On November 24, 1952, hundreds of delegates and observers gathered at the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall in Bombay to inaugurate a conference of the International Committee for Planned Parenthood (ICPP). The crowd exceeded the expectations of the organizers, who had been unsure of the interest that the event—the first of its kind in independent India—might generate. The main auditorium was soon overflowing, attendees jostled for space in the standing-room-only balcony, and late arrivals were turned away.1 The first person to address this assembled Indian and foreign audience was the venerable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. A founding member of the All India Women’s Conference, a stalwart nationalist, and former leader of the Congress Socialists, Chattopadhyay was a longtime advocate for birth control. In her capacity as the chair of the conference reception committee, she reiterated her support for contraception within a broadly internationalist and anti-imperialist framework while calling upon her audience to support the “sanctity attached to human life.”2 She then introduced the main speaker of the day, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a scholar of comparative religion and philosophy who had become India’s first vice president earlier that year.
In a wide-ranging address, Radhakrishnan quoted Sanskrit texts to demonstrate that controlling birth was in line with indigenous Hindu-Indian ideas and called for family planning as a vital national need to combat poverty. “The poorer we are,” Radhakrishnan argued, “the more ill-nourished we are. Sex is the only indoor sport open to us, and large families are produced.” Since the country could no longer sustain such large families, he concluded, “our need is desperate” to find methods of controlling reproduction.3 With these words, Radhakrishnan inaugurated the conference and was met by a standing ovation from the audience.4 Several days later, at the conclusion of conference proceedings, delegates reassembled and voted to create the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), a group that would soon become one of the largest and most influential organizations in the fields of contraceptive advocacy, family planning, and population control anywhere in the world.5
The achievements of the Bombay conference may have come as some surprise to the leadership of the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI), which had hosted the event. The president of the organization, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, had been excited to receive an invitation from the American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger to hold the conference in India.6 While welcoming the opportunity to forge transnational connections, Rama Rau and other FPAI leaders were concerned that the organization was too new—and the issue itself too novel—to raise sufficient support for an international conference. It was difficult to bring family planning to public attention, Rama Rau later recalled, because people were hesitant to discuss issues of reproduction and sexuality. The Indian government had not yet committed its support to family planning, and Health Minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, a Gandhian and veteran nationalist, was opposed to “artificial” modes of contraception. Nevertheless, Rama Rau saw in the early 1950s a new opening. “Family planning was a new and controversial subject for the general public,” she acknowledged, “but the close relationship of population to the development of the country’s economic resources had been so emphasized” that the question of reproductive regulation could no longer be ignored.7 In other words, Rama Rau aimed to make reproduction a question of public discussion as part of a broader discourse on population and economy. The growing population of India and its supposed national economic impact could bring reproduction to the forefront of debate and policy-making.
Rama Rau understood the Bombay conference, which brought together Indian and foreign birth control advocates to develop a global population agenda, to be a pivotal moment in this process. The year 1952 was monumental for another reason as well. In its First Five Year Plan, which began that year, the Indian government allocated funds for family planning in order to “stabilize population at a level consistent with the requirements of national economy,” thus making the country the first in the world to launch a program of state-sponsored population control.8 However, while the plan marked a notable realignment of reproduction, population, and economy with the goals of the postcolonial Indian state, there was a much longer history to these connections as well. Despite Rama Rau’s concern that reproduction was too sensitive a topic for public discussion in the 1950s, people had in fact engaged in public debate about a variety of reproductive norms and practices for decades. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, colonial administrators alongside Indian nationalists, eugenicists alongside feminists, and demographers alongside family planners had all questioned reproduction in a variety of ways. They asked, for instance, how individuals’ ages at marriage might affect their health and the vitality of the population. They debated about how many children married couples ought to have and how to raise them. They interrogated existing sexual practices and asked what might constitute a modern and Indian (hetero)sexuality. They challenged social norms about remarriage, monogamy, and celibacy and examined the impact of these practices on individual bodies, families, and wider communities. The result was the wide-ranging, complex, and sometimes contradictory reproductive politics that forms the subject of this book.
The question of reproduction in modern India was thus not limited solely to biological processes but became a place to work out the relationships that linked biological life to historical change. To trace this history, I focus on two key concepts that animated reproductive politics at the Bombay conference but also reverberated across the decades: population and economy. As we shall see, reproduction became a public question—that is, it acquired a politics—beginning in the late nineteenth century, in relation to anxieties about the size of India’s population. Reforming individual reproduction, via changing marriage practices or introducing birth control, became a means to shape the life of the population as a whole. In other words, reformers promised to curb the growth of the population and to improve its health and eugenic “quality” through intervening in reproductive sexualities. As concerns grew about Indian “overpopulation” in the mid-twentieth century, these reproductive interventions intensified in state-led campaigns for population control. However, while the state’s campaigns may represent the most obvious and well-known example of the intersections between reproduction and population, this book documents a much longer genealogy of their connections. By historicizing population control more deeply in time, I suggest that the ideologies and institutions that encouraged the Indian government to intervene in the reproductive lives of its subjects were not mid-twentieth-century inventions but arose from a nexus of population and reproduction that first took shape in colonial India.
