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 could not resist the temptation of approaching your work as a decolonial reading of Malthus. You trace the anti-colonial engagement with Malthusian thought, especially the way thinkers like Ranade, Annie Besant, Radhakamal Mukherjee, T.S Gopal, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Rama Rau (amongst many others), flirt with Malthuse’s central claim that poverty results not from inequality of distribution, but from an inherent imbalance between resources and the population. Simply put, reproductive control (through sexual abstinence/through contraceptions) was thought to be the answer to India’s growing poverty. Population was framed as the cause of a problem, which was actually caused by the violence of colonial, racialised, and gendered exploitation, over the course of the twentieth century. With an extremely thought provoking critique of the developmentalist and extractivist agenda of the state sponsored Green Revolution, you illustrate the power of Malthusian ideas by showing that even though “production” had increased, it failed to have any significant impact on postcolonial India’s reproductive policies which continued to control and exploit lower class/caste bodies. In a way, you trace a continuity between the policies and ideas on reproduction under colonial capitalism, under the post colonial modern Indian developmentalist state capitalism, and eventually under neoliberal capitalism in the age of climate crisis, through the prism of this Malthusian argument on population. I am wondering, what are your thoughts on how we can decolonize intellectual history, and decanonize it, in order to shape a history for the present, and imagine a politics of the future?

Mytheli Sreenivas: You are absolutely right regarding the continuity of Malthusian thinking over time and the ongoing implications of this way of thinking for reproductive politics. At each of these moments (colonial, postcolonial, and our current neoliberal capitalist times) I am interested in how and why Malthusian ideas became so convincing—so believable—to people as an explanation for the world they saw around them.

Starting with colonial history, I think Malthusianism became a powerful idea in the nineteenth century precisely because of imperial relationships both in India, as well as in Ireland. As I discussed in my response to your first question, Malthusian claims of overpopulation helped to absolve the imperial government of responsibility for Indian famine. In fact, many Malthusian thinkers pointed to famine as—ironically—one unintended outcome of the successes of British rule. They believed that the supposed security and stability brought by the British Empire in India allowed the population to increase, with the unintended consequence of famine. Even sympathetic British observers, like Annie Besant, were convinced by these claims. Indian nationalists who were critical of colonial rule, like Ranade, nevertheless accepted the premise of overpopulation, and re-purposed these ideas into what I call a “national Malthusianism.”

After independence, Malthusian thinking, joined to eugenics, offered a compelling promise to the postcolonial state, which staked its legitimacy on the success of its development agenda. A focus on controlling population growth suggested that the state could alleviate poverty without addressing inequality. At a mid-20th century moment when states, not only in India but in many parts of the world, were claiming greater authority over the lives of their citizens, state planning of population became one variable to manipulate vis-à-vis other economic indicators. The Indian government’s first Five Year Plan set forth this agenda when it called for a “reduction of the birth rate to the extent necessary to stabilize population at a level consistent with the requirements of national economy.” Our current moment continues this way of thinking because, once again, controlling population growth offers the compelling promise of curbing climate change. As in the past, this Malthusian idea claims to address a real crisis without taking on its root causes.

So what can all this offer for a project of decolonizing intellectual history? Recognizing the colonial origins of the power of certain ideas, and pointing out that nationalist responses sometimes utilized the same paradigms, may be a starting point, but cannot be the end point for a decolonial project. Years ago, in her famous essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty noted the distinction between two, equally necessary, projects: “deconstructing and dismantling” hegemonic discourses and “building and constructing” alternatives. I admit that my book falls more in the former camp. I aim to take apart and make visible the power of an idea, and show how it has become part of the common-sense of colonial, nationalist, and capitalist thinking. But to truly think differently—to envision human and non-human relationships outside of a devastating Malthusian and eugenic logic—is not so simple. We might start by looking at some ways people have contested this logic, which I try to do in the book. But I don’t think we’ll simply find an “elsewhere” or “otherwise” available for “our” expropriation, nor should we. I think it’s through the difficult work of unlearning, and of creating the conditions for living differently, that we might begin to imagine new worlds. After all, the power of Malthusian ideas came from imperial relationships. Who is to say that truly transforming those relationships will not help us to think, and believe, differently?

SD: By analyzing reproductive politics over the course of the twentieth century, you illustrate how the Malthusian state sponsored discourse on family planning gradually gave way to a neo-Malthusian discourse on reproductive rights. I am wondering, in the context of India (and elsewhere too), when and how does the question of reproduction get entangled with discourses on rights, agency, and choice of the individual, as a consumer, in the liberal free market?

MS: It’s true that the question of reproduction is deeply entangled in discourses of rights. However, the precise nature of this entanglement may seem surprising to us if we take contemporary debates about “reproductive rights” in the United States as a model. This perspective represents only one, among many, possible ways that “rights” have been configured in relation to reproductive practices, behaviors, and labors.

