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The World: The Issue that Inflamed India

5 minute read

One issue, above everything else, cost Indira Gandhi the election: her mass sterilization campaign. No one questions that India needs effective family planning; after all, the country’s population has almost doubled in 30 years (to 620 million) and may reach one billion by the year 2000. But the government’s program to vasectomize millions of Indian males who had fathered two or more children—ruthlessly and often illegally applied—came to symbolize the dangers of authoritarian rule. TIME New Delhi Bureau Chief Lawrence Malkin reports:

To millions of ordinary people, sterilization was the cutting edge of the government’s restriction of liberties. With a target of 4.3 million sterilizations, the campaign actually produced 7.8 million between April 1976 and January 1977, when Mrs. Gandhi called for national elections. To help ensure the program’s success, government censors prohibited newspapers from publishing any criticism of family planning. The program was pressed by the governmental bureaucracy, from New Delhi to the district level, and quickly became the pet project of Indira’s zealous son, Sanjay.

Six months ago, the Family Planning Council declared that “a most favorable climate has been created in the country for the voluntary acceptance” of sterilization. A recent tour of the Indian countryside proved that this claim was wildly untrue. In the village of Pipli in Haryana state, where police enforced a mass sterilization, the menfolk seemed like the inhabitants of a town in a gothic tale who had been stricken by some mysterious pestilence. All nodded in agreement as Gyani Ram, 40, told how he had been forced to undergo a vasectomy, and then was denied a certificate after officials discovered too late that he was childless and should not have been sterilized in the first place. “I feel neither a man nor a woman,” complained one man who had been sterilized. “The women tell us we are not men any more and that we should work in the kitchen while they work in the fields. My wife asked me to leave the house or stay and do the kitchen work.”

None of the villagers I spoke with had been offered any guidance by a family-planning or social worker. No one had explained to them, for instance, that sterilization does not cause impotence. Officially, there was no coercion, but the elaborate system of “disincentives” amounted to the same thing. Government employees had to produce two or more candidates for sterilization. For such civil servants, or for anybody who was being pressured into submitting to sterilization himself, it was usually possible to hire a stand-in for about 200 rupees ($22). For those not in government service, all sorts of privileges—such as licenses for guns, shops, ration cards—were denied unless the applicant could produce a sterilization certificate.

When these incentives did not enable local officials to meet their quotas, they turned to harsher means. In Katauli, several young men without children were ordered sterilized. A tea-shop owner was ordered to submit to a vasectomy, “or we will burn down your shop.” He agreed, even though his wife was past the childbearing age. In Delhi, a man of 25 agreed to be sterilized in order to receive medical treatment at a hospital. After a police attack on the Muslim village of Uttawar, southwest of Delhi, 800 vasectomies were performed—giving Uttawar, as the Indian Express noted, “the dubious distinction of probably having every eligible male sterilized.” Across North India, villagers often slept in the fields to avoid the sterilization teams, or hid in their houses during the day.

In the city of Muzaffarnagar, 70 miles north of Delhi, vasectomy camps handled between 1,200 and 1,800 cases a day. Each operation took five to ten minutes, and there was often no follow-up when the patient suffered postoperative bleeding, infection or even tetanus. The state quota for Uttar Pradesh had been set at 400,000, but the chief minister raised it to 1.5 million, presumably to please Sanjay. Some 700,000 operations were actually performed, a phenomenal increase over the previous year’s total of 129,000. Villagers told bitter jokes against Mrs. Gandhi, one of them based on her 1971 election slogan, GARIBI HATAO (abolish poverty). The new slogan: INDIRA HATAO, INDRI BACHAO (abolish Indira and save your penis).

Severe Defection. In Muzaffarnagar, as elsewhere, the smoldering anger inevitably turned to violence. When a tyrannical local administrator sent his police to find “volunteers,” the police rounded up 17 men, of whom two were 75 and two were under 18. A crowd quickly gathered in the street and demanded that the 17 be released. The district administrator’s reply: “Today I will f— their mothers.” In the trouble that followed, as many as 56 people were killed.

By last week, when the votes were counted, the pattern could be clearly seen: in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar, where the sterilization program was pursued with the most zeal but the least preparation, the defection from the Congress Party was the most severe.

Despite the clear signals of the bloody incident at Muzaffarnagar, the government ignored the possibility that the program was in trouble. When one citizen of the city complained to D.K. Barooah, president of the Congress Party, Barooah told him to talk to the “high command.” As instructed, the citizen of Muzaffarnagar telephoned Mrs. Gandhi’s office and reached her private secretary, R.K. Dhawan. Informed that the call was coming from Muzaffarnagar, he hung up.

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