The Emergency, declared 36 years ago this day, impacted the poor in more sinister ways than any other section of society…
June 26. Just another day for most people. But for those who lived through the 1970s in India, June 26, 1975, was the day the Emergency was declared. The rights we take so much for granted — freedom of the press, freedom to publicly articulate our opposition to the government, freedom to hold rallies and dharnas and fasts — were suspended. Till today, that period of 20 months remains a blot on India's democratic record.
The impact of this suspension of freedoms differed according to your class and status in life. For the people at the top, barring those in the political opposition, it made little difference. If anything, it increased their power to act with impunity. Much of the middle class approved. Trains ran on time, workers were not allowed to strike, the streets seemed to be cleaner etc. If all newspapers sounded suspiciously similar due to censorship, they did not notice or care. But, for the poor, not only was their voicelessness accentuated but also the history of the atrocities perpetuated on them in the name of ‘national interest' could not be recorded or reported.
Echoes from the past
Some of this came to mind when I read a story on the BBC website titled, “Sterilisation: North Carolina grapples with legacy”. It is hard to believe today but, right up to 1979, a policy was in place in states like North Carolina in the U.S. that justified forcible sterilisation. Beginning in 1907 in the state of Indiana, and thereafter adopted by 31 other states, an estimated 60,000 people were sterilised, most of them against their will. It was population control of another kind, specifically aimed to ensure that the poor and mentally ill did not reproduce.
According to the BBC report, the sterilisation programme was “part of a broad effort to cleanse the country's population of characteristics and social groups deemed unwanted”. Those who had to undergo sterilisation included women who were considered sexual deviants, homosexual men, the mentally ill, poor people, African Americans, Hispanics and juvenile delinquents as well as criminals.
This horrendous policy has once again become a talking point with the recent decision of the state of North Carolina to set up a special task force to trace the victims of this programme. They estimate that around 2,900 victims might still be alive. The state plans to offer all these people monetary compensation.
Certainly, no one in the U.S. today would contemplate such a policy or justify it. Yet in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court actually upheld the law in a case involving the sterilisation of a woman considered “feeble-minded”. Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was part of that decision, wrote, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes” (Buck v. Bell).
India's forced sterilisation policy during the Emergency might not have been specifically targeted as was the policy in the U.S. but it could be seen as a way of dealing with poverty by restricting the birth of more poor people. It led to thousands of poor women and men being forcibly sterilised in the name of population control.
Little of what happened then was recorded as the press was fettered. But in later years, some stories were heard and retold. One of these records is the striking film “Something like a war” made by Deepa Dhanraj. The film reminds us of the mass sterilisation campaigns of the Emergency. But even more disturbing are scenes that suggest that the policies continued even after the Emergency had been withdrawn. One of the unforgettable scenes in the film shows poor women being lined up like cattle, with numbers stuck on their foreheads, as they wait their turn to have a tubectomy. The question of informed consent did not even arise.
The forcible sterilisation campaign was based on the premise that these women had no control over their own lives. Thus it was better that the State intervene and decide how many children they should have and permanently eliminate the possibility of their having more than the required number. Needless to say, no thought was given to any medical complications arising out of this assembly line approach to sterilisation. In a country where basic health services remain out of reach for a large majority of the poor, such callousness resulted in women dying of complications that remained unattended. But no one cared. One more poor person had disappeared, and with her the possibility of additional hungry mouths that would have to be fed.
While North Carolina is trying to trace the victims of what is now accepted as an unjust policy, it would be inconceivable that something like that could happen in India. To begin with, the numbers are mind-boggling. And in any case, those who formulated the policy never accepted that it violated women's rights.
These days, ‘reproductive health and rights' is the official approach and policy. Yet, even today, we hear of poor women being talked into giving their consent to be sterilised after they have had two children. Some of them might well want this, as they do not have the power within their marriages to insist on the use of contraceptives. Yet just because these women are illiterate does not mean they do not have brains, that they cannot understand what is being done to them. Surely, they too have the right to know, to understand, and then to decide. It is the assumption that someone else — the government official, the medical professional, the middle class person — knows best what is good for ‘them', the poor, that needs to be eliminated.
The Emergency was mentioned more than once in recent weeks when the Delhi police cracked down on Baba Ramdev's followers at the Ramlila grounds. But the real horrors of that period have still to be recorded and told. And on top of that list must stand the cruel and inhuman policy of mass sterilisation.
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