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Reproducing Caste: Savarna Eugenics, Then and Now

'Pro-race' cervical cap

Today Marie Stopes is better known for her eponymous clinics, which provide contraception and safe abortion services in 37 countries around the world. In 20th century colonial India, however, she once thought it fit to promote contraception with a strong eugenic and neo-Malthusian slant. She was just one of many Western and Indian birth control advocates who maintained that overpopulation by excessive ‘breeding’ of the ignorant poor – not colonialism, capitalism, or systemic social discrimination – was the chief architect of generational poverty and other global ills.

The solution? Reduce births from the ‘unfit’ and encourage them from the ‘fit’ in order to produce a bespoke, strong, and healthy nation-state. It is a sign of the times that Stopes’ favourite contraceptive device that she actively marketed in India – a cervical cap by the moniker “Pro-Race” – was met with a shrug, neither seen as offensive or too on-the-nose. Eugenics was more or less a mainstream idea among elites. This rhetoric is part of the reason why instead of the term contraception, “birth control,” “population control,” and the euphemistic “family planning” are common in discourse on preventing pregnancies. Modern contraceptive technologies emerged alongside the characterisation of people as populations to be governed and managed, some more than others.

Spanning centuries and continents, the management of populations has nevertheless clung to a few common threads that show that while the term ‘eugenics’ was officially discredited, in practice the idea was not disbanded. Nationalism’s overt narrative of unity is never far from tribalism and xenophobia. There is a judgment call being made, after all, as to who ‘counts’ as a member, and a palpable fear of small numbers: of becoming a minority. You know the rest of the story. The assumed beneficence of whiteness is set up as a foil to the darker, the stranger, the ‘other.’ Class crosscuts the caste and/or race binary, as does religion. Important to the topic at hand, not only are caste, race, and religion entangled, but this relationship is also gendered. Powerful stakeholders regulate male and female populations differently in pursuit of a curated citizenry with particular numeric and genetic composition. As Mary John puts it, the “old problem” of patriarchy interfering in women’s relationship to their pregnancies has not changed – but, in the era of globalised capitalism, a host of new players and technologies is renegotiating this relationship in frightening ways, which raises the stakes for North-South feminist solidarity. While the primary focus in this essay is on caste, and savarna eugenics in birth control discourse in India, I raise questions for feminists who are working on issues of stratified reproduction[1] in multiple locations. Even now, do we fully recognise the ways in which our work gives implicit assent to casteist and racist status quos?


Population control retains outsize importance in India’s health programme,[2] and yet up until now the history of birth control movements in India has been under-researched. Feminist historians such as Sanjam Ahluwalia and Asha Nadkarni illustrate that the trajectory of contraception is “messy,” full of internal fissures and contestations among activists, and a narrative not neatly contained within India. The transnational “symbiosis” among British, American, and Indian stakeholders on the issue of birth control provides a keen lens for understanding how many global power dynamics operate today. As Nadkarni and scholar Mrinalini Sinha point out, public health policy – within which population control was paramount – formed the cornerstone of expansionist interests of early 20th century United States capitalism, eager to gain a foothold in flailing British colonial markets.

The class-, race- and caste-based dynamics of early birth control advocacy set a troubling precedent that still haunts campaigns for safe and accessible contraception, abortion, and assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). As with many issues, Indian nationalist leaders M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar harbored very different ideas about contraception. Ambedkar, a true intersectional feminist before ‘intersectionality’ was even coined, was decidedly in favour. He framed his support of contraception not in Malthusian terms but as one key tool (not the single issue) in the holistic struggle for economic and social uplift of marginalised groups in India. He believed contraception access was central to women’s autonomy and liberation from the intersecting oppressions of caste, patriarchy, and conventional family arrangements.

Yet it was Gandhi’s approval that both foreign and Indian feminist activists sought, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Rebuffed in their home countries, both Margaret Sanger (future co-founder of IPPF and Planned Parenthood) and Stopes were eager to prove the relevance and efficacy of contraceptive technologies, and zeroed in on India as ideal laboratory. It was politically strategic for them to recruit Gandhi to their mission, though they were completely unsuccessful. Gandhi opposed birth control as an extension of his belief that any sex outside of procreation was a sinful, animal indulgence. Ahluwalia observes that Gandhi “stripped women of sexual desires and reaffirmed motherhood as the natural vocation for women.”[3] Ambedkar’s programme was altogether too radical for the Westerners, especially his concern with uplifting Dalits which went against eugenicists’ mandate to scientifically (re)produce their ideas of racial superiority.