These anxieties about population, in turn, led many to argue that reproductive reform was a vital economic question. Radhakrishnan’s inaugural address in Bombay amplified this long-standing argument, suggesting that curbing Indian reproduction would enable the population to align with the country’s economic needs. As reproduction was rendered into a category whose value and meaning were thus understood in economic terms, reproductive practices became suffused with claims about their macroeconomic benefits and costs. Within a wide range of public discourse, suggested reforms to sexuality, marriage, and childbearing were explained and justified within economic frameworks. Reproductive reformers began to represent individual reproductive practices as either an economic opportunity or a threat to progress, prosperity, and development. When reproduction was thus situated on an economic grid, life itself was calibrated against the costs of its subsistence; the value of lives born or “births averted” was measured in terms of their impact on “the economy.” Borrowing from Michelle Murphy’s conceptualization of the economization of life, I term this dense entanglement of reproduction and economy a process of economizing reproduction, whereby economic calculations saturated processes of biological reproduction, in the process transforming bodies and lives, sexualities and sentiments.9
The book traces these histories from the 1870s to the 1970s, asking how biological reproduction—as a process of reproducing human life—became central to reproducing a modern India. My analysis brings together three histories that have often remained distinct within existing scholarship: histories of marriage and birth control, of ideas of “population” and “economy” as abstractions, and of famine and crises of subsistence. The book begins its narrative during a period of British imperial consolidation in India, when I locate the emergence of new ideas linking reproduction, population, and economy in the context of massive famines that devastated lives across the subcontinent. Although the existing historiography of reproduction has paid little attention to these nineteenth-century developments, focusing instead on the interwar period, pushing the chronology back to the 1870s makes clear the enduring relationship between the politics of reproduction and the political economy of empire.10 In other words, I argue, the contours of Indian reproductive politics took shape alongside processes of imperial consolidation. The book then turns to new forms of nationalist reproductive politics, which engaged questions of land and migration alongside anxieties about gender and bodies during the last decades of colonial rule. These national politics of reproduction took new shape in the aftermath of independence and partition, with the emergence of state-led population planning and increasingly intensive regulation of reproduction to meet the needs of national economic development. The historical narrative concludes with the massive expansion of population control during the 1960s and with the years of Emergency rule under Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977. The draconian policies of the Emergency years have been represented, and rightfully so, as a watershed moment in postcolonial Indian history. However, as a longer view makes clear, Emergency-era population policy was also deeply embedded in the reproductive politics of earlier decades, and its ideologies and assumptions have carried on well beyond 1977.
The book demonstrates that, across a century, historical actors of varying political stripes used a flawed narrative about population and economy to justify interventions into people’s reproductive bodies and lives. This narrative emerges in both expected and unexpected places. I find it, for instance, in the words of Malthusian colonial administrators explaining why it was important to limit aid for famine relief, or among postcolonial bureaucrats aiming to meet state-assigned targets for controlling population. However, I also locate this narrative in less expected places, including in the words and actions of activists in the women’s movement, who claimed that family planning was a critical part of national planning. Women like Dhanvanthi Rama Rau and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, alongside numerous others who implemented family planning programs, positioned their work as a service both to women, whose contraceptive use would improve their health and well-being, and to the nation, which could meet its economic development goals by curbing population growth. They thus insisted that controlling population was a key component of their activism on behalf of women. This early alignment of feminism and family planning might seem surprising, since the Indian government’s family planning programs would eventually sacrifice women’s bodies and reproductive autonomy in favor of a relentless drive to meet population targets. In fact, contemporary feminist activists have documented these programs’ violations of women’s rights.11 However, across the middle decades of the twentieth century, middle-class and upper-caste activists in the women’s movement were among India’s most committed family planners, and they positioned reproductive control as an important part of their political commitments. The book traces the historical conjunctures and complicities that prompted feminists to connect reproduction to population and economy in this way, and its implications for regimes of population control and development.
While focused on colonial and postcolonial India, the book also demonstrates that India was central to a global history of reproduction. Beginning with a set of imperial circulations between India and Britain, I consider India’s presence within a wider transnational network of feminists, Malthusians, eugenicists, and family planners, which, as in the case of the Bombay conference, extended across many parts of the world. My focus on India within these networks complicates existing historical scholarship on global or transnational population control, which, although including India and Indians in important ways, tends to recenter Europe and the United States as the drivers of historical change.12 My point here is not simply that “India” was a national space upon which “global” forces operated. Rather, I demonstrate how Indian developments transformed the “global,” and helped to produce the very grounds over which reproduction was called into question in the modern world.
This India-in-the-world approach draws upon recent feminist scholarship, which traces historical change across transnational encounters, suggesting that “Indian” history is not easily separable from the broader world of which it is a part.13 Moreover, “India” as a national space was reimagined during this time, and claims about population and economy shaped this imagination. Political boundaries in the subcontinent shifted during the decades examined here, most notably with the partitions in 1947 and 1971, and remain contested. Although I begin in colonial India, which included the territories that now constitute India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, subsequent chapters focus only on Indian reproductive politics after independence. I hope the book may invite further research on reproductive histories in South Asia more broadly.14
Before turning to this history in the following chapters, I focus in the remainder of this introduction on the three key concepts that animate my analysis: reproduction, population, and economy. Of course, these terms are in wide popular use, and their meanings may seem to be obvious or self-evident. However, each concept also carries with it a history and, as I suggest here, these histories are deeply interconnected. In the sections that follow, I trace the meanings of these concepts as they took shape across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and ask how—and with what implications—these meanings continue to shape popular understanding and academic scholarship. These sections on reproduction, population, and economy thus develop the conceptual framework of the book and suggest the theoretical interventions that a feminist history of reproduction may make to the historiography of India in the modern world.
Reproduction, as Sarah Hodges reminds us, is “always simultaneously a physiological as well as social act,” and its meanings rely on this “slippage between society and biology.”15 We may trace the history of reproduction by investigating the social meanings that adhere to biological acts, even as we consider how social norms and practices construct reproduction as a biological category. In developing this historical perspective, the book draws inspiration from Linda Gordon’s insistence that reproduction is not transhistorical but is embedded in, and contributes to, historical change. She argues that “in different historical periods there are specifiable hegemonic and resistant meanings and purposes to reproduction control; that these meanings are socially and politically, not individually, constituted; and that they express the (unstable) balances of political power between different social groups.”16 While people have aimed to control their own reproduction across time, in other words, their reasons and means for doing so have not remained static. The values associated with reproductive behaviors, the assumptions about which bodies and lives may be “appropriate” to reproduce, and the laws and norms governing reproductive practices have all changed over time—responding to and shaping a wide array of social, political, and economic relations.17 Historians of reproduction have aimed to document these shifts, while asking how these changes might illuminate broader histories.
