Saturday, July 04, 2015

Selective amnesia

The Hindu, July 4, 2015

At a mass sterilisation camp.
At a mass sterilisation camp.

Forty years is a long period. Since June 20, and the build up to the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it has been fascinating to watch the politics of selective remembering and determined amnesia. In the former category fall many from the ruling party, barring a few exceptions, who remember their ‘suffering’ during that period and suggest that they were in the forefront of the resistance to the Emergency. The latter are members of the Congress Party, who will not remember even if they have been told, repeatedly, what happened over those 20 months.

What both sides of the political divide forget is that those who really ‘suffered’ during that ‘dark’ period in our history were the poor and the powerless. They were either the targets of Indira Gandhi’s repressive policies, or were foolish enough to try and oppose them. In both instances, there was no recourse to justice.

The silence of the media made this worse. Because the press did not report, there was virtually no record of what happened. Much of it had to be reconstructed after the Emergency. This silence, willing or forced, exacerbated the very real suffering of the people at the receiving end of the government’s policies. Not only were they denied justice but they were also denied a voice. They had been rendered invisible.

Everyone knows now that one of the most atrocious policies of the Indira Gandhi government was the mass sterilisation campaign devised by Sanjay Gandhi as part of his five-point programme. In the name of ‘population control’, poor men and women were rounded up and forcibly sterilised. While the poor were always the principal targets of the government’s population efforts, this time it was specifically poor men. It is now fairly well-established that one of the main reasons for Mrs. Gandhi’s spectacular defeat in the March 1977 elections was the anger among the communities targeted under this campaign.

Was there any rethinking on this policy after 1977? You would think that no political party would risk pushing through a policy that results in such revulsion. Yet, although on paper, population control’ is now ‘family welfare’ and ‘women’s reproductive rights’, in fact sterilisation continues to be the main thrust of government policy. The difference now is that the main target is women, not men. In 2012-13, of the total number of sterilisation cases, 97.4 per cent were women. In fact, since 2005, over 95 per cent of sterilisation procedures have been performed on women.

This government’s stated policy is to encourage sterilisation as a method to control population growth. Incentives for health workers to bring in ‘cases’ for sterilisation have been increased. Women who choose institutionalised delivery are especially targeted; it is so much convenient to coax them into accepting a permanent solution to repeated pregnancies. And most health workers find it easier to persuade or force women than men even though is it well-known that a vasectomy is less complicated, and reversible.

Only a few stories appear about the way these sterilisation camps are conducted. A couple of years back, there was outrage when a story appeared about bicycle pumps being used on 56 women who were sterilised in Banarpal village, 150 km from Bhubaneshwar. The instrument that should have been used is an insufflator that pumps carbon dioxide into the abdomen. As this was not available in the camp where the procedure was being done, a bicycle pump was used. The surgeon in-charge, Dr. Mahesh Prasad Raut, justified this saying: “I am not alone. Surgeons often use bicycle pumps in the rural camps where the facility of an operation theatre and other sophisticated equipment are not available.” This doctor had done 60,000 tubectomies and was awarded by the government for this feat. How many of them were done using bicycle pumps is not known.

And of course, these horrific violations occur not just in Chhattisgarh or Odisha but also in many other places including Faridabad district, Haryana. Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist, has recently written a searing account of what women lined up for a tubectomy faced in the Badshah Khan hospital ( In A Callous Cut, Dixit describes the scene in the hospital where women between the ages of 20-26 await the operation. There are not enough containers to collect urine samples. So only a few women can be tested. They are asked to sign a ‘consent’ form in English, a language they do not understand. And then, dizzy with pain and sedatives, they are sent off to fend for themselves. Little wonder that so many die from sepsis or other complications, or have to be rushed back to hospital.

Reading her account, and looking back on other such stories in the last 40 years, one is forced to ask: Did sterilisation contribute to Indira Gandhi’s defeat only because the target was men? If not, then how come the callous way in which poor women are being sterilised in India in such large numbers is never a political issue?

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