Indian eugenics: a history lesson for David Garrett
The maverick MP's argument alienated right-wingers as surely as it did liberals. Conservative Christians thought sterilisation seemed uncomfortably close to abortion; other right-wingers asked why criminals should be rewarded for their behaviour; and the more thoughtful members of Act asked how Garrett's scheme would actually protect children, given that many abusers do not target their own progeny. Act leader Rodney Hide was soon forced to distance himself from Garrett's proposal.
Although Garrett's argument for sterilisation has received considerable attention, the extraordinary historical example he used to support it has been ignored by commentators. In one of his comments at Kiwiblog, Garrett claimed a noble precedent for his proposed policy:
For those who think this is a silly suggestion, the Indians did it 30 years ago (the reward was a transistor radio for every man who had a vasectomy) for population control reasons. I don’t recall why the programme was eventually abandoned.
A couple of years ago I took Garrett to task for the comprehensive ignorance of Tuhoe history revealed in an opinion piece he wrote for the New Zealand Herald. The man's latest exercise in historiography does nothing to increase my confidence in his scholarship.
Garrett's remark at Kiwiblog is a reference to the 'family planning' programme adopted in India during the mid-70s, when Indira Gandhi imposed a dictatorship on the country. In the middle of 1975 Prime Minister Gandhi was convicted of corruption, and ordered to give up her seat in parliament; instead of following the rule of law, she declared a national emergency, jailed more than fifty opposition MPs and thousands of opposition activists, gagged the press, banned strikes, and began to rule by decree. Sidelining many senior members of her own Congress Party, Indira made her youngest son Sanjay her effective second-in-command. Gandhi tried to legitimise her dictatorship by referring to the wave of strikes that India had suffered in the first half of the '70s, and the Maoist insurgency that was destabilising several states in the east of the country. Her assumption of absolute power was supported by much of India's business sector, by the United States, and also by the Soviet Union, which valued a strong India as a counterweight to China.
Gandhi attempted to use her dictatorship to effect a rapid 'modernisation' of a country she considered dangerously 'backward'. Her modernisation programme had progressive goals - universal literacy, the elimination of slums in the big cities, a more equal distribution of land in the countryside - but it was pursued in brutal and quixotic ways. Slums were eliminated not by the provision of new and better housing, but with bulldozers. Production was raised by banning strikes.
The most notorious part of the Gandhi regime's 'modernisation' programme was the 'family planning' campaign organised and fronted by Sanjay Gandhi. Advances in health care and the end of the mass famines that had marked British rule meant that India's population had increased markedly since independence in 1947. Indira Gandhi decided that population growth must be slowed to cut down demand for domestic food production, and to allow more exports of rice and other crops. She ignored the fact that, in the absence of any real social security system, many Indian parents saw large families as an essential source of labour and as a promise of support in old age.
When small cash payments and petty consumer goods failed to induce large numbers of Indian men to undergo vasectomies, the Gandhi regime turned to force. Men were snatched off the street, pinned down in mobile operating theatres, and sterilised, sometimes without anaesthetic. The activities of Sanjay Gandhi's 'vasectomy squads' provoked nationwide protests, and in October 1976 police opened on fire on anti-sterilisation marches in the Uttar Pradesh towns of Muzzafarnagar and Sultanpur, killing seventy people.
The Indian 'Emergency', as the Gandhi dictatorship is usually rather euphemistically called, was most famously described by Salman Rushdie in his novel Midnight's Children. Rushdie presented Indira Gandhi as 'the Widow', a remote but terrifying tyrant who betrays the legacy of her father Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of India's independence movement and its first Prime Minister.