My work takes this historical approach to reproduction. The book investigates the wide implications of the politics of reproduction across the colonial/postcolonial divide and demonstrates that these politics shaped fundamental aspects of Indian life. This includes areas we might conventionally associate with reproduction, namely histories of gender, sexuality, and the body. However, investigating histories of reproduction can also take us in less expected directions. As I argue here, from the late nineteenth century onward, reproductive politics engaged claims about colonial poverty and scarcity, about the nation and its sovereignty, and about modern progress and development.18 In short, Indians negotiated their present and imagined their futures through debates about reproductive norms and practices. Indeed, as we shall see in the pages to follow, attention to these histories makes clear the connections between the supposedly “private” domains of reproductive sexualities or reproducing bodies and the “public” arenas of nations and states. Therefore, through its investigation of reproduction, the book offers a reassessment of histories of gender, sexuality, and the body as they intersect with the trajectories of colonialism, nationalism, and development.
Specifically, I trace how these intersections rendered reproduction into an economic question—asking how reproductive discourses and practices were calibrated within a calculus that rendered life itself an economic cost. This process of economizing reproduction profoundly transformed how Indians understood their own reproductive practices, including marriage, childbearing, and contraceptive use. It also transformed how they understood “the economy”: that is, how they measured poverty and wealth, inequality and hierarchy, sovereignty and national status. In short, as reproduction was figured as a point of intervention into the economy, both “reproduction” and “economy” shifted in complex, sometimes unexpected ways. To understand these changes, the book locates reproductive politics in a variety of places: some that addressed specific reproductive practices, others that brought reproduction to bear on a wider discourse. This includes the history of contraceptive advocacy and the rise of population control programs. It also includes moments and events that were less obviously connected to reproduction, such as the colonial administration of famine, the intersection of feminist activism with state-led development, and the representation of small families as a site of desire. Locating contests over reproduction in these disparate spaces, my work outlines the wide-ranging scope and impact of reproductive politics across a century of Indian history.
My arguments join with an emerging feminist historiography that tracks how reproduction has been a site to uphold, and also challenge, inequality and hierarchy and implicates the gendered politics of reproduction in the politics of race, class, caste, and sexuality. To take just a few examples, feminist historians have shown how control over women’s reproduction has helped to maintain racist regimes of power, to underwrite colonial policies, to mark national boundaries, to regulate migration, to shape social welfare policies, and to influence international diplomacy.19 Reproductive relations have thus also been relationships of power. Consequently, as Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci argues, “the knowledge and discourses regarding female reproduction have been socially constructed to justify hierarchical power relations: between men and women, Westerners and non-Westerners, whites and nonwhites, and the elites and the masses.”20 The centrality of reproduction to relationships of power is also made clear by scholarship in queer studies, which scrutinizes the production of heterosexuality and its marginalization of queer subjects. Reproduction, as scholars such as Judith Butler, Penelope Deutscher, and Lee Edelman suggest, was central to the creation and normalization of heterosexual identities; the queer was marked, by definition, as a nonreproductive subject who was not committed to the future, represented by the figure of the child.21
Historicizing reproduction thus requires attention to the multiple intersections that link individual reproducing bodies to the reproduction of a wider body politic, and that connect systems of reproduction to wider systems of power. A rich scholarship has documented these connections across varying times and places, tracing the contours of reproductive oppression alongside struggles for reproductive autonomy, freedom, and justice. Much of this work uncovers how the regulation and control of reproduction sustains hierarchies whereby some people’s reproduction is valued and that of others is devalued. The sociologist Shellee Colen, in a study of West Indian childcare workers in New York City, terms this a process of “stratified reproduction” or “the power relations by which some categories of people are empowered to nurture and reproduce, while others are disempowered.”22 This selective valuing of certain people and bodies as reproducers has been the crux of reproductive oppressions of various kinds. For example, in the Indian case, the reproduction of lower-caste, poor, and non-Hindu women was marked as the source of colonial poverty and blamed for the failures of postcolonial economic development. Within transnational population control movements, the childbearing of black and brown women—both in the “Third World” and among racial minorities in the “First World”—was held responsible for putting the very planet at risk through a population explosion. These are just a few examples, among many, that suggest how reproduction intersects with sites of inequality and oppression, differentiating among people as appropriate or inappropriate reproducers.
This approach to reproduction necessarily challenges the liberal feminist assumption, common in public discourse, that the trajectory of reproductive history can be encapsulated as a “simple passage from subjection to freedom.”23 That is, there was no straightforward path from a lack of reproductive control in the past toward greater autonomy in the present due to changing sexual norms or more effective reproductive technologies. The history of reproduction is simply too complex for such a trajectory. The ideas and practices that shape people’s reproductive lives cannot be abstracted out from their wider histories, and reproductive politics can just as easily maintain inequalities and injustices as challenge them. Moreover, even while the narratives of greater freedom may hold true for some people—especially elite women in the “First World” or Global North—a wealth of scholarship on both the past and the present shows that gains for some people have often occurred at the expense of others and that technological developments do not automatically expand reproductive freedoms.
Scholars of South Asian reproduction history make this point abundantly clear. Perhaps this is because, following Hodges, “unlike the American or European historiography of birth control, the uneasy legacy of population control is not part of any emancipatory narrative.”24 The measures undertaken by the postcolonial state to control women’s reproduction offer a cautionary tale against assumptions that contraceptive technologies or reproductive reforms are necessarily liberating. The grim history of Emergency rule connects reproductive regulation to antidemocratic and authoritarian politics while challenging any simplistic narrative about progress over time. Historians of colonial India also testify to this complexity, pointing out that support for reproductive technologies did not necessarily signify support for reproductive freedoms. For instance, as Sanjam Ahluwalia maintains in her study of birth control in the early twentieth century, “within the dominant feminist understanding, birth control and contraceptive technologies are largely represented as necessarily empowering for all women at all times. The history of birth control in colonial India, however, did not empower all women to control their bodies and determine their fertility.”25 Moreover, as Asha Nadkarni notes, even movements claiming to support “reproductive rights” have “been aligned with far less emancipatory discourses” of racism and imperialism, and have sometimes deepened caste, race, gender, and class inequalities rather than challenging them.26 These are difficult and disturbing histories that feminist scholars must grapple with if we are to imagine more just reproductive futures.
