Anand on Sreenivas, 'Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India'

Mytheli Sreenivas
Alankrita Anand

Mytheli Sreenivas. Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021. 284 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74884-9; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74883-2.

Reviewed by Alankrita Anand (University of York) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (January, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

Mytheli Sreenivas’s Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India lays out what the title promises: how reproduction shaped the India we know today—its moral foundations, political aspirations, and social stratifications. The book spans a century of debates and discourses surrounding reproduction, starting from colonial, undivided India in the 1870s to a relatively newly independent India in the 1970s. This is an interesting century to cover as it brings to the fore the continuity between colonial ideas of othered people and the enduring power hierarchies of caste, class, and gender in India today. Temporally, the book is a work situated in modern history, but its investigation of the concepts of "population" and "economy" make it a sharp commentary on the centrality of reproduction in global biopolitics today. Sreenivas states and makes evident that the book is not only about reproduction in India (or how imperial politics influenced it) but also about how the Indian case influenced the political positions of key actors and governments in other countries, especially the United Kingdom.

The introduction and chapter 1 place particular emphasis on the concepts of "population" and "economy," discussing how recurring famines led colonial administrators to make enumeration key to policymaking and how that, in turn, led to life and life processes being quantified, which, as the epilogue discusses, is prevalent in contemporary discourses on population policy and climate change. Chapter 2 adds race and eugenics to this mix of population and economy, widening the discussion to how the quality of the population became almost as important as the quantity. Chapters 3 and 4 are perhaps the most engaging works among contemporary scholarship on reproductive politics in India as they entail a nuanced discussion of the position of women’s organizations and movements, and individual women leaders, on population control (especially birth control), reproductive rights, and the clash between the two. Sreenivas’s critical approach to seemingly progressive standpoints, such as those promoting birth control for women, pushes the reader to interrogate whether a "feminist" politics of reproduction stood for all women or not. The answer is a no, as the book demonstrates that leaders and groups of all political hues—nationalists, women’s rights activists (some historically identified as feminists), and reformists—all ultimately couched their public stance on birth control in terms of national development, underpinned by neo-Malthusianism rather than women’s rights and emancipation. Chapter 5 presents another rare and difficult to reconstruct perspective, which is that of the women and families whose lives were affected by the thoughts and policies of the key actors in the field. Sreenivas follows an oral history methodology to reconstruct these perspectives, which illustrate a challenge posed to the discriminatory idea of pinning all economic, social, and moral problems on poor people’s reproduction. This chapter also discusses the related development and availability of new contraceptive technologies, like the intrauterine device (IUD), and the ways these snatched control from the bodies and sexualities of women, especially poor and lower-caste women who were targeted with these technologies in the garb of choice and need. The final chapter draws on arguments in the penultimate and previous chapters but breaks away from the chronology in favor of a discourse analysis based on media messaging around fertility and family planning, which are found to reinforce heteronormativity and sexual propriety.

What stands out in Sreenivas’s work is the animation with which the key actors of the period under study are brought to life—their ideas, statements, political alignments, and (privileged) social positions. It makes the text dynamic and illustrates several well- and lesser-known facts about figures in the history of population and economy, like Thomas Malthus, Margaret Sanger, Annie Besant, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. This methodological and analytical approach also enables the reader’s participation in a meaning-making process, based on their disciplinary interest in the subject of reproduction. Although the fifth chapter is largely informed by oral histories from ordinary citizens, the reader is left wanting, as it does not have the dynamism and animation of the preceding chapters that deal with key actors. The discussion on the IUD and the "war" on women’s bodies, however, is vivid, and almost immediately reminiscent of Deepa Dhanraj’s evocative documentary Something Like a War (2003).

As a sociologist working at the cusp of feminism and the development sector, Sreenivas has written one of the first books set in history that I find reverberating in contemporary India, and with India’s position in transnational biopolitics. Her nod to Loretta Ross and Rickie Sonlinger’s Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (2017) in the introduction develops into an undercurrent in the course of the book as it compels the reader to think about how political and nonpolitical actors, colonial and postcolonial states, and science and medicine all colluded in the project of reproductive regulation that amounted to injustice to large numbers of women and their families, already historically marginalized.

Citation: Alankrita Anand. Review of Sreenivas, Mytheli, Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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