Indigenous Malthusian: Birth Control Debates in Early Twentieth Century

Author(s): S. Anandhi
Date Published: July 12, 2006
Source: Political Environments #4, Fall 1996

As early as 1882, Muthiah Naidu, Lakshmi Narasu and Mooneswamy Naiker, along with a section of the Madras elite, started the Hindu Malthusian League to discuss and propagate methods of birth control. Though the League had many decades of existence, it became active only during the 1930s when it acquired a new name as the Madras neo-Malthusian League. The League opened a few clinics to impart the message of birth control and contraception. It also published a journal, named Madras Birth Control Bulletin and brought out a number of pamphlets containing the opinions of medical experts as well as laypersons on birth control. Though the League urged the common people to join it and propagate the message of birth control, it remained an exclusive club of upper caste/class men.

The central thrust of the arguments deployed by the Madras neo-Malthusian League was primarily a replay of the arguments of its Western counterparts. Given the upper class character of its members, the League, first of all, presented a set of economic reasons which blamed the poor for their fate. It argued that impoverisation of the lower classes is a result of increasing population among them. The idea of population as the source of poverty had a presence in Tamil-speaking areas even outside the neo-Malthusian League. The League further claimed that a check on population growth through birth control would help improve the standard of living of the poor and argued for the use of contraceptive methods by them. As one of the birth control propagandists of the League put it, "The widespread use of contraceptive methods would itself assist to raise the standard of living, for a smaller family means that there is more to go round for each member of it, which in turn means better hygienic and educational opportunities; the two things are reciprocal. Smaller families bring a higher standard of living and birth-control will enable the masses to produce smaller families." Besides this economic basis for 'blaming the victims', the Madras neo-Malthusian League located its arguments in favour of birth control and the use of contraceptives within the eugenic idea of racial purity. This was once again very much in the tradition of the neo-Malthusian movement in the West. For instance, advocating birth control for the lower classes, the medical adviser to the League, Dr. Murari S. Krishnamurthi Ayyar, wrote: "As birth control among the well-to-do and the intelligent has come to stay, it is the duty of the politician and the statesman to spread the knowledge of birth control among the lower classes and afford them facilities for its adoption. It is eugenic to raise people from the lower to the higher state by spreading knowledge among the poor, and dysgenic to bring down the intelligent classes by preventing birth-control among them, though it is an impossible task."

The eugenic anxiety of Krishnamurthi Ayyar about the lower classes was best expressed when he wrote about the need to spread education. He argued, "Before education is given, the people must be examined medically and found fit to receive education and to be benefitted by it. In Madras among the lower class pupils in municipal schools more than 80 per cent were found defective. Either the defects should be remedied or if it is not possible to do so, the education of the defective pupils must not be continued, as there is little use in spending money in educating them."

Who were these "lower and undesirable" classes according to the neo-Malthusian of Madras? Here Krishnamurthi Ayyar's language of 'class' changes, into one of 'caste' through the invocation of Brahminical Hindu texts as advocating the best modes of regulating reproduction. He wrote, "As far as India is concerned, when in olden days, the injunctions laid down by the sastras regulating married life were held in great veneration and more implicitly obeyed than at present, birth-control was unconsciously adopted by the people at large, though the framers of those injunctions might have been activated by the best eugenic reasons for directing adoption."

In specifying the Hindu textual injunctions which regulated married life and reproduction, he privileged the upper caste practices of monogamy, forced widowhood, as well as the code of Manu: "The sex relation in early days was promiscuity which resulted in a large number of offspring. When difficulties of maintaining such large numbers were felt, restriction in production was achieved by replacing promiscuity by polygamy and then by monogamy which restricts one woman to one man. A further step in the direction of restriction was introduced by the institution of Nuns among the Christians and of enforced widowhood and prohibition of widow re-marriage among the Hindus. Besides, in the case of Hindus, according to the Code of Manu, girls with certain characteristics are prohibited from marriage, a sensible rule though not observed at present."

He also added to this the upper caste dietary practice of vegetarianism as inherently capable of regulating reproduction by keeping sexual appetite under control. Validating his argument with demographic statistics, he wrote: "Taking the people of India, the birth-rate among the Brahmins particularly those of Madras and the other purely vegetarian communities is the lowest except that among the Parsees. The Mohammedans who partake of animal food, have increased by 37.1% from 1881 and 1921 ...Taking the Brahmins who are purely vegetarians, there was no increase between 1891 and 1921 but a fall of 3.6%."

In the context of Madras, neo-Malthusian privileging of upper caste Hindus as the ideal, we need to remember that the Brahminical Hindu texts, given their anxiety about miscegeny or inter-mixing of castes, reduced women's bodies to reproductive bodies circumscribed by monogamous family and caste and claimed their sexual existence as illegitimate. This is so because, "the purity of women has a centrality in brahminical patriarchy ... because the purity of caste is contingent upon it." Significantly this opposition between 'reproductive body' and 'sexual body' influenced the 'Indian' version of neo-Malthusian discourse advanced by the Madras neo-Malthusian League. As Ayyar puts it, "As long as the germ cells belong to the race and human beings are their trusted custodians, birth control should not be resorted to unless it be for considerations of health or economic conditions. If it be practiced with the view to shirk responsibility and to lead a life of merely carnal pleasure, it is committing a crime towards the race and shows cowardice on the part of the individual."

In privileging this Brahminical Hindu construction of ideal bodies as reproductive and not sexual, the bodies of the lower classes/castes were represented by the neo-Malthusian as invested with uncontrolled sexuality and hence requiring outside intervention. As the lower classes/castes are incapable of self-discipline or self-control, the agents of such intervention could be none other than the upper class/caste men.

Besides such monopolisation of the agency over lower class/caste bodies by upper class/caste men, the neo-Malthusian also treated women's bodies as mere reproductive bodies to be controlled. With misogyny writ all over, they did not grant any autonomy to women's bodies. As we have seen, this is a Brahminical Hindu conception. For one thing, Justice V. Ramesam, the Vice-President of the League, "did not think much of women's knowledge of birth-control or attempt to bring them into leadership position." In fact, in 1929, he wrote to Margaret Sanger, well-known American birth-control activist who was keen on Indian women's participation in the International Birth Control Conference, that the Indian women are not aware of the reasons for birth control and that only men are qualified to discuss the issue of birth control. This was despite the fact that women doctors like Mrs. D. Devanesan, the lady superintendent of the Child Welfare Scheme of the Health Department in Madras, wrote to the government in 1928, on the need for disseminating birth control methods to the poor.

The devaluation of women by the neo-Malthusians is not surprising. As demographer Chandrasekhar puts it, "In fact one can read the Essay (on Population by Malthus) from cover to cover without encountering a passage that indicates Malthus ever thought women had anything to do with population." What needs to be underscored here is that the upper class agenda of Malthus and the Brahminical Hindu agenda of upper caste Indian men could overlap rather neatly and reduce women to reproductive bodies requiring male control.