What We’re Reading: QandA with Aprajita Sarcar

What We’re Reading: QandA with Aprajita Sarcar

Stephen Pascoe and Aprajita Sarcar, 7 September 2021 – Jump to QandA


Last month, the Laureate Centre Reading Group read the work of Aprajita Sarcar, a New Delhi–based scholar of population history in post-independence India. She is in the process of converting her doctoral research into her first monograph and she shared two samples of her work with us: a chapter from her recently-completed PhD and the introduction to her book-in-the-making.

Sarcar’s work begins with a captivating description of how the slogan “Hum Do Hamare Do” (“we two, our two”) – first developed in the postwar decades as a family planning campaign to limit reproduction to two children per family – has retained a “cultural currency” in contemporary India. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the slogan was accompanied by the symbol of an inverted red triangle, a powerful “synecdoche for the nuclear family”. This fascinating artefact of cultural history is the point of entry to Sarcar’s central purpose in this book: to show how the postcolonial state created the “psycho-social conditions and built environments for the modern nuclear family to prosper”. The innovation of Sarcar’s approach to population history emerges clearly in this introductory chapter. While population control has long been understood by historians as a crucial element of modern statecraft, it has overwhelmingly been viewed in top-down, or centrifugal modes. In this work, we see things from the other side: how population control came to be widely accepted by Indian public and intimately embedded in postcolonial popular culture: what Sarcar dubs a “vernacular neo-Malthusianism”. Moreover, she pays attention to not only the targets but also the local agents of population management. Whereas the history of family planning in India has heretofore focused on elite actors – the Nehrus and the Gandhis making pronouncements for the nation from on high – she brings to life the previously anonymous officials working in the middle-rung bureaucracies (sarkari daftars). These “mid-to-lower-level bureaucrats,” writes Sarcar, “translated the logic, need and rationale for a planned family for the Indian populace”.

In Chapter 1, Sarcar provides a fascinating account of the role of family planning centres in the Indian capital in counselling new couples, as the postcolonial Indian state attempted to limit population growth. As Sarcar demonstrates compellingly, overpopulation was understood by state officials as the primary social problem in 1950s India, from which all other problems (such as malnourishment, overcrowded housing, and illiteracy) emanated. Recent improvements in income and health meant that Indian citizens were living longer; however, the associated problems of unchecked population growth, it was feared, would erode these gains in standards of living. Hence the enthusiasm for neo-Malthusianism as a nation-building project of first-order priority.

Methodologically, this work makes splendid use of previously underutilised archives of differing scale: from local municipal archives to those of transnational organisations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. This allows Sarcar to slide between scales of analysis and bring “the local and the global” into meaningful conversation: a task to which lip service is so often paid, but which is rarely achieved satisfactorily. The result is a richly textured social and cultural history of population which demonstrates how the work of population control seeped into the popular culture of post-Independence India.

Q. and A. with Stephen Pascoe:

In your analysis of the urban geography of postcolonial Delhi, you argue that “differing moral economies of governance” were applied across three distinctive spatialities: (1) New Delhi, “the privileged child of empire”, imagined as populated by model middle-class nuclear families; (2) Old Delhi, “the illegitimate older sibling”, inhabited by poorer, predominantly Muslim residents who were disproportionately targeted for sterilisation programs; and (3) the peri-urban zone of “urbanizing villages” which were seen as ripe for developmentalist intervention.

I am curious to know more about the intersection of class and religious identity. You write that middle-class Indians most enthusiastically embraced targeted sterilizations of lower-class peoples. How did this class attitude intersect with religious community, especially among minority communities? For instance, what of middle-class Muslims? Was there are sense of loyalty to one’s sect trumping enthusiasm for population control?

Before responding to the question, I would like to clarify my use of the terms ‘family planning’ and population control. I see family planning as an individual family’s decision to space births, use contraceptives and consciously curtail family size. Population control, on the other hand, is the state advocacy measures that include incentives for contraception and sterilizations. In the early decades of the 1950s-60s, I believe there is sufficient archival evidence to show that people were enthusiastic about family planning. They understood the postcolonial state’s attempts to link family size to economic productivity of the nation. This linkage was secular and I found no resistance on religious lines in the archival material I unearthed. For instance, an article from December 1967 showed the Shahi Imam from Jama Masjid (a prominent Muslim cleric) spoke to a large male audience to encourage them to use contraceptives.

But by the late 1960s, I see an ambiguity creep in, as to how individuals accessed contraceptives. Again, it is important to mention that people were doubtful about the efficacy of the various contraceptives available, and not about the need for population control. In the early years of the 1970s, there were drastic shifts in the way large families were linked to specific communities. Scholars have shown how transnational funders, who wanted to see a major dip in birth rates, may have pushed the national programmes towards harsher measures of population control around this time. This rushed advocacy pushed for long-term sterilizations as a poverty removal measure. In this frenzy to curtail birth rates, we see the first discussions on high Muslim fertility. A similar line of editorials and commentaries in newspapers linked large families to subaltern populations. In fact, I believe even in the discussions about saffron demography today, we see large families as symptoms of poverty and illiteracy, as if reducing family size would automatically and immediately translate to capital gains for the community. So now we have a situation wherein upper caste Hindu nuclear families see themselves as ideal citizens and blame high fertility on communities who do not share their historical location.

In our reading group discussion, there was an interesting conversation on how best to understand Malthusianism in twentieth century India, and how bureaucrats absorbed and promoted what you call “vernacular neo-Malthusianism”. Could you expand on that here? How do “Malthusian” ideas get translated from Malthus’ writings to a framework of government policy?

This response will be a slightly disappointing as I am still thinking through this discussion. Through scholarship on birth control debates in late colonial India, we know that a section of elite Indians were reading Malthus. Annie Besant was based in India. Her advocacy for contraception did not wither away when she started supporting Indian voices for self rule. She brought those conversations with her to the independence movement. Educated, upper class Indian intelligentsia invited Margaret Sanger and other birth control advocates to speak to political leaders in the country. However, the lines of influence get murkier in the post-Independence scenario. We have a national bureaucracy welded to the idea that birth rates need to be curtailed in order for the national income to go up. Were the middle and lower-rung bureaucrats aware that this logic came from a text written in 1798? I don’t think so. However, the fact that a link existed cannot be denied. I am therefore proposing that Malthusian ideas of population growth, of linking fertility to material prosperity, became vernacularized. These ideas were translated in different contexts and reached the postcolonial political geography in India in ways Malthus may or may not have imagined. Studying the municipal or city-level governance of family planning advocacy in Delhi from 1950s to 70s helps me unearth this localized interpretation of Malthusian ideas.

You also mentioned in our discussion that “age” is controversial as a category in census-taking in India. Could you explain why?

There has been some work on the early enumeration practices for censuses. Sumit Guha has shown that census taking as a modern state practice borrowed from earlier traditions of documenting age, occupation and family histories. The process of documentation was more complex than a simple teleological affair. Ishita Pande in her work on child marriages in colonial India shows how contentious age as a category was to determine consensual sex or even forced marriages of young girls. Social technologies like the census, or a law to curb child marriages depend on the biological grounds of the ‘correct’ age of a person, as against a fluid concept with astrological determinants. This friction between a modern concept of age and a more translucent one which relies on social roles (or planetary positions) made census taking a contentious act.

Read More: Aprajita Sarcar on population policy imagery in post-Independence India


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