Despite these grim histories, however, not all reproductive politics prior to the 1960s was a prehistory of population control, a term that references top-down policies and programs to limit the growth of population. In the Indian case, this term was often used interchangeably with family planning, which, at least ostensibly, refers to the policies that support individual people in determining their own fertility. The collapse of these two terms—including at the Bombay conference that created the IPPF—should not obscure the fact that not all programs to support individual decision-making about fertility were necessarily a means to regulate population.27 Indeed, scholarship on colonial India documents a history that was at once more complex and multilayered, offering multiple possibilities for change. Not all campaigns promoting reproductive reform centered on controlling population, and not all reproductive politics centered only on changing marriage or implementing birth control. The book thus understands reproduction broadly, and not only as a history of contraceptive technologies or population regulation.
To build this analysis, I draw upon an existing historiography, which, although it does not necessarily name reproduction as a category of analysis, has touched on reproductive questions. For instance, scholars have documented how colonial-era reproductive reforms—to the practices of sati, widow remarriage, child marriage—were critical to fashioning a modern gendered and sexual politics in the nineteenth century.28 By the 1920s and 1930s, moreover, reproduction became discursively central both to Indian nationalism and to the Indian women’s movement, as practices of birth control, childbirth, and reproductive healthcare were newly politicized. During the same period, as I discuss in more detail in chapter 2, reproductive politics also became entangled in a politics of land, migration, and sovereignty as a global “color line” made reproduction a key rationale in the separation of white and nonwhite races. Meanwhile, across the twentieth century, the reform of reproductive practices surrounding marriage, family life, and patrilineality was critical to the construction of modern subjectivities.29 These are just a few examples of topics that might be included in histories of reproduction in modern India; they point toward a narrative that acknowledges, but cannot be collapsed into, a history of postcolonial population control. While space limitations prevent my addressing all of these topics, the book aims to make this expansive history more visible.
Finally, in developing this perspective on reproductive history, I draw inspiration from scholarly and activist understandings of reproductive justice as a politics of liberation. Concepts of reproductive justice, as first developed by women of color activists in a US context, aim to expand the terrain of political struggle beyond the dominating framework of abortion and to contest a range of hierarchies and forms of oppression that curtailed reproductive freedom. As articulated by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, reproductive justice rests on three principles: “(1) the right not to have a child; (2) the right to have a child; and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments. In addition, reproductive justice demands sexual autonomy and gender freedom for every human being.”30 By such a measure, much of the history recounted in this book may read as a dispiriting account of reproductive injustice, whereby people’s reproductive lives were subjected to ever-more-intimate forms of oppression as reproduction was economized and population control became a dominant mode of reproductive politics. Nevertheless, I highlight a reproductive justice frame for its consistent reminder that reproduction is always about gender (and gendered forms of oppression and liberation) but is never only limited to a gendered politics. Reproductive justice compels an investigation of intersecting axes of difference but, equally importantly, calls attention to how reproductive oppression and liberation are deeply implicated in wider histories. Finally, I suggest that reproductive justice cannot be envisioned solely in relation to a single intervention—be it birth control, abortion, or population control—but must situate the impact and possibilities of these interventions within a deep analysis of inequality and oppression.
Population, according to its Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, refers to the “whole number of people or inhabitants in a country or region,” as well as “the organisms inhabiting a particular locality.” Bringing in reproduction, the definition also names the “group of interbreeding organisms” as constituting a population.31 It links aggregate life (numbers of people or organisms) to identifiable place (country, locality) and to reproductive process (“interbreeding”). In this sense, “population” is a measurable, concrete, and bounded thing; we observe populations of bacteria in a petri dish, fish in a lake, or people on the planet. We measure population densities—how many organisms exist in relation to their bounded space—and its increase or decrease. However, while population thus has concrete manifestations, it is also an idea, a categorization, and a way of imagining and understanding the world. In this sense, “the population” is an abstraction, produced through identifiable modes of thought and habits of classification. This concept of the population as an entity whose life can be measured, regulated, and compared with other populations underpins what Michel Foucault identifies as a “biopolitics of the population.” The reproductive politics I examine in this book were an aspect of this biopolitics—this management of the life of populations.
Foucault traces the history of biopolitics to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, when new forms of biopower challenged older notions of sovereign power. Within mercantilist regimes of sovereign power, the population was imagined as a group of juridical subjects who held an individual and collective relationship with the sovereign. A large population might indicate the power of the ruler, since many people might allow for the mobilization of a large army or signal a thriving marketplace.32 By contrast, biopower, which Foucault links to the rise of a capitalist modernity, understood the population not as a group of individuals but as a species body, or the “body imbued with the mechanics of life, and serving as the basis of the biological process.”33 Population became a set of processes to be managed—processes of birth and death, of health and disease, of life itself.
This politics of life, or biopolitics, as Asha Nadkarni suggests, prompted the “birth of population as a political actor in its own right.”34 Reproduction became a key point of entry to manage this newly constituted population. By regulating the “anatamo-politics of the human body,” in Foucault’s terms, reproductive reform became a site to intervene in the “species body” of the population.35 This centrality of reproduction shaped how biopolitics was gendered. As Ruth Miller argues through a case study of abortion and adultery in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, biopolitical power was founded on “the right to make live rather than the right to take life.” It rooted women’s political subjectivities in their presumed capacity to reproduce life—to make live—and thus create the population. Consequently, biopolitical regimes aimed to include in the space of politics not only the public square, but also the womb, justifying their reproductive interventions in terms of “the common good.”36 Twentieth-century programs of population control, as several scholars suggest, were quintessential examples of this gendered Foucauldian biopolitics.37 Targeting individual bodies at the most intimate level—through surgical sterilization, intrauterine device (IUD) insertion, or menstrual cycle monitoring, for instance—these programs invoked as their rationale the “species body” of the population as a whole.
This notion of the population depended upon a process of disindividuation: that is, it de-emphasized the individual characteristics of people in favor of norms and processes that shaped the life of the population as a whole. However, the biopolitics of population also differentiated among people, marked out social margins, and valued some lives and bodies over others. Within an imperial world, race became a central axis of difference that distinguished the life processes of one “population” from that of another and enabled a “politics of life” in which some bodies were devalued and rendered suitable for death.38 Moreover, whereas all biopolitics pathologized the social margins, scholars suggest that “colonial biopolitics” pathologized entire populations, rendering the “native” outside the boundaries of the normative “population.”39 In the aftermath of colonial rule, indigenous elites countered these racist underpinnings of population discourse while repositioning themselves as the appropriate regulators of their “own” lower-class, lower-caste, or subaltern populations. Their drives for economic development depended upon a biopolitics of the population in which life processes became the site of state intervention.