Indian feminists also had reason to be politically strategic. As women in an emerging nationalism movement, they were under tremendous pressure to embody both ‘home’ and the ‘world,’ navigating various requirements for ideal femininity. Advocates such as Lady Rama Rao, Rani Laxmibai Rajwade, Lakshmi Menon, Begum Hamid Ali, and Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya cared deeply about India’s independence but also felt strongly about birth control. They rejected an intersectional, anti-caste perspective to align with Gandhian nationalists, but due to Gandhi’s apprehensions about sexuality the most outspoken proponents of contraception, such as Chattopadhyaya, suffered ostracism.

These largely middle-class, upper-caste women activists were exceedingly cautious about challenging the institution of the family and reified the ‘sacred’ duties of motherhood even as they defended the need to space and limit pregnancies. In language that will sound familiar to contemporary SRHR advocates, after certifying their support for women’s fundamental roles as mothers, they relied on a paternalistic script about concern for women’s health that distrusted poor people to make rational decisions. Activists such as physician Muthulakshmi Reddi maintained knowledge of and access to contraceptive technologies should be kept out of the hands of the “ignorant lay public,” strictly regulated by the medical establishment, and only granted to certain “mothers and fathers” who “deserve” it.[4] Ambedkar, in contrast, firmly believed that Indians of all backgrounds were capable of making informed, intelligent choices for themselves about contraception. In 2017, this is still a radical stance, as we struggle to wrest the right to be trusted with our own bodies from politicians who capitalise on regulating them.

Their insistence that they did not intend contraceptives to “rock the familial boat”[5] was not merely a matter of political expediency. Historians remark that far from being victims, these women espoused an exclusive agenda that “failed to take into account the wide spectrum of reproductive experiences and needs of people, on whose behalf they claimed to be speaking.” They evoked women as a homogeneous totality in order to further their own elitist hegemonic agenda, ignoring the liberating potential of contraceptives to instead propel the argument for birth control on grounds that these technologies provided “an additional modality of sexual-social control over people, particularly over the lower classes.”[6]

It is difficult to say to what degree the upper-caste Hindu and ashraf (‘high born’) Muslim status of early Indian feminists impacted their approach to contraception relative to their elite class privilege. In spite of the fact that Hindutva emerged in the same historical moment, and likewise endorsed eugenic ideology and stoked Malthusian fears claiming Hindus were a “dying race” due to overbreeding Muslims, Mohan Rao maintains that the feminist movement was “utterly untouched by communal concerns” even as they were “united by dysgenic fears that the poor were breeding more than the middle classes.”[7] Though Hindutva had not yet concretised into the political force it is today, much of mainstream Indian nationalism rallied around the idea of ‘Hindu India’ with a martial, Aryan past as a means of cohering a diverse group of peoples. Implicit in this trope was Brahmanism’s discourse of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ that emphasises the need for upper-caste ‘honour’ and ‘virtue.’ Since “women’s reproductive capabilities are necessary for the reproduction of caste-lines, Brahminism has severe implications on the sorts of decisions that women are allowed to make.”

Given the extent to which these women activists participated, or longed to participate, in the cause for independence and nation-building, I find it doubtful that caste and religious considerations were totally absent from their vision of just who constituted the ‘ignorant poor’ whose births should be reduced. And as Ambedkar knew, caste, patriarchy, and capitalism are intersecting forces with porous borders. They bleed into one another and cannot be dealt with in silos.

The uncomfortable bit about feminist historiography is that while in the process of punching down patriarchy’s bogeymen, we sometimes uncover unsavory things about our own activist heroes. On the topic of Sanger’s eugenic past, Gloria Steinem writes that while we should judge early feminists according to their particular political and discursive context and not according to contemporary standards, neither do we need to condone racist and classist actions. She urges today’s activists to mine these histories to detect what parallel errors we might (still) be making in our own work, and use this knowledge to swiftly redirect.

