The Evolution of Family Planning and Sexual Science in Post-colonial and Contemporary India: The Role of the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI)

(This update has been based upon research conducted using the digital archives of the Wellcome Library, London as well as digital resources of the FPAI).

Two Indian states ruled by the Hindu nationalist right wing political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Uttar Pradesh and Assam have, recently proposed population control legislations that would considerably disadvantage families having more than two children as they would be barred from receiving any benefits from government welfare schemes and would also be ineligible for employment in government jobs. While proposed as legislations to reduce demographic pressure on limited resources, the chief ministers of both the states that have proposed these legislations have explicitly targeted Muslim minorities as being primarily responsible for indiscriminate population increase in India. The rate of population growth among the Muslims has been consistently declining since the past two decades and the argument of Muslims driving the population growth in India lacks factual merit. However, it is not surprising that population control has become a vehicle for Hindu majoritarian politics of the BJP with the advancing authoritarianism in India. Such a communal discourse centered on population dates back to the early 20th century since when the management of population has been linked to goals of national development.

The subaltern population in India, whether it be the Muslim minority, the lower classes and cates and the tribals have been consistently framed as the subjects of demographic policies in both colonial as well as post-colonial India. After independence, India was one of the earliest nations to formally include family planning as a part of ‘national planning’ under the First Five Year Plan in 1952. The government worked closely with organizations like the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) to enact its demographic policies. The FPAI established in 1949 distinguished itself from earlier birth control associations as being a national organization which was connected with international bodies such as the International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) established by American birth control activist, Margaret Sanger. The FPAI formulated itself as an organization that was not just involved in birth control advocacy but was also at the forefront of generating scientific knowledge on sexuality and included gynecologists as well as leading sexologists such as R.D.Karve, A.P.Pillay and later Mahinder Watsa in the organization. The FPAI was instrumental in institutionalizing sexology in post-colonial India and also renewed the transnational association of Indian sexology through the organization of international sexology conferences and publishing the Family Welfare journal right through the 1980s and 1990s.

The webpage of the FPAI, that has recently also been involved in tackling the COVID 19 pandemic in India. (https://fpaindia.org/)
A pamphlet for marriage counselling produced by the FPAI. (Source: Wellcome Library)
HIV-AIDS prevention advocacy by the FPAI (Source: Wellcome Library)

The evolution of the FPAI has been consistent with the changing socio-political and economic contexts of India. Through the 1950s and 60s, the FPAI worked closely with the Indian government focusing on birth control and maternal health. The FPAI developed centers in rural as well as urban areas and demarcated the mobilization of birth control among rural women as a foremost aim. Women continued to be the target audience of its policies through the 60s. From the 70s onwards the FPAI broadened its scope to include sex education, counselling and research in its activities spearheaded by Watsa. In this period, the FPAI received funding not only from the IPPF and the Indian state but also the British government’s Ministry for Overseas Development and a British NGO, Population Concern. Archival evidence shows how in 1980, Kenneth Baker, a British MP paid a visit to India to oversee the functioning of the FPAI before sanctioning funds. His itinerary included a visit to the slums in Mumbai along with a factory operated by the TATA group where 50 female sterilization operations were conducted every week. Funds were also sanctioned particularly for rural development as evidenced through grants provided for furthering contraception and improving reproductive health in Kundam, a rural area in Madhya Pradesh. Such activities were in line with the patriarchal, casteist and classist assumptions of earlier population control projects. Despite such shortcomings,  the FPAI as an institution was at the forefront of producing as well as mobilizing sexual knowledge in India through the 1980s with the production of its annual reports and research authored by doctors, sexologists and psychologists.  In the 1990s the FPAI was involved in advocacy of HIV AIDS prevention and treatment and altered it discourse to include more rights based and sustainable aims of empowering local communities and actors whether they be women, MSM (men who have sex with men) or sex workers. Corporate funding and sponsorship have only enhanced over the years.  An interesting finding from my preliminary research into the activities of the FPAI has also been coming across ways in which sexology and birth control advocacy affected individuals. I came across the letter of a 72-year-old man, Ashwini Pal, associated with the FPAI and based in Calcutta. It was addressed to the British birth control advocate, Marie Stopes and written in 1954. In his letter he outlined ostracism that he had faced as he tried to open a birth control clinic in his ancestral village and wrote about collaborating with the Bacteriological Institute in Calcutta to further contraceptive research. In the same letter he also asks for sex advice from Stopes in addition to purchasing condoms as well as a lubricant for his personal use. The history of sexual science and contraception in post-colonial India therefore in addition to reflecting contemporary socio-political concerns was also about issues that affected the individual who was situated at the cross roads of national as well as transnational developments.

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About Arnav Bhattacharya

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. My dissertation tentatively titled, "Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexology in Modern India(1880-1960)" explores the history of sexual science in India, particularly exploring the ways in which sexual science interacted with medicine, public health, and hygiene and, sex education to formulate the sexual identities and experiences of modern Indians. More generally I am broadly interested in the history of South Asia, colonialism, nationalism, medicine, gender, and the global history of sexual science.