The eighteenth-century English political economist Thomas Malthus must loom large in any historical account of these biopolitics of population. Malthus, perhaps more than any other thinker of his time, gave life to the concept of “the population” and articulated its relationship to place, reproduction, and economy. In his enormously influential Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus argued that human population would always overrun its means of subsistence. This was because human reproduction proceeded “geometrically” (as in 2, 4, 8, 16), whereas food production increased only “arithmetically” (as in 1, 2, 3, 4). The result of this imbalance was a continual struggle for land, a finite and limited resource. The rapid growth of human population thus always threatened to exceed the available land. For Malthus, the reason the population had not already overrun the land was due to both “positive” and “preventive” checks on its growth. “Positive” checks increased death rates; they included war, disease, infanticide, pestilence, and famine. “Preventive” checks, on the other hand, controlled reproduction to reduce birth rates. Late marriage or sexual abstinence were the principal preventive checks Malthus outlined; he disapproved of contraception.40
Malthusian ideas proved to be remarkably enduring both in India and globally and have formed the common sense of modern thinking about the relationship between population and reproduction. In late nineteenth-century India, as I discuss in chapter 1, Malthusian theories seemed to explain famine, which some commentators understood as a “positive check” on an Indian population whose “overreproduction” had caused widespread poverty and hunger. This prompted fears that India was overpopulated well before there was any demonstrable increase in population size. Malthusian claims about population continued into the twentieth century, when they joined with eugenic thinking, which was widely accepted as the “science” of improving the genetic and racial characteristics of populations. Malthusianism and eugenics enjoyed a particularly close relationship in India, where, as Rahul Nair suggests, they shaped a growing “population anxiety” during the interwar decades.41 This period also witnessed the emergence of communal discourses on population, whereby “Hindu” and “Muslim” populations were imagined as distinct entities and compared with each other. Indeed, claims about population came to underpin a growing communalization of Indian politics overall, especially in the Hindi-speaking north and in Bengal, where proponents of communal discourse aimed to mobilize “Hindus” or “Muslims” in census counts and claimed that the “opposing” community was reproducing more rapidly than their own.42 The partition of the subcontinent in 1947, which depended upon Hindu and Muslim population counts, both drew upon and reshaped this kind of communal demography.
In the aftermath of Indian independence and World War II, Malthusian thinking reemerged through social-scientific research about the population. In particular, the science of demography, a discipline devoted to the study of populations, arguably has Malthusian roots.43 However, whereas Malthus had understood population growth as a grim inevitability, periodically checked by famine and disease, mid-twentieth-century demographic models insisted that population growth could be managed through targeted interventions. Far exceeding the Essay’s suggestions about forgoing sexual intercourse and postponing marriage, demographers imagined a range of policies and tactics that might encourage populations to limit their reproduction. Their models, in turn, gave shape to population control programs that began in India, and elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. As Mohan Rao documents in devastating detail, Malthusian assumptions underpinned Indian campaigns to manage population, and regimes of population control adhered to these theories despite mounting evidence about their damaging impact on individual lives, especially the lives of women.44 In a brutal biopolitical calculation, as I discuss in chapter 4, some individual lives were curtailed or sacrificed in pursuit of benefit to the “species body” of the population. As individual life was valued differentially—along lines of caste, race, nationality, gender, class, and religion—population control programs became increasingly draconian in meeting their goals and targets.
Of course, Malthusian ideas have also been challenged by critics, who suggest that Malthus’s theory of population simply blames poor people’s reproduction for their poverty. This way of thinking, they argue, serves to obscure the true causes of inequality and misunderstands the reasons for population growth. One of Malthus’s early and influential critics along these lines was Karl Marx; since the mid-nineteenth century, Marxist critiques of Malthus have argued that poverty is not caused by poor people having “too many” children but by an inequitable distribution of wealth due to the exploitation of labor within systems of capitalist production. Building from this critique, more recent challenges to Malthusianism have documented its empirical inadequacies. As they note, Malthus never foresaw the massive increases of agrarian production that could support much larger populations than he imagined.45 Consequently, the balance between resources and population was not quite as fragile as Malthus suggested. Moreover, human beings do not simply reproduce ad infinitum but make childbearing decisions in relation to the circumstances around them. Far from exacerbating poverty, bearing many children may actually increase economic security for some rural families and communities by providing necessary labor and support in old age.46 Further, as Betsy Hartmann suggests, Malthusian thinking has historically carried with it a racist and sexist disregard for variously “othered” populations—such as poor people in formerly colonized countries and racial and ethnic minorities in the former imperialist nations.47 Here again, the issue is of inequality and stratification rather than numerical growth in population. All this is not to say that population size is immaterial. Rapid growth or decline in population can have important impacts on individuals, communities, and environments. Numbers do matter, in other words, but we can draw no straight Malthusian line from population to poverty. Numbers alone can be only part of the story.
Despite these critiques, the legacy of Malthus continues to shape thinking about population today. Although the sustained activism of feminist groups has successfully eliminated the term population control in favor of a focus on “reproductive health,” Hartmann notes that “the belief that overpopulation is a root cause of poverty, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, migration, violent conflict, and even climate change is pervasive.”48 Indeed, Malthusian fears about the unmanaged growth of population have gained new life in contemporary climate change debates, as some environmental activists call for reducing fertility as a means to reduce carbon emissions globally. As I discuss in the epilogue, environmentalist critics of Malthusianism have questioned this connection between reproduction and climate through documenting that unequal patterns of consumption, driven by a fossil fuel economy, are far more responsible for climate change than is population increase in the Global South. Despite this evidence, the notion that reproduction is a central driver of planetary catastrophe—an idea that motivated so many population control campaigns in the mid-twentieth century—remains powerful many decades later. In India in recent years, moreover, these discourses have combined with an ongoing communalization of population to fuel a majoritarian Hindu nationalist politics, thus recentering population in a wide range of claims about contemporary India.49
My work is indebted to these scholarly and activist critiques of Malthusian population politics and to the analysis of modern biopolitics more broadly. From Foucauldian investigation of population as a target of governance, to empirical critiques of Malthusian theory, to historical research on the communalization of population, to feminists’ emphasis on the real and devastating consequences of population control for ordinary people, this body of work makes visible the ways in which “population” is never just a number that exists independent of a wider history. In other words, colonial and postcolonial anxieties about population in India were not simply a result of population growth. Rather, various historical conjunctures—from ideas about population size to the material impact of scarcity and hunger—rendered “population” into a problem and made it the target of control, management, and intervention. This historicized understanding of population underpins my analysis of reproduction. Without assuming that reproductive anxieties were an automatic outcome of population numbers, I approach them as a particular set of political questions that engaged specific relationships of power within colonial and postcolonial society. The book traces these political questions—these biopolitics of population management—across landscapes of famine and scarcity, of imperial economies and national development, and of bodily and sexual politics.
