The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Gender and Power: Sterilisation under the Emergency in India, 1975-1977

Gemma Scott


On June 26th 1975 the Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi imposed a state of internal Emergency in response to rising opposition and unrest in the country. Gandhi deemed the imposition necessary to protect law and order and yet it was also a response to a personal crisis for her. The Allahabad High Court found her guilty of electoral misconduct on June 12th and in her opinion, this ruling and the activities of the opposition constituted a ‘deep and widespread conspiracy’ against her (Gandhi, 1984, 177).  Overnight, the authorities incarcerated members of the political opposition and other dissenters and detained them without trial. They also imposed oppressive censorship on the press, eliminated parliamentary functioning and effectively rendered India a one party state. The government also used Emergency powers to pursue intrusive slum clearance and family planning policies, which, in such a political climate, meant the destruction of thousands of homes and a vigorous programme of forced sterilisation. In March 1977 Indira Gandhi’s government finally held elections. Indian voters overwhelmingly rejected it and the Emergency that it had imposed.

The historiography of the Emergency has been dominated by literature from perspectives such as political science, political economy and legal history.1 There has been less attention paid to the Emergency government’s policies of sterilisation than to other facets, such as explaining its imposition or analysing its constitutional amendments. This is despite the fact that, as noted by Vena Soni, these policies were ‘more intensive and aggressive than any other birth control programme in India’ (Soni 141) and were arguably the state’s greatest infringement of human rights during this period. There has been very little attention paid to how these policies actually functioned as part of the Emergency government’s wider power and politics, or to understanding how they impacted those who were affected.

Emma Tarlo’s anthropological study has gone some way to addressing this gap. Tarlo conducted archival work on documents from the Delhi Development Authority and amassed an extensive collection of oral narratives from residents of one colony about their experiences of Emergency policies. Her study provides a unique subaltern insight into this period, as she described her use of Gandhi’s Emergency as ‘a trope through which to explore the emergencies of daily life for poor and marginalised sections of the Delhi population’ (Tarlo 5).  Rebecca Jane Williams’ recent article, following extensive work in the archive of the Shah Commission of Inquiry (set up to investigate excesses committed by authorities under the Emergency) has also shed light on these events. Williams emphasised the historical roots of Emergency sterilisation in family planning policies since independence and argued that they were entrenched within the government’s wider economic schemes. However, the gendered nature of these policies has not been critically analysed. This is the case for the Emergency period at large, but is particularly surprising in relation to sterilisation, given the way in which its impacts on the body, reproductive functioning and family roles explicitly raise gendered questions.

This paper will begin to address this gap in the historiography of the Emergency, drawing on the now well-established arguments for using gender as a tool for historical analysis. Joan Wallach Scott was one of the first to set out such arguments, insisting that ‘gender is one of the recurrent references by which political power has been conceived, legitimised and criticised’ (Scott 1074). This paper will analyse the presence of gendered references and images in these sterilisation policies. From this perspective it argues that the entrenchment of Emergency sterilisation within conceptions of gender accounts for its disempowering impact, and for the place of these particular policies in the wider disciplinary power structure of the Emergency state. The paper will begin by considering the interrelation between these policies and state power. It will then consider how conceptions of masculinities and femininities were central to this programme – in terms of how it was articulated and implemented by the Emergency government, and to how it was perceived and experienced by Indians.

Sterilisation and Emergency Power

The Emergency government used sterilisation policies as an exertion of power during this period. This is evident from the ways in which they were detached from genuine family planning. The Emergency state pursued a programme of unprecedented scale; during September 1976 alone 1.7 million people were sterilised, equalling the annual average for the preceding ten years (Gwatkin 29). During the year 1976-77, the target of 4.3 million sterilisations set by the Government of India was exceeded by 190% (Shah Commission of Inquiry 5-6).

In his 1978 series on the Emergency in The Times, British journalist Bernard Levin used such statistics to denounce the sterilisation programme. He also cited letters, written during the Emergency from the Central Government to officials in various states, complimenting those who had already completed more sterilisation operations than their targets required. Worryingly, these letters also encouraged continuance, as the quotas set by the Central and State Governments became unrealistically high and great pressure was placed on people to meet and exceed them (Levin, 1st November). News agency Reuters similarly realised that the realities of these policies had been severed from sensible planning. In a dispatch from Delhi during the Emergency it reported that the targets had ‘become something of a national game...States and the various regions within states have been encouraged to vie with each other in performance’ (qtd in Mehta 153).

