The Madras Neo-Malthusian League

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While writing a term paper on debates about contraception in Madras State, I came across an organization called the Madras Neo-Malthusian League. The following article is an excerpt from the paper I wrote. 

 

The Madras Neo-Malthusian League (MNML) was formed in 1928 in Madras. Its membership was mostly confined to elite, upper class Brahmin men. The MNML leadership made no real effort to collaborate or form links with nationalist organizations in the Presidency, but focused on establishing international connections with leaders of birth control movements in other countries, notably Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes and Edith How-Martyn.The MNML’s ideology had its roots in the Malthusian theory of overpopulation, but where Malthus advocated only abstinence[1] and celibacy as methods of population control; the MNML saw the propagation of contraceptives as a natural extension of the Malthusian world-view.[2] The MNML also sought to “entrench the systematic regulation of human reproduction in order to bring about a desired demographic change”[3], in order to build a ‘stronger nation’. In this way, their agenda can be characterized as eugenic.[4] However, while the focus of eugenics in the west was heredity, Indian eugenicists focused on caste-based marriages as a site to bring about demographic change,[5] thus centering marriage as a site in which “the task of revitalizing the nation as a whole” was undertaken.[6] As Sarah Hodges succinctly says, “eugenics in India fed into, and was supported by, late colonial debates on national progress, scientific modernity… and marriage reform”.[7]

In order to carry out their agenda of ‘revitalizing the nation’ through demographic change, the MNML saw the lower classes and castes as the appropriate targets for birth control advocacy. As MNML leader P S Sivaswami Iyer put it, birth control was seen as being “essentially for the benefit of the masses”[8], in order to control the “profligate breeding of the urban poor” and “alleviate” their burdens.[9]

A few significant points should be noted regarding the nature of the policy and activities of the MNML. Firstly, as I stated earlier, the members of the League were primarily Brahmin, upper class men. Their meetings were conducted in English, and they were more concerned with opening international dialogue than national conversations about birth control. Many scholars have suggested that the MNML’s agenda was to use contraception as a means to justify Brahminnical control of society and its reproduction, as well as control of women and lower castes. As Anandhi points out, MNML members such as Krishanmurthi Ayyer alluded to Hinduism’s “natural” and “unconscious” propagation of birth control within its sacred texts, thus creating a caste privilege and using this to justify the legitimacy of celibate widows and vegetarianism (which was perceived as reducing fertility!), all of which were upper caste practices.[10] Thus, “in privileging this Brahminnical Hindu construction of ideal bodies as reproductive, the bodies of lower classes/castes were represented by the neo-Malthusian as invested with uncontrolled sexuality requiring outside intervention”[11] by Brahmin men, who were innately “sexually responsible”[12]. Sanjam Ahluwalia describes this as “eugenic patriotism”, a position adopted by MNML leaders who “valued certain reproductive functions over others, yet presented their specific class, caste and gender interests as universally beneficial to an emerging nation”.[13]Secondly, it was not only non-Brahmin sexuality that was perceived as requiring the control of Brahmin men, but also female sexuality. The MNML did not believe that women knew, or should know, anything about contraception. In fact, when Margaret Sanger requested the President of the MNML, Sir Vepa Ramasesan, to arrange a woman speaker at a birth control rally, he replied, “we are not aware of any organization of Indian women interested in considering the problems that would be raised in a Birth Control Conference”.[14] Sir Vepa Ramasesan added that no medical woman in India had any knowledge of birth control, or the desire to advocate its benefits. Incidentally, this was untrue. While medical stalwart Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was not in favor of contraception, Dr Devadesan was a passionate advocate of birth control in Madras.[15]

The MNML chose to disperse information about contraception via informal “man-to-man” conversations. Wives were informed (by their husbands, of course) on a “need-to-know” basis only,[16] thus maintaining their “sexual innocence” and allowing their husbands to “exercise sexual control over them”.[17] Malthus himself might have agreed with this, in fact, as Chandrasekhar observes, “one can read the Essay (An Essay on the Principle of Population) from cover to cover without encountering a passage that indicates Malthus ever thought women had anything to do with population”.[18] Anandhi views this agreement of views as a motivating factor for the formation of a neo-Malthusian League, as it increased “the ease with which the upper class agenda of Malthus and the Brahminnical Hindu agenda of upper caste Indian men could come together and reduce women to reproductive bodies requiring male control”.[19] Thus, though the views of the League clashed with the views of nationalist leaders on the subject of contraception, both perspectives “converged in privileging reproductive sexuality and inferiorizing other forms of female sexuality”.[20]Finally, the League’s championship of contraception can be seen as a way in which its leaders deployed their larger agenda to defend social and sexual practices such as child marriage, which were increasingly coming under attack. In order to mask their defense of these practices, MNML leaders sought to present early motherhood rather than early marriage as being the root of a ‘weak nation’.[21]

It should be noted that the League was widely discredited for being ineffectual and hypocritical (one League member had thirteen children!).[22] The members of the League seemed to address their speeches to each other rather than the ‘masses’ they claimed to be speaking to. No practical steps were taken by them, though contraceptives were distributed by some leaders, these activities were on a very small scale.

Hodges, however, sees some merit in the MNML as a voluntary association “outside the formal political realm”.[23] She does not dismiss it as simply another facet of patriarchy. I find this conclusion less convincing than Anandhi’s assertion that in spite of the fact that all proponents and opponents of birth control involved in the dialogue spoke in terms of reproductive control (i.e. the concern of a man and a woman engaging in intercourse), “it was mediated by concerns of maintaining class, caste and other boundaries through regulating women’s body and sexuality”.[24]


[1] In “A Dirty, Filthy Book”, S Chandrasekhar asserts that Malthus “never advocated contraception; on the contrary he indirectly condemned it” (p 11)

[2] Susanne Klausen and Alison Bashford, “Fertility Control: Eugenics, Neo-Malthusians and Feminism” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 99

[3] ibid. p 98

[4] It should be noted that not all eugenicists were supporters of contraception. Critics of birth control felt that rather than performing the eugenic role of creating “docile” workers’ bodies, and gradually breeding out the poor, it might actually produce a landscape of “moral licentiousness in the form of sexual excesses” (Hodges, 2008 p 44)

[5] Sarah Hodges, “South Asia’s Eugenic Past” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press: 2010) p 231

[6] ibid. p 228

[7] Sarah Hodges, “Indian Eugenics in an Age of Reform” in Reproductive Health In India ed Sarah Hodges (London: Orient Blackswan, 2006) p 116

[8] Sarah Hodges, Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India 1920-1940 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008) p 53

[9] ibid. p 56-64

[10] S Anandhi, “Reproductive Bodies and Regulated Sexuality: Birth Control Debates in Early 20th century Tamil Nadu” in A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India ed Mary E John and Janaki Nair (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998) p 143

[11] ibid. p 144

[12] Sanjam Ahluwalia, Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) p 42

[13] ibid. p 18

[14] op. cit.  Ramusack (2006) p 64.

[15] ibid.

[16] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 82

[17] op. cit. Ahluwalia (2008) p 48

[18] op. cit. Chandrasekhar, p 12

[19] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 145

[20] ibid. p 145

[21] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 74-75

[22] ibid. p 49

[23] ibid. p 50

[24] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 140

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