In India during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, biopolitical concerns about reproduction and population hinged on claims about the economy, and the reproductive practices of ordinary Indians were blamed for population growth and consequent economic failures. However, even though contemporary commentators insisted that reproduction thus affected the economy, historical research shows that “the economy” is not a transhistorical object “out there” that exists prior to its analysis. Whether in colonial India or in our contemporary moment, “the economy” has been brought into being through a set of identifiable historical practices, discursive representations, and theoretical claims. This requires a delineation of “the economy” as distinct from an implied noneconomy of relationships and interactions that are then rendered outside of economic rationality or calculation. In broad terms, it has meant a separation of certain market-based transactions from other social, political, moral, or material relationships. Moreover, “the economy” is constructed through techniques of measurement and calculation, such that the generation and organization of data helps to produce “the economy” as a knowable entity—indeed, as a way of knowing the modern world itself.
As a category of the imagination—and buttressed by ever-growing reams of data—the economy, of course, has real material effects. How we measure “the economy” shapes who and what gets counted, what policies exist and can be imagined, and how we understand life and well-being. Among these myriad effects of constructing the economy as a category of life in modern India was the rearticulation of reproduction to align with goals of economic progress and development. This process, as I outline in more detail below, was twofold. First, the creation of “the economy” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries excluded reproduction, gendering it private rather than public, particular rather than universal, and cultural rather than political. However, with the rise of anxieties about population in the late nineteenth century, reproduction reentered public and political debate. But this time, it was legible only as an economic cost, its “public” meanings limited to an economic calibration about reproducing the life of the population. In this sense, the process of economizing reproduction did not imply that reproductive practices were measured against an already existing economy; rather, reproduction and economy were co-constituted in a measurement of human life.
Historians trace the elaboration of “the economy” to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, arguing that the creation of the concept was inseparable from the development of capitalism.50 This notion of the economy, as Manu Goswami suggests, was a “concrete abstraction” that classical political economists imagined as “an autonomous, self-contained, and objective realm.”51 During the nineteenth century, the relatively deterritorialized conception of the classical political economists gave way to more specific spatial references. That is, as the “economy” became bound up with colonial and national space, both in Europe and in its empires, colonial administrators and Indian nationalists came to speak of an “Indian economy” as a distinct set of relations that circulated within a bounded territorial space.52 However, the economy so imagined did not simply exist but was actively distinguished from other social relations. In colonial India, as Ritu Birla demonstrates, this act of delineation depended upon the colonial law, which distinguished between “legitimate” forms of capitalist economic activity it imagined to be universal and rooted in markets and “illegitimate ones,” imagined as local, particular, and rooted in kinship. Birla argues that the category of “the economy” was demarcated against a separate arena of “culture” to produce “economy and culture as exclusive, a priori ethico-political arenas.”53
Moreover, “the economy” was assumed to be public and thus a legitimate site of state governance; it was also universal, insofar as all countries “had” economies that could be compared with each other. Not coincidentally, this place-making function of the economy helped to make economic progress a centerpiece of the colonial civilizing mission. Colonial administrators thus claimed to be contributing to what they termed India’s “moral and material” progress through British rule.54 The economy simultaneously became an arena of nationalist contention, as thinkers like M. G. Ranade, R. C. Dutt, and Dadabhai Naoroji aimed to document that colonial rule had stifled India’s path on a universalizing course of economic development. Their economic critique, exemplified by Naoroji’s calculation of Indian per capita income and his comparison with British figures, would eventually become the ideological foundation of Indian nationalism’s challenge to colonial rule. For nationalism as for colonialism, reference to the economy shaped what could be counted as public—and thus a legitimate terrain of nationalist contention with the colonial state—and what were rendered private cultural and social relations that were ostensibly separate from the public domain. Nationalist discourses depended and built upon these distinctions, such that a private sphere incorporating reproduction became a national counterpoint to a public sphere governed by the imperial state.55
The idea that “the economy” was a separate and distinct arena of life gathered force during the early decades of the twentieth century.56 The new discipline of econometrics, alongside the conceptual invention of the “macroeconomy,” helped to make the economy a target of state calculation and regulation.57 Much of the data for these new calculations came from colonial contexts, notably from British India. For instance, John Maynard Keynes—the preeminent theorist of the macroeconomy—worked in the India Office and began his career by trying to measure the circulation of money and its effects on the Indian colonial economy, which he published as Indian Currency and Finance (1913). Keynes’s articulation of the macroeconomy, as Suzanne Bergeron notes, “provides an early encounter with the idea that the nation is a manageable economic unit represented in terms of aggregate data.”58 Econometric measurements like the gross domestic product (GDP), first calculated in the US in 1937 and widely adopted by other countries after the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, came to encapsulate the idea that the nation and its economy could be represented by a single numeric figure.
In the aftermath of Indian independence, this relationship between nation and economy took new shape through the intervention of the postcolonial state. Jawaharlal Nehru and other Congress leaders staked the state’s legitimacy upon its ability to foster economic growth and development, and state-led planning became the means to achieve this goal. The National Planning Commission (NPC), a state agency responsible for creating the country’s Five Year Plans, relied upon econometric measurement and such measures as GDP to mark the successes or failures of national development. In its First Five Year Plan in 1952, as noted above, the NPC included population as a key variable, arguing that it had to be aligned with the economic needs of the nation. Economic planning, in this sense, required and depended upon population planning, paving the way for state-directed programs to regulate reproduction in the service of population goals. The biopolitics of population management were thus part of the very architecture of the postcolonial economic planning regime.