Government officials were not concerned about who was used to meet these targets, as authorities performed many sterilisations on people ineligible for family planning. The second report of the Shah Commission of Inquiry cited ‘five-hundred-and-forty-eight-complaints regarding sterilisation of unmarried persons’ (267). Underground newspaper Satya Samachar reported similarly that,‘young, old and even invalid people were dragged off to sterilisation camps’ (qtd. in Guha 574). The Shah Commission reported the testimony of one particular doctor working during the Emergency period: he emphasised the general pressure on medical staff to sterilise ineligible cases, claiming that ‘as the civil officers were keen to achieve their sterilisation quotas, they habitually brushed aside objections raised by doctors’ (Government of India, August 1978, 32). The Emergency authorities’ complete disregard for actual family planning is further evidenced by perceptions of the campaign. Emma Tarlo concluded from her field work that ‘the total absence of reference to the question of whether or not they had wanted more children’ was the most striking feature of many citizens’ accounts (Tarlo 176).

A distinguishing feature of Emergency sterilisation was the authorities’ widespread use of force and coercion. On April 16th 1976 Dr Karan Singh, Minister for Health and Family Planning, announced the government’s new National Population Policy in a statement to the nation. His statement made it clear that the central government sanctioned and even encouraged states to legislate for compulsory sterilisation. In it Singh claimed that the ‘vast implications of nation-wide compulsory sterilization’ and the inability of India’s medical and administrative infrastructure to cope with these implications were the only reasons that the Central Government had not included compulsion in this policy (Singh 22). However he went on to stress that in spite of this, where an individual state felt that the ‘facilities available to them [were] adequate to meet the requirements of compulsory sterilisation’ and that the time was ‘ripe and it is necessary to pass legislation for compulsory sterilisation’, then ‘we [the central government] are of the view...[that] it may do so’ (my emphasis, Singh 22).

During the Emergency more incentives and disincentives for sterilisation were instituted than ever before and these often equated to direct force. Incentives had historically been a facet of Indian family planning policies, yet the scale of their implementation increased during this period and they became extremely wide ranging. In response to a question in the Lok Sabha in August 1976 the Deputy Minister for Health and Family Planning described the extent of these measures. He stated that the disincentives were:

Broadly in the shape of denial of privileges and concessions like maternity leave, loans/and advances for different purposes, allotment of accommodation/land, free medical treatments, freeships/educational allowance for children and employment opportunities for public servants and members of the public, as the case may be, who do not limit their family to a prescribed number of children or fail to undergo sterilisation (Shah Commission of Inquiry, 20).

Despite being termed ‘privileges’ it is clear that for families lacking other means to access these facilities the element of choice was minimal. Other disincentives overtly related to necessities rather than ‘privileges’ included the stoppage of salaries and denial of ration cards for citizens who refused operations. This served unofficially to provide the compulsory sterilisation that Singh leaned towards in his policy outline.  As a result of this inclination for compulsion and the broad spectrum of incentives and disincentives instituted, sterilisation became a means of accessing basic amenities rather than a way of planning families during the Emergency.

A collection of circulars and newsletters from the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Garden Association provide a typical case of what the government was ‘offering’ people in exchange for sterility. The issue from May 1976 stated that the deputy secretary to the Government of Assam’s Health and Family planning Department had ‘confirmed that any voluntary organisation including tea garden hospitals will be entitled to receive diet money, payment for drugs and dressings, motivators’ fee and acceptors’ fee’ (Assam Branch Indian Tea Association, May 1976). This demonstrates the pervasion of these incentives – from the Central Government in Singh’s recommendations of compulsion, to state governments and further down to the organisations and individuals within them. This collection of circulars also helps to historicise the increased pressures of the Emergency period compared to pre-Emergency family planning. Monetary incentives did exist before June 26th 1975, but the circulars show that ‘the Government of Assam had notified enhanced rates of compensation with effect of 1st May 1976’, in line with the increase advocated by the Central Government in the National Population Policy announcement. This increase meant the Association now offered the higher rates as set down by the Centre: Rs 150 for those who undertook a sterilisation with two surviving children, Rs 100 for those with three and Rs 70 for those with four or more (Assam Branch Indian Tea Association, August 1976).

