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Interview

Reproduction: A Global Intellectual History—An Interview with Mytheli Sreenivas

by primary editor Shuvatri Dasgupta

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

Courtesy of University of Washington Press.

Mytheli Sreenivas is Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research and teaching focus on South Asian history, the history of women and gender, transnational feminisms, and reproductive politics. Her book, Wives, Widows and Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India (2008) received the Joseph Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies. She is also the author of multiple articles, including most recently, “Feminism, Family Planning, and National Planning,” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (2021). Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Fulbright Hays Foundation.

Editor Shuvatri Dasgupta spoke to her about her monograph Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, now available open access thanks to the TOME initiative and the generous support of The Ohio State University Libraries. The book is also available in South Asia with Women Unlimited Press.

Shuvatri Dasgupta: I will start our conversation on your wonderfully moving monograph, “Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India”, with what I found to be the most striking aspect of your argument. Your work historically contextualizes the argument that our climate emergency can be addressed by limiting population growth through reproductive control, and hence, minimizing consumption and carbon footprint. By tracing the racist and imperialist roots of this discourse from the late nineteenth century, you illustrate the neo-Malthusian nature of this argument. You show us the ways in which, by controlling lower class-caste, brown and black women’s reproductive labor, this discourse seeks to legitimize the exploitative and extractivist politics of the Global North, in the Global South. It is only rarely that one encounters a historical narrative which speaks as empathetically and compassionately, as yours does to the problems of our present, such as climate change, structures of racial and gendered exclusions, not to mention a global pandemic, and what is now broadly known as a resultant “crisis of care”. In a way, your work is a history that seeks to imagine a politics for the present, and a future. My doctoral research is also largely shaped by a similar presentist concern. I read a history of marriage in colonial India, through the prism of a “care crisis”, under colonial capitalism. Our collaborative research network titled “Grammars of Marriage and Desire” is also inspired by the same set of questions. In what ways does your evocative research on reproductive politics help us imagine a “more just reproductive future” (in your words) and more generally a better and more caring world?

Mytheli Sreenivas: To imagine a more just reproductive future, we must grapple collectively with past injustices. This does not mean we need to dwell in the past. But commitment to a more caring future does require a clear-eyed understanding of how reproduction became, and remains, a site to perpetuate inequality and enact oppression.

            Looking across a century of history, my book traces how crises of subsistence were understood as crises of reproduction. This was the case, for example, during late-nineteenth century famines in India. Faced with widespread starvation, colonial administrators embraced a Malthusian worldview to argue that India was “overpopulated” because its population size was out of balance with the country’s resources. This argument turned attention away from the extractive policies of the imperial state, and from the failures of the government’s underfunded famine relief administration. Instead, it blamed famine on the reproductive practices of impoverished Indian peasants who were living at the edge of subsistence. Both British and Indian observers looked to marriage and kinship practices to argue that the poorest Indians were reproducing at unsustainable rates. Some Indian nationalists of the time, most notably Dadabhai Naoroji, pushed back against this Malthusian view, maintaining instead that an imperial “drain of wealth”—and not population size—explained India’s poverty. However, as you know, Malthusian ideas had a long life. By the mid-twentieth century, as Indian population began to grow, fears of overpopulation took hold both in the postcolonial state, and in global public discourse. As in the past, the size of India’s population became the pre-eminent explanation for Indian poverty, and reproductive practices were blamed for population growth.

            As you note in your question, these old ideas have gained new life in the context of the contemporary climate crisis. Top-down population control offers a seductive promise to global elites. It suggests that controlling the reproduction of others—rather than tackling the actual emitters of global greenhouse gases “at home”—will solve the problem of global heating. In India specifically, these ideas are gaining momentum with rising Hindu majoritarianism. Hindutva ideologies have long depended on the stigmatizing of Muslim reproduction as responsible for “overpopulation” and consequent failures of development. The recent Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill in Uttar Pradesh, introduced in July 2021 by the BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, traffics in precisely these ideas. This way of thinking stigmatizes certain people’s reproduction as a problem. Typically, these are people who are already the most marginalized, due to class, gender, caste, religious identity, indigeneity, and the intersections of all these. The result is a system of stratified reproduction, to borrow Shellee Colen’s evocative term, which asserts that certain people’s reproduction is of social value, and that of others is not.