Across this shifting discursive history of “the economy”—and its relationship to nation, state, and development planning—there was a foundational continuity: the separation of “the economy” from social relations that were then termed “noneconomic.” In other words, identifying something called “the economy,” measuring it, and intervening in it required a set of principles and assumptions about what exactly ought to be counted and who might do the counting. On the surface at least, reproduction appeared to be quintessentially “private” and outside these conceptualizations of the economy. After all, biological reproduction has long been gendered feminine and connected with sexuality, another intimate and ostensibly private domain. Moreover, although it was arguably central to capitalist economic growth, the labor associated with reproducing life—which Marxist feminists have since termed social reproduction—was not figured into the calculus of economic activity in its eighteenth-century origins, its nineteenth-century nationalist configurations, or its twentieth-century econometric elaboration.59 The work of childcare, cooking, cleaning—typically unwaged work and generally performed by women—was not considered an “economic” activity and was thus excluded from such critical calculations as the GDP. Moreover, women’s labor in agrarian production was similarly discounted in the calculations of mid-twentieth-century development economics and was left out of analysis of the costs and benefits of economic planning across the Global South.60 As a result, the very concept of “the economy” was built upon the exclusion of reproductive labor, which remained unmeasured and unmarked, imagined as separate from economic life. A major task of feminist research has thus been to make this labor “count,” whether it be the tasks of social reproduction, the work of subsistence agrarian production, or the gendered “care labor” that makes contemporary neoliberal globalization possible.
Historical analysis can contribute to this feminist project by investigating the co-constitution of “reproduction” with “the economy” over time. As I argue, once reproduction was rendered not part of the economy, it reentered economic discourse from the outside, as a set of practices and social relations that had the power to impinge upon the economy so constituted. By increasing (or decreasing) the population, reproduction could now foster or threaten economic development, raise or lower the GDP, and mark the distinction between poverty and prosperity. Reproduction, in short, would eventually become one point of intervention into an economy always marked as external to it. One of the clearest examples of this logic that I have encountered in the historical archive comes from Behramji Malabari’s appeal in 1884 to the British colonial government to legislate on “infant and widow remarriage.” As I discuss in more detail in chapter 1, Malabari acknowledged that a “foreign government” might hesitate to intervene in Indians’ marriage practices, an arena already constituted as “private” and outside the ordinary domain of public debate and contestation. However, Malabari urged the colonial regime to reconsider this assumption, arguing that marriage in fact had a public aspect: its connection to the economy. The early age of marriage in India, he claimed, had promoted the increase of the country’s population and the poverty of its inhabitants. As this was undoubtedly an “economic phase of the evil,” Malabari suggested that this was a legitimate terrain of colonial lawmaking.61 The public face of marriage and reproduction, in short, was at its point of intersection with the economy.
As we now live in a neoliberal age when the economization of everything is alternately deplored and celebrated, Malabari’s comments may not seem so startling. Moreover, we have witnessed decades of population control programs that have rested on precisely this assumption that state intervention in processes of biological reproduction is justified in the name of economic growth and development. The book traces the long historical processes that have brought together reproduction, population, and economy in this way. In the pages that follow, I investigate a range of historical conjunctures and contingencies that shaped how reproduction came to be articulated in economic terms, as a force simultaneously outside the economy and integral to it. There was nothing inevitable about this process. Rather than documenting the slow unfolding of a hegemonic conception, the book studies contests over the meaning of reproduction, its connection to “population” and “economy,” and its relationship to life itself.
Plan of the Book
The book traces these intertwined histories of reproduction and economy, population and development, bodies and sexualities, across a century. To tell this story, I rely on archival texts from a wide variety of sources ranged across three continents. Within colonial and postcolonial state archives, I ask how “reproduction” became defined and targeted for regulation. I locate the state’s reproductive politics not only in its reports about marriage practices or birth control use, but also in dispatches about famine, inquiries about food production, and plans for agricultural and industrial development. By the mid-twentieth century, transnational donors and foundations aimed to shape, and sometimes implement, government policies. Their grant programs, scientific conferences, and propaganda are all part of the reproductive politics I consider here. The book also looks to a range of organizations, both large and small, that debated, reimagined, and reformed reproduction. Some focused explicitly on population and family planning, such as the Madras Neo-Malthusian League, or the Family Planning Association of India; others made reproduction part of other agendas, such as the All India Women’s Conference, or the Self Respect movement. Beyond these organizational spaces, reproduction was also called into question within a wider public sphere of contraceptive manuals, self-help books, scholarly works, and newspaper editorials. With the institutionalization of population control after independence, the public sphere was saturated with state propaganda—film and radio broadcasts, alongside posters, billboards, and pamphlets—that constitutes part of the archive of reproductive politics.
Many of these sources come from the perspective of elite actors, and I do not assume that the nexus linking reproduction, population, and economy was a shared concern that cut across hierarchies of class, caste, religion, or gender. While reproductive politics as articulated by elites had outsize effects in the form of laws, policies, and programs, their targets of intervention did not necessarily share a common understanding of reproduction as a social question. Wherever possible, I aim to make visible alternative and competing perspectives. I find these alternatives in some unlikely places, such as in the actions of people in famine relief camps, in radical anticaste arguments for birth control, in debates about racialized migration laws, and in the questions that ordinary women raised when confronted by feminist family planners. Although these interventions tend to appear only as fragments in the archive, they also point toward different frameworks for understanding the connections between biological reproduction and its social meanings—between bodies and the body politic—that I examine in the book. I revisit questions of alternatives in the epilogue, in dialogue with oral history interviews collected for this project in rural Tamil Nadu, in which women shared accounts of their own reproductive lives.