With the focus almost solely on these measures to achieve the required number of operations, Emergency sterilisation was completely detached from family planning. Prior to the Emergency the Indian government took a ‘cafeteria’ approach to this policy, with family planning campaigns promoting IUDs, condoms, spacing methods, and other forms of contraception besides sterilisation (Government of India, August 1978, 32). The complete severing of the relationship between sterilisation and family planning by the Emergency government is starkly evident by the rejection of this approach. Instead, the sole emphasis was on achieving the targets set for terminal operations. A striking example of this detachment is evident in the Government of Haryana’s instructions regarding the sterilisation of its employees. The Finance Secretary to the State Government set out in an order that, ‘it is to be clarified…that no government servant will be granted exemption from sterilisation operation merely because his/her spouse has had an IUD insertion or claims the use of condoms’ (Government of Haryana, 63-4). For the purposes of achieving the small family norm, this was clearly redundant. The goal of protecting couples with contraception had been lost sight of in favour of the ruthless imposition of sterilisation operations, as an arm of the Emergency state’s power over its citizens.

In order to understand how these coercive policies functioned as an exercise of power by Emergency authorities, they must be considered alongside the relationship between power and the body. In Discipline and Punish Foucault emphasised the important role of the body in social discipline. For him, the body ‘is directly involved in the political field; power relations have an immediate hold on it; they invest it, mark it, train it, force emit signs’ (25). Many aspects of this analysis correspond with the Emergency state’s exertion of power over bodies through sterilisation. The government, by implementing coercive policies, removed individual agency and instead placed these family planning decisions in its own hands. Decisions to accept sterilisation were brought to the forefront of the political field and in doing this the Emergency government invested in bodies, making the acceptance of operations an economic exchange. With coercion widespread there was force involved in these policies, and as we will see, these operations impacted the gendered performances, signs emitted, of those who received them.

The Emergency government also entrenched sterilisation within its wider power relations. A key facet of Foucault’s work is his emphasis on the way in which certain kinds of punishment form regulatory power. There is much evidence that Emergency authorities sterilised people as punishment. For example, in October 1976 riots broke in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, as people campaigned against Emergency policies (including sterilisation). State police reacted to these riots by seizing rickshaw driver and stall owners and forcing them to accept vasectomies. With the rioters still active two days later, police attempted to subdue the crowds by rounding up more sterilisation ‘volunteers’, including two men over the age of seventy-five and two boys under the age of eighteen (Mehta 163).

The Shah Commission documented a similar incident in the village of Uttawar, Haryana. On December 6th, after around eight hundred villagers refused to co-operate with Emergency family planning, police raided the village with ‘armed rifles [and] tear gas’ (Government of India, August 1978, 28). Following the raid they sent many villagers to Hathin police station for ‘interrogation’ and took a further one-hundred-and-eighty to nearby family planning centres at Mandkola for vasectomies. Staff at the centres carried out these operations under the same pressures previously discussed. One villager who testified before the commission described having been operated on ‘despite his plea that he had only one issue, a daughter’. This man stated that ‘initially the doctor had refused to operate on him, but later on was pressurised by the police to undertake the operation’, a statement that numerous medical staff corroborated (Government of India, August 1978, 31).

This raid and subsequent forced operations serve as examples of how the Emergency state punished its citizens by sterilising them. Documents of official meetings unearthed by the Commission show that authorities were aware and discontented that this ‘troublesome’ village was not co-operating with their policies. They planned the raid to punish inhabitants of this particular village. In preparation, they cut electricity to buildings in the area and registered fabricated cases against a number of villagers for suspected possession of firearms to justify their intervention. The Shah Commission report concluded that the raid and subsequent sterilisations were ‘planned deliberately’ by officials because of the local populations’ refusal to submit to state programmes (Government of India, August 1978, 32). Davidson R Gwatkin has argued that whilst this example is extreme, it was not an isolated incident (Gwatkin 46).

The presence of Emergency rule and these particular policies served to create a general climate of fear in line with Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power, as ‘panic prevailed’ in the country during this period (Jai 57). A number of first-hand accounts demonstrate this, for example, Satya Samachar noted, ‘the atmosphere of apprehension and mutual distrust and suspicion is so pervasive’ (qtd. in Basu 32). That the Emergency caused an atmosphere of apprehension is unsurprising, as it invested authorities with powers to arrest, detain and sterilise people, all of which constituted a threat to citizens. Davidson R Gwatkin has illustrated how fear played an important role in the power wielded by the government in a manner similar to Foucault’s panoptic regulation.2 Gwatkin noted that:

The likelihood that a trip to the next village would lead to forcible sterilisation may indeed have been great; but it need not have been in order to explain the degree of unrest...Whatever the truth of the matter, many people, probably millions, believed their reproductive abilities [were] seriously jeopardised (49).