            What kind of imagined reproductive future can challenge these past, and ongoing, injustices? One starting point for me comes from the definition of reproductive justice first outlined by African American and other women of color activists. They define reproductive justice as the “right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The right to have or not have children implies a whole host of other important rights, including a right to reproductive healthcare, access to contraception and abortion, and support for childcare. A drive for population control has diminished those rights, both through an active disregard for reproductive autonomy, and a persistent neglect of maternal and child health. Addressing these rights and needs is essential to address a broader care crisis.

It’s the last principle—to parent children in safe and sustainable communities—that makes reproductive justice a potentially radical premise for thinking and action. Creating a safe and sustainable community for all our children, those we birth, those we care for and raise, and all those near and far whom we love, requires a fundamental and wide-ranging social transformation. It takes on inequality and oppression in multiple forms. It refuses to turn ongoing crises of subsistence into crises of reproduction. And it makes clear that any solution to climate crisis must recognize that the greatest burdens of global heating are borne by the most marginalized among us. For me, that is a starting point to imagine more just reproductive futures.

SD: Your path-breaking monograph begins from the premise that it traces the history of three broad concepts—population, reproduction, and economy—over the course of the twentieth century. Although the title explicitly positions your study in “Modern India” (a subject we will return to later in this conversation), the spatial expanse of your study ranges from India to the United States of America, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Puerto Rico, from  New Zealand to Canada. Within this broad expanse, your actors, and their ideas, remain fluid and mobile. However, you always remain careful not to collapse categories of nationhood, womanhood, and racial and ethnic identities into one another. You illustrate wonderfully how a global intellectual history can generate languages of solidarity between groups and environments, which have been oppressed and exploited by intersectional, and interconnected structures of exclusion (such as race, caste, class, imperialism). Can you tell us a little bit more, with examples from the book, on why we need a global intellectual history of reproductive politics?

MS: I hope it will not seem overly simplistic if I say we need a global intellectual history of reproductive politics because (1) ideas about reproduction matter in the world; and (2) these ideas traveled across national boundaries and were transformed by this travel. My book aims to understand this history, and in the process to uncover a story of reproductive politics that was rooted in and routed through India, but was never about India alone.

As you note, I’m interested in the history of population and economy as abstractions—as a set of ideas and discourses that shaped the terrain of reproductive politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, I’m curious how claims about the impact of the “population,” or the importance of the “economy,” came to frame reproductive questions about the age of marriage, about appropriate forms of (hetero)sexuality, about the relationship between parents and children, or about the place of love and desire in conjugal relationships. The entanglement of population and economy in these questions was connected not only to Indian, but also to transnational and global contexts.

One example of this process comes from the book’s second chapter, which centers on the interwar decades. During this period, activists and thinkers put forward two different ways to grapple with what they understood as India’s overpopulation. One option was migration. Thinkers like Radhakamal Mukherjee, for example, argued that India’s “surplus” population might make admirable colonizers of supposedly emptier lands in the Americas or in the African continent. This call for migration offered a geopolitical solution to the question of population, suggesting that national borders be opened to Indian migrants. The second option was to regulate reproduction within the space of the nation. This offered a biopolitical solution to the population question, and was adopted by birth control activists, demographers, and others. Over time, however, the option of migration began to fall out of the discourse, and biopolitical interventions became the dominant mode of thinking about population. Even Mukherjee himself, who first wrote a book called Migrant Asia that envisioned a complete overhaul of migration globally, turned inwards to a biopolitical regulation of the body and the nation’s citizenry to address subsistence crises in his next book, Food Planning for Four Hundred Millions.