If we look at India in the decades surrounding independence, we find that discourses on reproduction consistently linked rights to duties. This was the position of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), for instance. On the eve of independence in 1946, AIWC president Hansa Mehta asserted that “Woman shall have a right to limit her family,” since it was women who bore the brunt of most reproductive labor. At the same time, she maintained that “woman should be conscious of this right which she must learn to exercise for her own good, for the good of the family and for the good of the country.” For Mehta, the “right” of reproductive control served a pedagogical function; women needed to learn their personal rights in order to exercise them for wider benefit. As Mehta, made clear later in this speech, this required women to understand the relationship between population growth, national resources, and economic development, and to curb their reproduction accordingly. Elsewhere, as in its “Indian Woman’s Charter of Rights and Duties,” the AIWC brought in the state as the guarantor of women’s reproductive rights, noting that while “Woman shall have a right to limit her family,” it would be the “duty of the state to provide the necessary knowledge” about birth control to women.

Within this framework, rights and duties became something that citizens, communities, and states owed to each other. A woman could exercise her rights to family limitation as part of her duties to these other entities. However, with the acceleration of the Indian government’s population control campaigns in the 1960s, this rights framework disappeared both discursively and in practice. Population policies did not represent poor and marginalized women as exercising rights or duties. They were seen only as dangerous bodies who propelled a population “explosion” that threatened national development. The implications of this way of thinking emerges most clearly in the Indian government’s disastrous IUD campaigns after 1965.

These varying conceptions of rights, and their negation in the context of population fears, is the context for understanding reproductive rights as consumer choice in a liberal free market. My book ends its historical narrative in the 1970s, and so does not analyze the decades of economic liberalization and neoliberal globalization that followed. However, as feminist scholars of new reproductive technologies make clear, contemporary reproductive markets (e.g. in surrogacy) offer only an illusion of “choice” or “rights” to women. Indeed, the very same women whose reproduction was stigmatized as a dangerous “population explosion” in the 1960s and 1970s are now told to make their wombs available to facilitate other people’s “rights” to reproduction via surrogacy. This new notion of neoliberal choice and rights is thus built upon a prior devaluing of reproductive autonomy, health, and citizenship that has its origins in the era of population control.

SD: In your third and fourth chapter you highlight the bourgeois nature of the postcolonial transnational “women’s movement”. By using an intersectional lens you produce a scathing critique of this, and show us how middle class upper caste women’s efforts at “family planning” progressed the postcolonial state’s violent “developmental” goals. But for you this is not a pessimistic story. Alongside your class critique, you record instances of resistance amongst your actors. Sometimes they remain anonymous in the archives, but even then you relentlessly trace their radical acts of resistance. In a field such as women’s history, where locating the subaltern in the archive can often be a matter of challenge- how does one look for hope against the pervasive hegemony of state and capital, in these histories? Where did you locate these instances of hope in the course of your historical excavation of reproductive politics?

MS: The third and fourth chapters hinge on a central question. From the 1940s to the 1960s, why were some leaders of the Indian women’s movement so committed to state-directed family planning, even when these state programs typically disregarded, and frequently violated, women’s reproductive rights and autonomy? There are a few ways to answer this question. One is to suggest that women leaders were simply co-opted by the state. Buoyed by the promises of independence, they followed state policies on family planning and population control uncritically. However, this explanation ignores the active role that many leaders in the women’s movement played to push the state to make family planning part of its development agenda, especially in the First Five Year Plan in 1952. Women like Hansa Mehta, Durgabai Deshmukh, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, and even to some extent Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, did not passively follow some pre-existing model of state-led population control. They actually helped to create and implement that model, and to make birth planning part of the state’s development planning. At the same time, there were moments when these same leaders questioned the state’s patriarchal policies, and sometimes they sought alternatives. Here too, they were not passive observers.

If we refuse to assume that the women’s movement was merely co-opted by the state, then we need to look seriously at how state-led family planning came to be represented as an important component of economic development for, and by, women. That is what my chapter aims to do, and in the process, I find numerous contingencies. I try to show how a commitment to providing women with birth control de-centered subaltern women’s agency and autonomy even while claiming to support their welfare, and ultimately, how women’s well-being was undermined in a quest to control population growth. The middle class leadership of organizations like the All India Women’s Conference and the Family Planning Association of India tended to see subaltern women, at best, as recipients of social welfare, and failed to imagine solidarities of struggle with the lower caste, poor, and rural women whom the state targeted for population control. At the same time, a powerful transnational scientific and demographic consensus advanced fears of a “population bomb” and promoted draconian programs in the name of achieving a “demographic transition” in India, as elsewhere in the formerly colonized world. The women’s movement was thus hardly alone in supporting state-led family planning.