Similarly, the biographer of Indira Gandhi’s son observed that, particularly in the Northern regions of India, ‘the dreaded Nasbandi...struck demonic terror’ (Mehta 142). Tarlo found many testaments to such terror in her conversations with Delhi residents, including one worker who claimed not to have stirred from his house unless absolutely necessary. He stated that his employer even encouraged this rather than see him face a forced operation (154). The number of examples of this prompted Tarlo, like Gwatkin, to conclude that this fear was widespread, entrenched in the many facets of the Emergency system and its broader impacts on citizens’ daily lives. She asserted:

For those who had escaped the sterilisation net (through employment), hospitals, schools and government offices were places to be avoided. What emerges from people’s accounts is a sense of a shrinking environment as all civic institutions and public spaces in the city came to be perceived as places of danger (160).

Clearly, emergency sterilisations functioned as much more than family planning. They became a means of government authorities exerting power, in ways that were embedded within the broader politics and climate of the State of Emergency. I will now turn to consider the impact of these policies on the gendered identities – in terms of masculinities and feminities – of citizens under Emergency rule, to further argue for their status as an exertion of power by the Emergency state.

Sterilisation and the Masculine

75% of people sterilised by the Emergency government were men. This is unsurprising given the pressures of the target system. The speed of operation, recovery time and lower risk of complications as compared with female sterilisation made vasectomy preferable for meeting the Government’s demands. After a visit to Uttar Pradesh in September 1976, Joint Secretary for Health and Family Planning Serla Grewal identified a ‘healthy trend…that tubectomy operations are declining while vasectomy operations are on the increase’ (Shah Commission of Inquiry, 12).  She also stressed this to be one of the only reasons that despite the state’s poor infrastructure, ‘the programme has caught up’ (12). Regions in north India, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Orissa and Haryana became popularly known as part of India’s ‘vasectomy belt’ because the government achieved such high volumes of male sterilisations in these areas.

The disproportionately high number of vasectomies over tubectomies can also be explained by the Emergency government’s entrenchment of many of its incentives and disincentives for sterilisation in the male dominated work place. The Tea Garden circulars demonstrated this, as the state offered monetary incentives for sterilisation through this institution to its workers. Elsewhere, as part of the state’s wide range of disincentives, men were threatened with job loss and salary cuts unless they complied with sterilisation. This was particularly the case for, although was by no means confined to, those who worked within government and civic institutions. By threatening to remove men’s contributions to the family home, the state affected the gendered identities of thousands of men faced with this coercion. The account of one government sweeper from Delhi serves to demonstrate the importance of a masculine sense of identity and gendered role as family head in his decision to accept sterilisation during this period. He asserted:

The officers said you could keep your job only if you get sterilised. I didn’t have time to think. When I reached my duty we were told this...I agreed to it because I had to save my job and bring up my family (Tarlo 152).

On the other hand, as the government offered cash in exchange for sterilisation – money which could be used (and for many people was no doubt desperately needed) to provide for a family. Thus, sterilisation was a means by which to attain additional economic benefits and retain work. At the same time, acceptance inhibited the possibility for men of performing the gendered identity of ‘creator’ of the family. For many men this pressure from the state precipitated a difficult choice of providing for existing kin or fathering more children.

Significantly, the government’s deployment of elements of coercion and force seriously jeopardised a family’s ability to make its own decisions regarding fertility. Many of the Emergency’s incentives left little room for negotiation. The state removed agency from the household head with whom such decisions would usually lie placing it instead in the hands of the authorities enforcing Emergency policies. Studies of childbearing and family dynamics in India have stressed the importance of this role in forming familial and individual identities. Jeffrey et al for example, found in their village level study conducted shortly after the end of Emergency ‘that an essential component of husband’s rule is sexual power over his wife’ (29). Emma Tarlo encountered specific instances of the Emergency state undermining this position. One woman described that the male heads of her family had tried to prevent the local authorities’ attempt to sterilise their women. However, when officials offered the women food and other basic amenities in the absence of the men, these women yielded and accepted the operations. This, in turn, caused much conflict and disruption within the family (Tarlo 175). 