Another great writer who described the tragedy of the Indian Emergency was the British historian and political activist EP Thompson. During December 1976 and the first half of January 1977 Thompson circumnavigated India, giving a series of lectures in universities from New Delhi to Calcutta to Kerala to Bombay. Thompson's father had worked for many years as a Methodist missionary in India, and had been a supporter of the country's independence movement. Even after the Thompson family returned from India to Britain, they kept in touch with old friends, and as a child EP Thompson met both Nehru, who gave him cricket lessons in the backyard of his Oxford home, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Because of his family's connections to India and to Nehru, EP Thompson was treated as an honoured guest when he arrived in December 1975. He soon realised, though, that something was very wrong with the country Nehru's daughter ruled. Armed police patrolled the campuses where Thompson delivered his lectures, and students and staff whispered of arrests, beatings, and even killings. When he visited a university in Bengal, Thompson was shown the spot where a Maoist student had recently been summarily executed by police; at another university the distinguished visitor was disturbed to see a student being arrested after asking him a vaguely political question during his lecture.
Thompson was an inveterate dissident and an inveterate researcher, and it was not long before he was holding clandestine meetings with pro-democracy activists, and gathering information about Indira Gandhi's dictatorship. Towards the end of his time in India Thompson noticed that he was being followed by police; he became, by his own admission, 'somewhat paranoid', and perhaps counted himself lucky to be able to escape the country in the middle of January 1976.
As soon as he returned to Britain Thompson set to work on the fifty-page manuscript he called 'Six Weeks in India'. Marked 'Strictly Confidential' and circulated to trusted and politically influential contacts like the Labour Cabinet Minister Michael Foot, Thompson's account of Emergency India is a vivid and meticulous indictment of Indira Gandhi's rule, full of data about strikes and harvests as well as descriptions of riots and arrests.
'Six Weeks in India' describes how the programme of 'voluntary' birth control that Sanjay Gandhi led quickly became a crude instrument of eugenics, as slum dwellers and political dissidents were targetted for sterilisation. Thompson recalls meeting one young man who had been picked up by the police for his political activities, forcibly sterilised in prison, and then dumped on the street. In another part of his text, Thompson related an anecdote which captured the popular response to Indian eugenics:
In Calcutta two pick-pockets were taken up by the police and were being driven in a police-van to prison. Held up by the traffic they had the presence of mind to shout out to the surrounding crowd, 'vasectomy!, vasectomy!' Instantly the crowd rose, liberated the prisoners, and beat up the police.
At the centre of 'Six Weeks in India' was Thompson's recognition of the bizarre and apparently contradictory aspects of Indira Gandhi's dictatorship. Gandhi was backed by Washington and happily repressed trade unions and strikes, and yet her regime used left-wing rhetoric, and she counted on the support of both the Soviet Union and its local proxy, the massive and powerful Communist Party of India. Both American and Soviet advisors had Indira's ear.
Thompson had left the Communist Party of Great Britain in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and had ever since been a critic of both Washington and Moscow; he was, then, ideally equipped to recognise the convergence of Stalinist rhetoric and unbridled capitalism that was occurring in Emergency India. Thompson believed that Stalinist bureaucrats and apostles of American-style capitalism had in common a contempt for ordinary people and traditional ways of life, and a desire to 'modernise' Indian society by any means necessary:
It is necessary to drive home this point about the coincidence in style and even in ulterior assumptions between some Western ‘modernising theory’ and orthodox (Moscow) theory...Both see ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ as being imposed upon nations by an elite with the ‘know-how’ of history: both represent the outlook of ‘modernised’ urban intelligentsias; both tend to place priority upon capital-intensive heavy-industrial, or state-bureaucratic developments, either to generate the pre-conditions for ‘take-off’ or to supply an industrial ‘basis’ upon which a superstructure will supposedly arise. Both have a mentality of planning from above (the jet-setting, the three-weeks industrial consultant from America, the Soviet ideologue and technologist)...both desire a disciplined workforce.
In 1976 Thompson's argument for a convergence between capitalism and elements of Stalinism must have seemed radical; today, when the government of China mixes Maoist slogans with neo-liberal economics, and when the Putin regime rehabilitates Stalin whilst enriching a new ruling class, it seems astonishingly prescient. In 2005 I discovered a copy of 'Six Weeks in India' in an archive in Hull, and in my forthcoming book on EP Thompson from Manchester University Press I quote and discuss this long-forgotten text at length. If David Garrett would like to learn something about the period in history he so happily holds up as a model, then I am happy to post him a copy of 'Six Weeks'.