We can thus understand, though not condone, why Western and Indian feminists alike rejected Ambedkarite intersectionality at the time. But acknowledging this complicated history does not explain why more than 70 years later population control, and not women’s autonomous control of their bodies and fertility which may include contraceptive use of their choice, remains at top of mind for many nations and international development entities. Much like colonial India, today authorities often attempt to address ‘unmet need’ for contraception by any means necessary. Safety, informed consent, and offering a wide range of appropriate methods are less of a priority compared with reducing numbers. Trusting ‘Other’ women with their own bodies is still not the norm, whether the issue is contraception, medical abortion pills, or other concerns. Indian women still bear the burden for contraception, 75% of which occurs via sterilisation. Mass sterilisation campaigns tend to target Dalit/OBC/SC, adivasi, and Muslim women, and mortality and morbidity at these camps disproportionately affects women from these groups. Some suggest that targeting adivasi women in particular goes beyond reducing their fertility, but is part of a strategy to seize indigenous lands for development. Along these lines, Nadkarni argues how the surrogacy industry has carried casteist eugenics forward and given them new life in relationship with neo-liberal global capitalism. This industry recruits women from marginalised caste backgrounds for their wombs, but only in service of reproducing babies for whiter and wealthier others. The state pointedly does not want these women’s own genetic material passed on, and calls them to support a market that contributes to exacerbated inequality.

The proposed Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill 2016 ostensibly aims to curb lax laws and exploitation in India’s commercial surrogacy industry. But among a host of other ethical problems with the bill, in the emphasis on altruistic surrogacy by close relative only, caste and class again sully the issue – who is going to be able to afford the medical intervention for conception, the (legally required) insurance, the hospital birth? Those who are already privileged, and for whom social markers create no barrier to health care.

I could go on. There is no shortage of examples to choose from if the point is just to prove that neither caste nor race, and the eugenic anxiety that cuts through both, are dead.

In line with Steinem, I’d like to suggest the messy history of birth control as a launching point for raising uncomfortable questions about how we feminists might be inadvertently nurturing casteism and racism. The “we” here is both open-ended and rather specific. Feminist movements in general benefit from knowing their genealogies – good, bad, and ugly – to inform strategising, especially as our opponents get wise and use our own techniques against us. But I want to speak directly to white feminists in the U.S., and upper-caste feminists in India – not just because of the profound relationship of our countries when it comes to population control policy, and parallel coercion in the reproductive lives of people the state deems less desirable. We are the ones who have the luxury of forgetting how present caste and race really are.

Contemporary casteism and racism are not identical, and their specific histories should not be overlooked. Yet they come from related dynamics of white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy, to paraphrase bell hooks. If anything, recent developments in U.S.-Indian relations have revitalised Indians’ claims to whiteness mediated through elite Brahmanic Aryan-ness and anti-Muslim ethos, making our mutual address of these questions all the more urgent:

  • How do we unintentionally continue to reproduce caste, race, and eugenics, and preserve the fiction of ‘women’ as homogeneous totality?
  • Who are our leaders? If they are white or upper-caste and class, are they allies or doing ally-theatre?
  • What do we endorse in our research, our campaigns, and in the hashtags we throw down? Which histories do we ignore, or whitewash?
  • How do we address internal hierarchies in our movements and organisations? Do we recognise these hierarchies as a problem in the first place?
  • How do we move beyond liberalism’s little tweaks to unjust systems toward lasting intersectional reform (as Ambedkar understood it)?
  • What does our solidarity look like? Is friendship – and even love – at the root?

[1] Shellee Colen defined the concept of ‘stratified reproduction’ to explain how the childbearing and childrearing of white women is unduly privileged. Reproductive labor is differently experienced, valued, and rewarded according to context-dependent inequalities that affect access to social and material resources. As reproductive labor increasingly becomes a global commodity, stratified reproduction serves to reinforce and intensify the inequalities on which it is based. Colen, “Like a Mother to Them: Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York,” in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, ed. Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1995), 78.

[2] Sarah Hodges and Mohan Rao ed., Public Health and Private Wealth, 2016.

[3] Ahluwalia, Reproductive Restraints, 78.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Rao, 184.

[6] Ahluwalia, 98.

[7] Rao, 184.

Cover Image: Science Museum, London

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