Many men were embarrassed and emasculated by the forced vasectomies of the Emergency. This is indicative of a wider stigma; psychological studies have demonstrated strong links between vasectomy and feelings of emasculation. It was (and indeed, still often is) perceived as threatening to sexual functioning and damaging to family roles and relationships. Char et al’s contemporary study focused on male perceptions of sterilisation in India. The researchers found responses such as ‘if I get it done, people will laugh at me and say, “why are you doing this woman’s thing?”‘ to be common amongst participant’s when asked about their feelings towards vasectomy (135). The anti-Emergency slogan ‘Indira Hatao Indira Bachao’ (which translates as ‘Abolish Indira and Save Your Penis’) is indicative of this stigma and sense of emasculation. It clearly aligned Gandhi, the Emergency state and its sterilisation policies as threats to men and conceptions of masculinity.

Fieldwork on the Emergency concurs with the sense of gendered disempowerment encapsulated in this slogan. Lee Schlesinger, in his specific study of one village’s Emergency experience, found that for all who went under the Emergency state’s knife ‘the vasectomy operation [was] traumatic’. It was viewed by these villagers as ‘a radical violation of one’s body, and, for some, a purpose in life’ and many who had received the operation found it difficult to discuss (Schlesinger 641). Emma Tarlo reported the same stigma. One of her correspondents put it clearly: ‘a man is considered a woman after being sterilised’ (172). The dominance of these perceptions was such that Tarlo highlighted the pervading presence of a distinct fear during the Emergency (and indeed following it) ‘concentrated around the notion of lost virility and the idea that they would no longer be able to satisfy their wives’. She noted that this became the butt of many popular jokes and slogans during this period (172).

Much resistance to the Emergency centred on these feelings of emasculation and the oppressive facets of the sterilisation policies, and they contributed significantly to Gandhi’s electoral defeat in March 1977. Tension and resistance over sterilisation arose before voters were allowed at the polls. In 1976 Satya Samachar published one observer’s response to Gandhi’s insistence that Emergency sterilisation was necessary for economic growth: ‘Nobody has a quarrel with the economic policies of the Prime Minister, but the way in which they are being implemented, I’m sure, will lead to an explosion’ (qtd. in Guha 514). The majority of post-Emergency writers have also identified fear and fury over sterilisation as a primary cause of resistance and antagonism from the voting public to the Emergency government. James Chadney for example, stated that coerced sterilisation was ‘one of the most unpopular aspects of Indira Gandhi’s rule and resulted in her electoral defeat in 1977’ (84). Indeed, the ruling party itself appears to have been aware of this unpopularity. The Central Government hastily issued orders withdrawing the programme of disincentives in February 1977, following this withdrawal with a series of public statements denouncing the use of compulsion in family planning (Government of India, August 1978, 160). The demand for the government to remove restrictions on civil liberties and cease forced sterilisations also made up a large part of the Janata Party’s opposition campaign – their electoral success is clear evidence of the widespread discontent caused by this policy.

Sterilisation and the Feminine

Indira Gandhi and the Emergency government consistently articulated these sterilisation policies through the use of gendered discourses, emphasising the potential benefits for India’s women and referring to the gendered images of wife and mother. Feminists since Mary Wollstonecraft have, in the West, emphasised a link between female emancipation and access to birth control. Indira Gandhi employed discourses of female emancipation to advocate Emergency family planning, but in this instance to remove women’s control of their bodies and make a case for compulsion. In December 1976 for example, in a speech at Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University, Gandhi defended the government’s use of coercion in sterilisation with the statement that ‘those who oppose any element of pressure ought to remember that conservative groups once argued that forcing them to send their girls to school was a violation of their rights’ (Gandhi, 1984, 605). In public addresses she consistently declared the aim of this policy to be restoring joy to motherhood (Gandhi, 1975, 76). Moreover in April 1976, almost immediately after the release of the National Population policy which encouraged the use of compulsion, she claimed that sterilisation ‘redresses the balance of the women greater control over their lives and children a chance of a better life’ (Gandhi, 1984, 605).

