Men and Population Control in Postwar India: The Role of Gendered Knowledge


By Savina Balasubramanian

Population control efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have typically focused on managing women’s fertility. This is largely the result of longstanding cultural, political, and scientific associations of reproduction with women. Unsurprisingly, when the Indian state instituted population control as a national policy priority in 1952, it centered its initial efforts on women and the promotion of female contraceptive techniques.

A new focus on men

 Yet, from the 1960s through the mid-1970s, the Indian state expanded its efforts to incorporate men and male contraception. This shift was accompanied by efforts to promote the economic benefits of contraception through mass media targeted at men and interpersonal communication campaigns among government fieldworkers and lay male citizens. During this period, vasectomies accounted for the vast majority of recorded sterilizations in the country. Many occurred in government-authorized “mass sterilization camps”—makeshift events in which thousands of men were persuaded to undergo surgery, often under coercive conditions. These camps were highly theatrical and public affairs, involving poster and media exhibits, song-and-drama routines, and interpersonal exchanges among men and government-appointed “motivators” that touted the economic advantages of planned childbearing. Likewise, the Indian government invested in a heavily marketed, government-manufactured condom brand called “Nirodh.” Together, these communication campaigns were termed the “extension” approach: they attempted to use persuasive information to convince audiences of the relationship between planned conception and economic uplift. How and why did the Indian state come to target men’s reproductive decisions and fertility in these particular ways?

Framing men as “decision-makers”

Through qualitative analyses of primary archival materials, my article in Gender & Society argues that this focus on men was linked to the political influence of social scientific expertise on the Indian program and the gendered aspects of this expertise. Unlike their medical and biomedical contemporaries, social scientists in the field of “family planning communications” framed reproduction as a “cognitive” and not merely biological phenomenon—one that involved beliefs, attitudes, and decision-making. In doing so, they argued that population control was a matter of (1) increasing people’s psychological motivation to use contraception, (2) convincing people that childbearing could be manipulated to achieve economic uplift, and (3) using persuasive mass communications to attain these two goals. However, these arguments reinforced prevailing gendered ideologies that associated rational calculation, social motivation and leadership, and economic participation with masculinity. Working under these gendered assumptions, communication scientists maintained that it would behoove the Indian state to target its nascent communications campaigns on the economic virtues of planned conception at men.

Unfortunately, this understanding of men as primary “decision-makers” in the Indian context obscured Indian women’s influential roles in the family, community, and economy. It also reinforced the notion that Indian women were less concerned with rational calculation and economic decision-making than their husbands, which historians of women in modern India have shown was rarely the case. Intriguingly, the sterilization abuses inflicted on men during Indian Emergency Period of 1975-1977 made the promotion of vasectomies politically “unviable” thereafter, which led to a refocusing of the program on women despite their status as parallel targets of state coercion.

Future research on masculinity, science, and reproductive control

My research undercuts assumptions that men are generally precluded from state-led reproductive control. In postwar India, social scientific knowledge—however myopic—about who contributed to decision-making in the family, economy, and community significantly influenced the Indian state’s attempts to shape men’s reproductive practices. Relatedly, it encourages sociologists of reproduction to analyze the role of social scientific expertise in reproductive control. Doing so means expanding the definition of reproductive control beyond medicalized interventions into the reproductive body to include social and behavioral interventions into reproductive practices and ideologies. Examples of such interventions include sex education for adolescents and young adults, male contraceptive marketing, and even “responsible fatherhood” programs in the contemporary welfare state. As in the Indian case, it is worth exploring whether attempts to govern men’s roles in reproduction might in part be driven by enduring cultural and political associations of men and masculinity with calculative decision-making, rational thought, and economic participation.

Savina Balasubramanian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. Her research examines the global politics of gender and reproduction, science and technology, race, and law and society. Her previous work has appeared in Political Power and Social Theory and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

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