Bryan Caplan  

India, 1977: A Libertarian Populist Moment

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Matthew Connelly's outstanding Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population nearly brought a pro-democratic tear to my elitist libertarian eye. Trotsky once wrote that:

In a country where the sole employer is the state... [t]he old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.
Well, during Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, the new socialist principle became "Who refuses sterilization shall not eat":
Sterilization became a condition not just for land allotments, but for irrigation water, electricity, ration cards, rickshaw licenses, medical care, pay raises, and promotions. Everyone, from senior government officials to train conductors to policemen, was given a sterilization quota...

Altogether, in the course of one year, the government would record more than 8 million sterilizations: 6.2 million vasectomies and 2.05 tubectomies.

This led to a rare episode of libertarian populism:
The people of India, however, had had enough. Hundreds were being killed from botched sterilizations - according to official statistics, 1774 if them. There was no way to count the number who were being hauled away to sterilization camps against their will...
In the face of popular protest, Indira Gandhi decided to release political prisoners and authorize an election:
Most observers, like Gandhi herself, expected the Congress Party would win again, as they had won every election since independence. Opponents were released from jails, but they had only two months to organize...

Opponents cobbled together a coalition and agreed to field their stongest candidate in every district. India's newspapers were finally free to report the abuses in the family planning program. More than half the election coverage explicitly mentioned the issue. Gandhi's cabinet rejected the Maharashtra law, withdrew a proposal for "disincentives" for government employees, and closed the sterilization camps. Nevertheless, as Gandhi campaigned across India, the crowds were disappointingly small at her campaign rallies. When some women literally turned their backs to her, the prime minister waded into the audience and tried to turn them around...

At last, in the largest democratic election in history, the people of India produced one of history's great political upsets. The prime minister herself was routed in her home district... The Congress Party was defeated all across northern India. They lost 141 out of 142 seats in the states that had registered the largest increases in sterilization (in the previous election, Congress had carried 80 percent in these areas). In Delhi the crowds stayed up through the night to cheer as the results came in...

Something even more powerful, even more implacable, had finally defeated the ideology of population control: People voting, one by one.

The majority rarely asks for liberty, but when it does, it's beautiful.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
John Fast writes:

[tranquillo]
Sometimes the snow comes down in June,
Sometimes the Sun goes 'round the Moon...
We know how statists win with lies --
Sometimes there comes a big surprise!

[allegro]
If buttercups buzzed after the bee;
If boats were on land, and churches on sea;
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows
And cats could be chased into holes by a mouse,
And if mothers sold their babies
To adopt for half-a-pound,
And summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down!

John Fast writes:

[tremolo o vibrato]
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
And friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?

Kurbla writes:

Hardly that Indira Gandhi's India was socialist. It was capitalist country, not unlike US that also performed forced sterilization back when eugenics was in fashion. Brits sterilized homosexuals until 1950's or 1960's, I don't know for other capitalist countries. For socialist countries, I do not know, maybe late Romania.

Kunal writes:

>>Hardly that Indira Gandhi's India was socialist. It was capitalist country

Well, its important to remember that it was during the Emergency that Indira Gandhi inserted language into the Indian Constitution officially making it a socialist state. One must also remember that the marginal tax rate for the top bracket of income tax in India was 97%. Industry and banks were being nationalised, and those that weren't were subject to draconian controls. 1970's India was no socialist workers paradise (if such a thing exists), but few would call it a capitalist country.

>>not unlike US that also performed forced sterilization back when eugenics was in fashion. Brits sterilized homosexuals until 1950's or 1960's

Well, they weren't sterilising targeted groups, they were sterilising everybody they deemed had enough children. If Janata Party propoganda from that era is to be believed, even unmarried men and indeed boys were sterilised as nervous policemen and bureaucrats tried to fill their quotas.

dearieme writes:

Kurbla, I've never heard of Brits sterilising homosexuals. Wikipedia says of Britain "Sterilisation programmes were never legalised, although some were carried out in private upon the mentally ill by clinicians who were in favour of a more widespread eugenics plan." I've always understood that it was the USA and Sweden that were keen on sterilisation.

Prashant writes:

@Kurbla says Hardly that Indira Gandhi's India was socialist. It was capitalist country, not unlike US...

Heh! As someone who grew up in Indira Gandhi's India, and who's spent many years in the US as well, Kurbla's intro is absolute nonsense.

can't speak to the sterilization bit (in the US or Britain) but Indira Gandhi's India was not capitalist.

Hyrum writes:

I had never heard of any of this. It there a reliable place to learn more about that era in India?

FC writes:

Sterilizing homosexuals is so absurd I can almost believe it happened.

Ed Hanson writes:

Prashant writes:

@Kurbla says Hardly that Indira Gandhi's India was socialist. It was capitalist country, not unlike US...

Heh! As someone who grew up in Indira Gandhi's India, and who's spent many years in the US as well, Kurbla's intro is absolute nonsense.

Thank-you Prashant

When some people see so much gray, that they can never see a difference in anything, it is nice to read someone, from experience and education, set things straight.

mensarefugee writes:
Hardly that Indira Gandhi's India was socialist. It was capitalist country

Ah! A socialist if I ever read one!

John Fast writes:
Sometimes the snow comes down in June, Sometimes the Sun goes 'round the Moon...

Sometimes The Stars Are Right. I think the current food (price) crisis is a great time to use populist rhetoric to actually do something good, by eliminating agricultural subsidies that make Evil Big Agribusinesses rich by starving the poor!

Everyone who wants to keep these subsidies to agribusiness is an Evil Greedy Kapitalist, or one of their apologists (and therefore either corrupt or at best deluded).

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