Prior to the Emergency in India international family planning agencies with imperialistic agendas used ideas of femininity to exert power in a similar way. Matthew Connelly has extensively analysed the imperialistic nature of these agencies and particularly the New York based Population Council. The council rarely discussed their plans as humanitarian efforts, but rather projected them as economic ventures, where the directors of local centres in India needed to combine the qualities of ‘scientist, pioneer, diplomat and salesman’ (Connelly 2006 627). Significantly, the writers of the reports of this international agency used the same language as the Emergency government to articulate these policies, as one official noted that ‘the program can be sold on the basis of the mother’s health...there will be no problem getting in foreign countries on that basis’ (633). The insincerity of this statement is striking. This representative of the council was not genuinely invested in the notion of healthy motherhood, rather it served as an image that could be easily and profitably manipulated as a selling point, a platform from which to ‘get in’ and establish power.

Elsewhere Connelly highlighted that such discourses, of medicine and disease, have historically formed a crucial component of rhetoric on overpopulation (2006, 200). This observation is applicable to the Indian context. Government and non-Government organisations have articulated policies and statements on population control in these terms, of waging a war on the ‘disease’ of high fertility, before, during and after the Emergency. This imagery – of disease, health and medicine – was prominent in Gandhi’s Emergency discourse. Images of health and medicine ran throughout her official addresses and public justifications for the declaration, as she consistently referred to the threat of ‘paralysis’ that faced the government from the opposition (178, 181, 190, 227). Gandhi explicitly allied this medical discourse with the government’s reasons for imposing Emergency rule in one broadcast, as she asserted that:
The country has developed a disease, and if it is to be addressed, it has to be given a dose of medicine, even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure...So we will give this bitter medicine to the nation (228).

As one of the Emergency government’s central programmes, family planning formed part of the ‘medicine’ that Gandhi alleged to be administering to the diseased nation. The government, like the New York Population Council, used a discourse of female emancipation to ‘get in’ and advocate this controversial policy of forced sterilisation.

Gandhi’s use of discourses of femininity and motherhood to promote Emergency sterilisation was insincere - comparable with the Population Council official analysed by Connelly. Elsewhere she adopted a distinctly anti-feminist stance. She staunchly distanced herself from pro-women ideologies. She responded to questions about the importance of her position as a female Prime Minister with the statement ‘I am not a feminist. I am simply doing a particular job and would do it wherever I was placed’ (Ali 182). During the years of Emergency, Gandhi spoke at a number of women’s conferences, yet her addresses consistently opened with denunciations. In one instance she declared herself ‘a bit allergic to such conferences’, and in another she decried them as ‘repetitive and costly’ (Gandhi, 1984, 523 and 753). Furthermore, she often undermined the feminist cause and whilst she advocated general rights, she was consistently critical of any singular or special focus on women.  For example, she urged that ‘the under-privileged in the world are not only the women...Don’t think that men are liberated by any means’ (525). Gandhi’s lack of investment in emancipatory discourses makes her mobilisation of them to advocate the use of compulsion in Emergency family planning particularly problematic.

If the Emergency government expressed its sterilisation policies through female gendered identities, particularly mothering and female empowerment, then there was little space for women to resist these policies. Resistance to the Emergency’s programme of forced sterilisation formed a crucial part of resistance to the regime, and it was the most important factor around which the Indian voting public mobilised to remove it in 1977. As we have seen, this mobilisation was distinctly gendered with an emphasis on emasculation (as evidenced by the ‘Indira Hatao Indira Bachao’ protest phrase) excluding women from participation.

Moreover, the government placed women undergoing sterilisation under Emergency policies in a distinctly paradoxical position. Traditionally, from both practical and cultural standpoints, marriage and motherhood were (and are) primary goals and marks of womanhood, with ‘any deviation from these roles...considered inappropriate and negatively sanctioned’ (Puri 36). The researchers of one village level study stressed that a childbearing ‘career’ was essential for women, and from their encounters they concluded that ‘not to want children is unthinkable, to fail to conceive or have no living children is usually calamitous’ (Jeffrey et al 87).  Gandhi’s discursive construction of sterilisation as pro-women was distinctly in contrast with this traditional cultural standpoint. Through the articulation of these policies in this way, the government not only recommended the renunciation of reproductive capacities to India’s women, but depicted it as integral to their femininity.

Moreover, it is well established that historically, particularly at the grass roots level, population control has focused on outcasts and those lower down in the echelons of society (Connelly, 2008, 229). Emma Tarlo’s findings on the ‘forcible deal’, as she terms it, of Emergency sterilisation concurred with this, as she stressed that ‘the nature of the deal depends on where one is placed in the social system’ (149). It is essential to remember that these policies operated within a heavily patriarchal society, with significant gender biases in employment, education access to resources and a multitude of other areas. Thus the ability to reproduce often served as a woman’s the greatest source of empowerment.