            To explain this shift from promoting migration to controlling population, we must investigate the creation of a “global color line” across the Anglosphere during the early twentieth century that excluded Indian migrants from the United States, Australia, and Canada. This transnational context is immensely important if we are to properly understand why reproductive control became so central to Indian thinking on population by the 1930s. The push to control birth gained ground when it seemed increasingly difficult to control land, that is, when a geopolitical solution to Indian population growth appeared impossible. At that moment, a biopolitical solution suggested that the nation-state could control its “own” population via closer control over its reproductive practices. By the 1950s and 1960s, Indian biopolitical thinking about population would become a foundation of global population control. I hope that a global intellectual history of reproductive politics makes these dynamics visible, and shows us how ideas about “Indian population” were never confined to India alone.

SD: I am particularly struck by your innovative methodology in the book, especially with regards to two aspects—the way you braid ethnographic accounts from anthropological studies (what historians call oral history) with historical archives; and the way you creatively broaden the frontiers of the archive itself by including deeply haunting visual, and oral sources, alongside textual ones. Through these methodological reinventions you ask: how have we historically thought of reproduction, and how did power relations (of state, of capital) shape global reproductive politics in the twentieth century?. Can you tell us a little bit more about how interdisciplinarity can inform the methodologies for writing global histories of concepts and ideas? How can we rethink intellectual history (and its inherent Eurocentric , elitist, and gendered biases) by rethinking the archive, and by incorporating insights from other disciplines such as anthropology?

MS: On one level, the book traces the genealogies of a dominant idea that understood reproductive norms and practices through the lens of population. This idea had Malthusian and eugenic roots, and over time, it became the basis of state policies.  Yet it was never the only idea in circulation. This becomes clear if we look carefully at the production of the dominant idea itself. For example, reports of family planning workers are replete with instances of interruption and questioning. It seems that each time these middle class women went to rural areas, or to working class neighborhoods, to persuade women to use birth control or curb their childbearing, they faced questioning and occasional hostility. Some of these questions make their way back into the family planners’ written accounts. For instance, one family planner reports back that a woman in an industrial neighborhood in Madurai believes that family planning need not apply to her, since both she and her family members earned good wages and could have as many children as they liked. I find this interjection significant because it is clearly aware of dominant Neo-Malthusian ideas, and apparently agrees that reproduction ought to be balanced with economic capacities. At the same time, the woman in Madurai—whose name is never given—situated herself differently within this idea. She seemed to see herself not as a “poor” woman whose reproduction ought to be curtailed, but as a “working” woman who earned her right to children.

I dwell on this example because it suggests how dominant ideas were at once adopted, reworked, and challenged. Any good intellectual history must recognize this process. However, although reading against the grain of archival texts can make some of this historical messiness visible, I was frustrated by the limits of these sources. Archives can serve to reinforce the dominance of dominant narratives; this is perhaps why so many contestations appear in my archival accounts as “rumor” or “gossip.” This is when I turned to ethnography. As Emma Tarlo argues in her brilliant ethnography of the Emergency in Delhi, the archives offer “paper truths” but ethnographic research and historical memory can tell us how those “truths” claimed their veracity. Deepa Dhanraj’s powerful documentary film, Something Like a War, shows us how women reject dominant narratives that stigmatize and demonize their reproduction. Even while confronting the power of state policy and ideology, they offer alternative understandings of their own desires and labors.

This kind of work inspired my own turn to oral history in the book’s epilogue. I wanted to learn from women who, by virtue of their caste and class positions, became the primary target of the Indian government’s population control policies. I’ll admit here that I approached these oral histories in hopes of finding resistance to the dominant Malthusian and eugenic narratives. But with help from my ethnographer colleagues, I eventually recognized that this was a limiting approach. Given the real material power of dominant ideas, why should we put the burden on the most marginalized women to articulate alternatives? Rather than seeking something a priori defined as resistance, I tried to understand how women had negotiated and engaged with reproductive healthcare systems that typically de-valued their reproductive work. And I found in their narratives a consistent re-valuing of their own reproductive labor, even when their conclusions sometimes aligned with the dominant assumptions of population control.


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Cover of Brochure The Population Bomb, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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