The remaining chapters document this history. The narrative begins in the late nineteenth century, when colonial administrators and Indian commentators began to frame Indian reproduction as an economic question. They forged these connections in the crucible of the massive famines that rocked India from the 1870s to the 1890s. Although the population was not increasing at the time, the specter of widespread starvation fostered Malthusian fears that the land could no longer sustain the people who depended upon it and prompted a new calibration of life that measured the survival of the population against the cost of its sustenance. In this new measurement of life, I suggest in chapter 1, we may find the origins of a new reproductive politics, which turned to reproduction as a point of intervention in the economic life of the population. For some colonial administrators, Indian reproductive practices seemed to explain poverty in the colony. They blamed “native” marriage and sexuality for creating the conditions that kept so many Indians living on the edge of starvation. Reproductive reformers—both Indian and British—also seized upon this moment of economic crisis and food scarcity. They called upon Indians to transform their marriage practices and utilize birth control, with the goal of realigning reproduction to meet the economic constraints of colonial rule.
Connections between reproduction and economy persisted across subsequent decades, taking new shape in the context of anticolonial nationalism, global economic depression, and the rise of eugenic thinking. While the massive famines that shaped late nineteenth-century life did not recur during the 1920s and 1930s, population continued to be a source of anxiety across a wide spectrum of public opinion. Malthusian fears that India’s population was too large joined eugenic concerns about its health, vitality, and genetic fitness. Many reformers wondered how India, with a population that was both economically impoverished and eugenically “unfit,” might take its rightful place in an emergent “comity of nations.”62 Chapter 2 traces the entanglement of reproduction with two distinct but related sets of debates about the nation and its future sovereignty during the late colonial decades. The first, sparked by the publication of Katherine Mayo’s incendiary Mother India in 1927, grappled with the relationship between the biopolitics of Indian reproduction and the geopolitics of race, migration, and rights to land. The second, encapsulated in a series of reforms that centered on birth control and the age of marriage and were promoted by the Indian women’s movement, aimed to solve the supposed problems of Indian reproduction within the territorial framework of the Indian nation and, more specifically, within the constraints of an Indian national economy. Yet, even as the question of reproduction was increasingly asked and answered through the prism of the nation, I argue, alternative frameworks also developed. Radical critiques of patriarchy found a place alongside challenges to class and caste oppression, albeit at the margins of interwar reproductive politics.
As independence neared, the nationalist politics of reproduction began to focus more narrowly on national development; that is, on the role of the state in promoting economic and social progress. By 1952, India’s First Five Year Plan formally charted out the national state’s development vision and, as mentioned above, included a program of “family planning.” As I argue in chapter 3, the Indian women’s movement played a critical role in this process, helping to position reproductive reform as a vehicle for economic development in independent India. The chapter traces the activities of a range of women’s movement leaders, such as Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, Avabai Wadia, and Lakshmibai Rajwade, during the transitional decade from the early 1940s, when they incorporated family planning into their development vision, to the early 1950s, when the ideological and institutional foundations of Indian family planning were put into place. These women mobilized their connections within the Indian women’s movement while simultaneously intervening in transnational population control networks to argue that family planning represented a form of development for and by women. Their approach centered the postcolonial nation-state as an agent of women’s emancipation, linking the women’s movement to the agenda of state-led development.
However, women leaders’ ostensibly feminist commitments to family planning advanced a population control agenda that ultimately had little interest in challenging the structures of women’s oppression. Rather, with the promise of alleviating poverty without tackling class, caste, or gender inequalities, family planners targeted the reproduction of poor women as the cause of the nation’s economic problems. As I discuss in chapter 4, this targeting intensified during the 1960s and 1970s, when family planning programs gained urgency amid growing fears about India’s rate of population growth and global anxieties about a “population bomb” that threatened the planet. Meanwhile, new reproductive technologies enabled more intensive scrutiny of sexualities and bodies, notably in campaigns to insert IUDs and to promote surgical sterilization. Within this context, poor women were represented as dangerous bodies—sometimes just as dangerous uteruses—whose reproductive capacities posed national and global threats. As a result, their bodies became the very ground over which key debates about Indian population and economic development played out. These gendered politics of population control shifted briefly during the Emergency period, when men emerged as targets of reproductive regulation. However, as the chapter demonstrates, the Emergency also deepened the long-standing connections that linked reproduction to population and economy in modern India and, in its aftermath, again placed women’s bodies at the center of debate.
Even while feminists and activists, nationalists and bureaucrats, and eugenicists and Malthusians all aimed to control reproduction to align with “the economy,” they also envisioned an alternative model of family life. Specifically, they imagined a “small family”—composed of a husband, wife, and their two or three children—as the exemplar of rational reproductive planning, responsible citizenship, and economic foresight. Chapter 5 traces these discourses of the small family as they came to saturate public space across the mid-twentieth century. I examine representations of the small family from the 1920s, when they first began to appear in print media, to the height of population control campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, when spreading a “small family norm” became the explicit goal of communications experts devoted to family planning. Exhorting audiences to remember that “A Small Family Is a Happy Family,” these discourses situated the small family as a site of desire and aspiration, suggesting that controlling one’s reproduction would promote both individual and national prosperity. Considering a variety of texts and images depicting small families—including cartoons, drawings, advertisements, and films—the chapter examines how the institutions and structures of heterosexuality came to underpin development planning, merging marriage with population control and marshaling affect in service of economy. Finally, the epilogue considers the enduring impact of the reproductive histories examined in the book. Drawing upon oral history interviews with women in rural Tamil Nadu who rely on the state for access to reproductive health care, I ask how discourses of population and economy both enter into and are challenged by women’s representations of their reproductive bodies and lives. By historicizing the nexus of reproduction, population, and economy—and demonstrating how and why these connections took shape as they did—the book questions some of the fundamental assumptions that continue to underpin the politics of reproduction today. I hope, as well, that it contributes to visions of more just reproductive futures.
A Note on Terms
My use of terms draws inspiration from Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, whose book “recognizes the limits of traditional, biologically based binary definitions of gender at the same time as it chronicles and analyzes histories that these definitions have produced.”63 In writing about the past, I use the term women when discussing discourses, policies, and programs that claimed to target cisgender women. In hopes of not echoing the historical erasure of transgender lives and experience, however, I also aim to use more inclusive, context-sensitive language, recognizing that gender identity cannot be assumed to flow simply from a bodily capacity to menstruate, become pregnant, or give birth.