Reproduction outside Nation and Empire: The Politics of Birth Control in Interwar India

Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Mytheli Sreenivas, Ohio State University
Birth control advocacy in interwar India adopted numerous rationales, including concern for women’s health, Neo-Malthusian fears of overpopulation, anxiety about the availability of food, and claims about modernizing economic development.  Birth control advocates who engaged in these debates often operated across two registers: national(ist) planning about India’s future, and transnational conversations about eugenics, demography, sexology, and women’s rights.  Across their differences, these proponents of birth control shared in common a concern about modernizing India in the context of an increasingly global future.  However, as I argue in this paper, this national-transnational discourse did not exhaust the possibilities for claiming birth control during the interwar decades.  Outside of national and transnational spaces of debate and contestation, I locate a series of understudied texts—marriage and sex manuals, contraceptive advertisements, and activist pamphlets—which troubled longstanding assumptions about Indian (over)population and its supposed links to underdevelopment.  Focusing on texts in the Tamil language, and on the social radicalism of the Madras-based Dravidian movement, I ask how claims about sexuality, desire, and pleasure challenged imperialist and nationalist claims about Indian development, while suggesting a different vision of national futures.  After 1947, these alternative visions became subsumed under the postcolonial state’s drive for population control.  Yet they remain an important example of the complex and competing tendencies driving sexual and reproductive politics during the interwar years.
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