When sterlization wasn’t a matter of choice
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Uttawar (Haryana): It was no longer a question of whether it would happen. The question now was when it would happen and how bad it would be. So, like every other night that month in Haryana’s Uttawar village, on the night of 24 November 1976 too, sleepless villagers huddled in their compounds, smoking hookahs.
Recalling the events of that fateful night, Mohammad Yaqoob says he was part of a huddle of eight villagers. All they could do was wait and watch. For over three months preceding that night, senior administration officials and police officers had taken turns trying to convince villagers to go for nasbandi (sterilization). Posters extolling family planning were pasted all over the village. They had slogans that said: “Ek, do, teen bachhe, ghar mein rehte hain achhe; thode ho to achha khaye, ghanain ho to bhuke chillayein (with 1, 2 or 3 kids, you will have a happy house. Fewer kids means more food for each. Greater the number, more the hunger).
At 3am, the loudspeakers began blaring, asking every man over the age of 15 to assemble at a government high school on the main road, a kilometre away from Yaqoob’s house. Their fears mounted as 73-year-old Yaqoob, then all of 34, and other villagers heard the sound of hooves approaching. It was the ghoda police (policemen on horses) warning them of the consequences of not obeying orders.
“They were carrying guns and swords. We had never seen anything like that before,” recalls 90-year-old Fajri, a resident.
Close to 12,000 policemen had ringed the village, Yaqoob claims. Though the announcements said nothing about the intent, villagers were in no doubt—they just didn’t anticipate being lathicharged and physically abused. And above all, coerced. There were targets to fulfil, they were told. Sterilization was no longer a choice for the villagers to make. It was mandatory.
According to a story in The Indian Express newspaper on 8 March 1977, “The whole village (Uttawar) was surrounded by the police. With the menfolk on the road, the police went into the village to see if anyone was hiding... the men on the road were sorted into eligible cases... and they were taken from there to clinics to be sterilized”.
Uttawar, bordering Mewat and Palwal districts of Haryana, is a Muslim-majority village. Even though people of other religions resisted sterilization as well, the opposition was intense among Muslims who believe god is the razak—the one who provides subsistence—and that birth control is proscribed. So, the drive was mostly targeted at Muslims. “No matter how many children I have, it’s my concern how I feed them, not the government’s,” says Yaqoob. And while the birth of a child meant an extra mouth to feed, for people like Yaqoob, it also meant an extra pair of hands to help the family.
The opposition to sterilization also stemmed from myths associated with the operation—mostly to do with diminished virility.
Realizing it was no longer a matter of choice, Yaqoob reached the high school. On the way, he saw police positioned at Eidgah (an open ground for offering Eid prayers), the old bus stand and a shrine on the hill. In fact, the shrine had a machine gun set up, he recalls. Police entered houses, mixed rice with wheat and ghee and broke charpoys and pots. “Some even entered the mosque with shoes,” Yaqoob claims.
By around 8.30am, close to 800 people had gathered at the school. They were all herded into buses like cattle. The buses were taken to Hathin tehsil police station. “Some were arrested on false charges of possessing arms. Almost 250, including me, were taken to a government hospital and sterilized,” says Yaqoob. “Everyone had a number. We were taken in a line—one after the other... number-wise.”
Yaqoob had four children at that point—two boys and two girls. “Some who were sterilized had no children or had only daughters,” he says. The villagers claim around 20 people died after being sterilized.
There are no official numbers on how many were forced into sterilization, and how many were convinced, but as per Marika Vicziany’s book Coercion In A Soft State: The Family Planning Program of India, “between 25 June 1975, and March 1977, about 11 million men and women were sterilized and 1 million women had intra-uterine devices (IUDs) inserted”.
India became the first country in the world to launch a family planning programme to check population growth in 1951. By the early 1960s, it used a more “target-oriented” approach, with a massive effort to promote the use of IUDs and condoms. But it was only in 1975 that the Congress government, helmed by Indira Gandhi, and under the stewardship of her son Sanjay Gandhi, moved to the more forceful “camp approach” to promote sterilization.
According to Vinod Mehta’s book The Sanjay Story, “Even before 25 June 1975, Mrs Gandhi was under pressure from major western industrial democracies, speaking through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the Aid India Consortium, to impart a sense of urgency and realism to the family planning programme in India”. The book says the West had been advocating a crash sterilization-based family planning programme—“crash because, according to them, valuable time had been squandered since 1947”.
Between 1972 and 1980, the World Bank doled out $66 million in loans to the country for the express purpose of population control, according to Mara Hvistendahl in her book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls And The Consequences Of A World Full Of Men.
After the Emergency was imposed, the West began hardselling the sterilization programme—and Indira Gandhi was persuaded to incorporate sterilization into her Emergency package. The job of execution was handed over to Sanjay Gandhi.
Before launching it nationwide, the plan was first piloted in Delhi. The responsibility was given to Delhi’s lieutenant governor Krishan Chand, Navin Chawla (Chand’s secretary), Vidyaben Shah (president of the New Delhi Municipal Council) and Rukhsana Sultana, a boutique owner.
From the steps of the Jama Masjid, Rukhsana with Vidyaben propagated the benefits of vasectomies and tubectomies. Sterilization camps were set up. People were handed over Rs.75, a week off from work, a tin of ghee and, in some cases, cycles. “Sweepers, rickshaw pullers, labourers—mostly immigrants—were rounded off and forced to get sterilized,” recalls 73-year-old Abdus Sattar, an old Delhi resident.
Chand, in April 1976, sent a circular to all government offices, schools, colleges, departmental heads of the Delhi administration, civic bodies and public sector undertakings. All those having more than two children would have to get sterilized. “Teachers and government employees were given targets—if you get a certain number of people sterilized, you will get Rs.50-100,” says 75-year-old Saleem Hussain Siddiqui, another old Delhi resident.
Processes as basic as renewal of driving licences were stalled if a person did not produce a sterilization certificate. The same was the case with free medical treatment in hospitals.
Such was the fear of consequences of not being sterilized that some people even took hilarious measures to prove that they had undergone the procedure or would not produce any more children. “Some people even faked a talaaqnama (divorce certificate) to say that they aren’t eligible for nasbandi,” says Sattar.
The sterilization tactics differed from state to state. In Rajasthan, people with more than three children were banned from holding any government job until they had been sterilized. “In Madhya Pradesh, irrigation water was withheld from village fields until sterilization quotas were met. In Uttar Pradesh, teachers were told that they must submit to sterilization or lose a month’s salary. Health department officials in Uttar Pradesh had their pay withheld until they met their quotas for sterilization. In Bihar, food rations were denied to families with more than two children. The local government refused to put in a much-needed village well until 100% of eligible couples underwent sterilization,” according to an article published by Population Research Institute, a US-based non-profit research group, on 24 June 2014.
Emergency was imposed on 25 June 1975, but for Yaqoob and his village, the word hit home only when they were shoved into those buses, and operated upon.