Temple of Womb

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Kartik Nair in New Inquiry:

In the summer of 1975, faced with intensifying opposition from trade, student, and government unions—and the stench of a court conviction over electoral ­misconduct—Gandhi had a state of “internal emergency” declared. In middle-class memory, the next 21 months are recalled as that rare time in postcolonial India when the streets stayed clean and trains ran on time. It was the last gasp of truly centralized state control, the climax of Big Government, the paroxysm of the plan—with the poor at the receiving end.

Among the many technologies unveiled during the Emergency were “family planning camps” across India. Here, citizens (mostly lower class, mostly male) were encouraged, pressured, and often forced to undergo vasectomies. This coercion—the preferred term was “motivation”—occurred in more than one way: Sometimes whole villages were rounded up and hauled to these camps; other times, men were offered “gifts” in exchange for sterilization.

In cities, family planning dovetailed with slum demolition. The poor were promised plots of land if they agreed to move out of the slum and submit to “voluntary” sterilization. In the paper trail of official documents left behind by this black market, Emma Tarlo, in her Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi, finds “documents in which ‘family planning’ is defined as ‘sterilization’ and ‘sterilization’ is defined as voluntary even before the person has begun to fill out the form. What we find in this small piece of paper is a fragment of the dominant Emergency narrative—a token of official family-planning euphemisms in action at a local level.”

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