(The article was originally published in Indian Express on November 11, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar stirred a hornet’s nest before apologising for his crass comments in the Bihar Assembly over the man-woman relationship.
It is very sad to see such language being used on the floor of the House by a 70-year old leader of Nitish’s stature, violating parliamentary decorum and personal ethics.
Some tried to laugh it off as the rusticity of Bihar politics, citing the example of leaders like Lalu Prasad. To give the devil his due, the universal infamy of his rustic demeanour apart, Lalu was never known for crude utterances against women. Nitish’s comments marked an all-time low, causing acute embarrassment to every woman legislator, reducing some to tears.
What shouldn’t be missed in the viral video was the merriment of some of Nitish’s male colleagues, including Tejashwi Yadav, his deputy. They were seen giggling while Nitish was graphically describing the activity with physical gestures. Tejashwi even sought to underplay the angry reaction by trying to explain the comments away as a sort of sex education, as if the Assembly is a classroom.
But a more discomforting dimension is his patriarchal mindset, which looks at women as mere baby-making factories subordinate to the whims of men. Patriarchy is a taboo topic for many Indians living in the same socio-cultural milieu that found Nitish’s comments regressive. But it is an everyday reality for millions and millions of women.
Even a committed socialist like Nitish Kumar could only imagine the freedom of an educated woman in terms of requesting her husband to stop the intercourse at some point. In a revealing article, ‘Women and Sexual Purity’, Lohia castigates this patriarchal obsession of men with a woman’s body, “a tiny part of the body”, but not about “her ability and functionality”.
In another famous essay ‘Draupadi or Savitri’, Lohia categorically states that Draupadi “epitomises Indian women in the true sense”, being “knowledgeable, brave, bold and a spitfire to boot”. The enlightened women of Lohia’s conception were like Draupadi — not in terms of the number of husbands, but “in terms of her character and personality”.
Nitish Kumar’s concerns may be real. Population control is a burning challenge. Bihar tops the charts with the highest decadal population growth of 25 per cent. He wanted women to be literate to address this challenge. But then, the patriarchal prism he wore couldn’t find a better reason for women’s education than the debased one related to “a tiny part of the body”.
India’s ballooning population — 30 lakh more than China’s 142.5 crore, making the country the most populous in the world — prompted even Prime Minister Narendra Modi to express concern during the Independence Day address in 2019. But he didn’t present it as just the obligation of a woman to avoid pregnancy, but for both man and woman to stop and think “before bringing a child to the world, whether they can do justice to the child”. Unlike Nitish, Modi linked it to societal vigilance and described having a small family as “a form of patriotism”.
The larger debate of population control should be freed from patriarchy and polarisation. It is the responsibility of all sections of society. Looking at women as “reproductive machines” in the competition for numerical superiority to conquer the world “through the womb of a woman” is the bane of humanity. The population control debate needs to be brought out of this abominable and anti-woman discourse.
The scientific way to ensure rational growth of population is to maintain a stable total fertility rate (TFR) of women of all religions, regions and cross sections. TFR — the average number of children that a woman bears in her lifetime — should be around 2.1 for a stable population growth.
There are many myths surrounding population growth and imbalance. But if we are ready to believe in the data of the UN and other international agencies, the country’s population graph will touch its peak in the mid-2060s at 1.65 billion before climbing down to 1.5 billion by 2100, subject to the TFR remaining at the current level. In fact, a fall of 0.5 in TFR, which is not unlikely,
could bring the population down to 1 billion by 2100.
The Pew Research Centre in Washington DC has recently released its analysis, based on the more credible data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, according to which, the average Indian woman is expected to have two children in her lifetime.
Sadly, this data is mired in debates over the variance in TFR among different religious groups with the obvious suspicion turning to Muslim women. According to the NFHS data of 2019, the latest that is available, TFR among Muslim women is the highest at 2.4, whereas that of Hindu women is at 1.9. Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains are at 1.6, 1.4, 1.6 and 1.6, respectively.
A higher TFR rate among Muslims is naturally a source of concern. But there is an important silver lining. Over the last 30 years, it has fallen by almost half, from a high of 4.4 in 1992 to 2.4 today. The TFR among Hindus, too, dropped from 3.3 to 1.9 during the same period. Educational development, economic prosperity, aspiration for good living standards and also the stigma attached to polygamy and unplanned families are some of the factors leading to the fall in TFR across the board. More work is needed within the Muslim community to bring down the TFR to the standard level of 2.1 or below.
This is what will help control population growth rates and also allay the fears of other communities about imbalanced population growth and its evil consequences, which many countries, including India, witnessed in the not-so-distant past.
After all, the French philosopher Augustine Comte was not wrong to quip that “demography is destiny”.