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India’s brutal family planning policies on film

Cinema Politica Concordia screens Something Like a War

“This year [I performed] more than 2,000 operations,” the gynaecologist boasts to the camera. He describes the operation he performs as “easy, simple, economical.” He complains, however, that the government has placed a restriction on how many operations he can perform in a day. He compares this to a limit on industrial production, a punishment for the most efficient and capable. The operation he performs is sterilization, and most of the women he performs it on don’t want to be sterilized. They have been coerced, as part of the brutal Indian family planning policy that was in place in the 1970s. The doctor is being interviewed on camera, not seated in a studio, but in the middle of performing a series of sterilizations.

Something Like a War, directed by Deepa Dhanraj, consists of a series of interviews with the women affected by the sterilization policy, as well as with those involved in its implementation. The main focus shifts from a group of women in rural India discussing their relations to their bodies, their wombs, and their sexuality, to the gynecologists who perform the operations, ‘motivators’ who use money and deceit to bring women to the operating table, and finally to government officials overseeing the policy. The women talk freely about their lives, in a way not dissimilar to Western productions such as The Vagina Monologues. The interviewees are scathing in their condemnations of the population control policies that have left them feeling helpless and objectified. It is also worth noting that the policy wasn’t restricted to women, and the documentary doesn’t restrict its scope; one group of men also share how they were forced to undergo vasectomies in aid of meeting a government target.

The film feels no need to underscore the horror of what was being perpetrated, sparsely interspersing interviews with short quotes and statistics. The horrible crime is caught on film. We watch a woman almost having to be carried out after the swift sterilization, her face grimacing in pain. On her way out she passes the next woman who gets a glimpse of what is about to happen to her. One woman undergoing the operation is caught on camera crying, “Bastard, get off me!”

If there was any danger in letting the interviews speak for themselves it would be that the wider context for the government policy could be lost. Fortunately for those attending Cinema Politica Concordia’s screening, the film was introduced by Professor Madhav Badami from the McGill School of Urban Planning, who gave a wider background to the events. During the 1960s, within intellectual circles and the ruling class, there was a surge of concern about population growth. It went so far that people started to believe that the poor were responsible for their own poverty, due to overpopulating, and that it surely fell to their enlightened leaders to intervene, even brutally if necessary.

The most disturbing issue, and one that the film failed to explore (although Badami gave a brief overview), was the role Western groups, such as the U.S. Rockefeller foundation, played in financially promoting the family planning policy. The film effectively tells the story of how the Indian government implemented policies that dis-empower and harm women. The story of how Western groups and policy brought this damage to India remained untold and uncomfortable questions were left for the audience to answer alone. This is hardly a significant complaint, since the power and importance of the film lies in the director’s desire to empower the women affected to tell their own story in their own words.

While Indira Gandhi, who ruled India at the time, ended up losing power and her seat as consequence of the policies she introduced – including family planning ones – the groups that financially motivated and influenced Indian politics from afar remain spared from any kind of consequence.