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Embattled Advocates: The Debate Over Birth Control in India, 1920-40 Barbara N. Ramusack Despite voluminous literature about the promotion of family planning in India after 1947, little attention has been given to the debate over this issue before independence. There is evidence of a Hindu Malthusian League in Madras in 1882,1 and population issues were mentioned in the controversy about the origins of Indian poverty during the closing decades of the 19th century. It was, however, only in the early 1920s that Indian men initiated a sustained public discussion about the need for birth control and attempted to establish institutions to provide information on contraception. Under the leadership of Rani Lakshmibai Rajwade, who had received her medical education in Bombay and Great Britain, and the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), Indian women quickly joined the public discourse that peaked during the mid-1930s. Foreigners also entered the debate as propagandists , most notably Margaret Sanger, as links to international organizations and as medical providers of limited contraceptive information. This essay will analyze gender as a key factor in the effort to promote contraception in India during the two decades from 1920 to 1940. How were Indian men and women similar and dissimilar in their advocacy of reproductive control? What rationales did they advance for their support of birth control? What types of plans did they seek to inaugurate? Were their programs directed to particular classes, regional areas, or religious groups? What kinds of associations did they form to institutionalize the extension of reproductive control? Were some proponents more willing than others to ally themselves with foreign individuals, groups, or programs? To appreciate the arena in which both Indian and foreign advocates of birth control functioned, one must also survey the opposition to their positions. What were the legal, political, social, economic, and moral constraints on the practice of contraception? Who were the most important individuals and © 1989 Journal of Women's History, Vol. ι No. 2 (Fall)____________________ The initial version of this essay was presented at the Regional Conference for Asia on Women and the Household in New Delhi, January 27-31, 1985. I am particularly indebted to Dr. Kamala Gopala Rao, the commentator on our panel, for ner insightful remarks. Others who have provided most helpful criticisms on subsequent drafts are Antoinette Burton, Ellen Chesler, Dagmar Engels, Geraldine Forbes, Richard Soloway, the South Asia Regional Seminar sponsored by Duke University, and various anonymous readers. I am also most grateful for support of my research from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1979; the Fulbright-Hays program of the U.S. Department of Education in 1981-82; the Excess Foreign Currency Grant Program of the Smithsonian Institution in 1985; and the Taft Faculty Fund of the University of Cincinnati in 1985. The National Humanities Center provided the time and tranquillity necessary to undertake two major revisions during 1986-87. 1989 BARBARA N. RAMUSACK 35 groups who argued against birth control? Here again, did gender make a difference? What reasons were utilized to support a negative stance? Is it possible to assess their impact in countering the supporters of birth control? During the 1920s and 1930s, Indian society experienced many crucial developments, including the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as the overarching leader of the nationalist struggle for independence; the intensification of personal identification with communal groups based on religious or caste affiliations; and the emergence of regional and national women's organizations. Thus, to provide the broader context, the public discussion of contraception will be related to the evolution of Indian nationalism, to the rise of communal groups in the political sphere, and to the development of women's associational activity. In this exploratory analysis, it is important to emphasize the scattered and limited nature of the sources presently available. Among most elite and nonelite categories of Indian society during much of the 20th century, personal sexuality was considered an inappropriate topic for discussion in sexually mixed public groups or even between husbands and wives.2 A few pioneering men and women wrote books and articles on sexuality and on the general need for contraception, but almost no one publicly declared that they themselves practiced contraception. Indian men...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 34-64
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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