Certainly, fieldwork from around this period has emphasised the power available to women from this position – Jeffrey et al provided some striking examples in their study. In the village that they observed, aside from the empowerment available to its women from being the providers of children, and particularly the bearers of sons, the nature and experiences of pregnancy and birth were empowering in their own right. The researchers described a typical post birth celebration:

Now they have time to celebrate the birth...From neighbouring houses come girls and babies aside their hips, their mothers...The courtyard buzzes with anticipation as some fifty women and girls crowd around (Jeffrey et al., 123).

This tableaux of female unity, a sisterhood brought about by the common ability of these women’s bodies to reproduce and the subsequent shared experiences of pregnancy, birth and motherhood serve as empowering. The description continues, recording women singing songs with double meanings, entendres and comments about the stilling of their husbands’ testicles and his reproductive and sexual capacities. Here we have a clear example of the act of childbirth itself, as well as identities of motherhood, being empowering in the daily lives of women – a power that the Emergency state forcibly intervened with, threatened and at times removed.

Moreover, where Emergency authorities removed much of a family’s agency in the ability to decide on its own family planning, women suffered a double loss of agency. Women were often denied from this decision making process in any case – thus the Emergency state’s intrusion into this through force meant that they had this decision made for them on two fronts. Tarlo’s anthropological findings presented a number of women whose husbands had accepted a vasectomy during the Emergency, informing them only after the operation had taken place. She also encountered instances of husbands’ attempts to negotiate the Emergency pressure to get sterilised and receive related benefits whilst avoiding their own operations. This often resulted in the sacrificing of their wives’ bodies. Lee Schlesinger’s village level study corroborated this. He also concluded that in 1976 the ‘voluntarily’ sterilised spouse was ‘almost always the wife’ (640).

One particular worker, a rickshaw driver, encountered by Tarlo described the coercive ‘options’ given to him by one government official: a choice to either get himself sterilised, provide someone else, or pay damages for refusing the operation. His response to this difficult situation proved to be a common one: ‘we could not afford to pay for a case so my wife had to get sterilised’ (Tarlo, 165). Furthermore, the fact that medical staff were working under intense pressure, caused by the central government’s target system, meant that procedures were often rushed and conducted inadequately. Unsurprisingly as a result of this, many patients developed infections and some operations were unsuccessful. Tarlo noted the particularly negative effect that this had on women in the colony she observed, with unsuccessful operations described by the residents as having resulted in accusations of adultery, marital splits and the marginalisation of allegedly adulterous wives (173).


This paper has argued that sterilisation during the Emergency did not function as family planning but as an exercise of power. From analysis of official articulations of these policies, the nature of their implementation and the ways in which they were perceived, it is clear that the Emergency government’s sterilisation policies were disempowering to those on their receiving end. They were entrenched within the wider politics and power of the Emergency and formed part of the broader climate of regulation and suppression in this period. This paper has also demonstrated the gendered nature of this power. Analysing sterilisation in gendered contexts, this paper has begun to show that one of the crucial ways in which these policies functioned as disempowering was through their impact on recipients’ gendered identities. By stressing the importance of gendered analyses to understanding the workings of Emergency sterilisation, the paper also hopes to open up this period as a whole to gendered historical analyses.


1 See, for example S. Kaviraj. ‘Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics’. Economic and Political Weekly 21.38/39 (1986): 1697-1708. Print; Puri, Balraj. ‘A Fuller View of the Emergency’. Economic and Political Weekly 30.28 (1995): 1736-1744. Print; Omar, Imtiaz, Emergency Powers and the Courts in India and Pakistan. London: Kluwer Law International: 2002. Print; Hewitt, Vernon. Political Mobilisation and Democracy in India: States of Emergency. London: Routeledge, 2009. Print.

2 In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison design to put forth his theory of disciplinary power. A key feature of the design was the position of the prison supervisor in a central tower. Each prisoner, in individual cells in a circle around the tower, could see structure in which the authority resided, but could never see the actual guard. Foucault asserted: ‘Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary’ (Foucault 201). Thus, Foucault argued for the importance of self-regulation induced by the awareness of state power, rather than only its actions.

Works Cited

Ali, Tariq. The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty. London: Pan Books, 1985.

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