This brings me, finally, to your question about hope. I admit that the grim narrative I outline in the book can feel somewhat hopeless at times. Yet I do find hope in the contingencies. If outcomes were not pre-determined in the past, I feel convinced that they will not be in the future either. The Indian campaign for IUDs in the 1960s is one good example. Although there was not a widespread or organized movement to resist the government’s plans, many thousands of women refused to get an IUD in substandard conditions and the state failed to meet its own targets. Eventually feminists, health activists, and others came to reject top-down, target-driven models of population control. Their organizing pushed the U.N. Conference on Population and Development to reject targets, and even the term “population control” at its conference in Cairo in 1994. Although the more progressive vision offered in Cairo has not been fulfilled, its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights has offered a vocabulary for reproductive justice organizing. All of this is incredibly hopeful to me. Without ignoring the power of systems and institutions—the state, capital—I think there is still space to recognize people’s ability to advance ideas that are opposed to dominant ideologies.

SD: In your last chapter, you paint a haunting trajectory of the discourses on population explosion, and the false consciousness it generated through the “small family, happy family” campaigns. You point out quite correctly how this discourse sidestepped the question of undervaluing the female child. How does the intersections of patriarchy and class (with caste/race/ethnicity/religion), shape the lifeworlds of women who have reproduced, and women who hope to reproduce in the future? How has this shaped inter-generational and intra-generational female kinship?

MS: The last chapter, on the discourse of the “small family, happy family,” looks at the intersections of two histories that are often understood separately: the history of sexuality, and the history of the economy as an idea or concept. I trace how heterosexuality, in particular, became a site to enforce a set of claims about the economy. Population controllers, especially from the 1960s onward, tried to mobilize heterosexuality to promote planning for the future—the future of the nation, and the future of the family itself. They claimed this kind of planning and future orientation would provide immediate emotional and financial benefits to small and happy families. Attention to the visual images that saturated print culture and public spaces helped me to trace this history.

The image of the small and happy family sidestepped many things, and among them, as you point out, was the question of son preference. Representations of this family in the 1960s invariably showed a boy and a girl child; if a third child were present, it would be a baby of indeterminate gender. I cannot claim to know how people reacted to this vision, or how it shaped lifeworlds. What I do know, based on the work of feminist scholars, is that we cannot assume gendered solidarities. There are many reasons for women to accede to and even support patriarchal ideas, and to become active participants in a family’s drive for sons, not daughters. Not least of these reasons is that patriarchal structures give some women, at some life stages, a measure of power.

From the oral histories in the book, I learned that an apparent acquiescence to dominant ideas does not mean that these ideas are completely accepted, or that they shape the whole of a person’s consciousness. For the women interviewed, planning for a small family was not based on the promise of future prosperity. The small family was a response to their precarity in the present. Some spoke of it as a loss, something they had to do because of an insecure family or financial situation. The inter- and intra-generational solidarities they forged with other women were necessitated by their needs, and motivated by their commitments to their children and grandchildren. But they were not, from what I could understand, rooted in a belief that small families were the path to happiness.

SD: On a concluding note, I find myself wondering about the act of writing histories of ideas, which uncover trajectories of oppression, and exploitation, but also bring to light instances of resistance against domination of state and capital. In your acknowledgements, you mention in a heartwarming manner that this history of reproduction which you present in your work, is after all a history of life itself. In resistance to neoliberal capitalism, Marxist-Feminists, environmental activisits, bring to light life-making work (all kinds of actions taken to maintain and reproduce life, which remain undervalued and unquantifiable-mostly performed by women) over the thing-making (abstract, alienating, quantifying, value-generating) urge of capitalism. Your history of reproduction in that sense then is also a history of life-making. Does the act of writing global histories of ideas, such as yours, then emerge as an unquantifiable labor, a radical act of caring, against the increasing quantifying violence which characterizes the age of the capitalocene?

MS: The book investigates what happens when “life-making” work gets understood, and measured, in the logic of “thing-making.” I hope, in the process, it may tell us something about life-making labor, or at least point to its importance in sustaining our worlds. I wrote the acknowledgements during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when it seemed many people were re-valuing the work of life-making, and this was at the forefront of my thinking.

I feel gratified by your suggestion that the book might be a radical act of caring, and thank you for that. Yet I’m wary of putting it into the category of an “unquantifiable labor” that may be life-making.  Given the structures of academia, scholarly books are necessarily implicated in thing-making of course. One has only to look at how research productivity is measured, and labor is valued/de-valued, and it becomes difficult to lay claim to a life-making space. From my perspective at least, there is something of love in this book, which is rooted in a commitment that these are histories that need to be told. But the true life-making work, I think, is happening elsewhere.

Perhaps such work may happen via dialogue. I thank you for these generous questions, and for creating a space for our conversation.

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: : Stamp of India, 1966, depicting ‘Small Family, Happy Family’ ideal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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