RR was awarded Lasker Award, flew to NYC to receive it; she accompanied MS to Puerto Rico for a conference and she felt inspired by watching the Puerto Ricans organizing their own IPPF org.  [287] In 1957 she was introduced to Chou En-Lai by Nehru, who told her that China also had a population problem; led to an invitation to go to China  in 1958, met Mao.

[293] Talks about activity of organizing the 1959 New Dehli conference, mentions that China changed their mind and was no longer interested in FP.

[232][232] She was a Brahman and professionally trained social worker, founder and president of the first national voluntary birth control organization in India.  Wife of Sir Benegal Rama Rau, son of a physician and of the highest Hindu caste. He was educated in England, joined Indian Civil Service in 1913, and was knighted in 1939.  Held various high commissions in financial affairs, was governor of Reserve Bank of India in 1949, at times Indian Ambassador to the U.S. and to Japan. 

She was wed in 1919 with two daughters; in her own family, her mother was married at 8, and had 12 children. 

Quotes the IPPF newsletter about the 1952 conference as “Lady Rama Rau possesses the ability to command with all the charm so necessary for success in a woman.  Tall, noble in appearance, always exquisitely dressed, she has a warm deep voice.”