By Deepanjana Pal
“Nonsense can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere,” wrote the writer and artist Mervyn Peake. Who’d have thunk Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi would take it upon herself to prove Peake right?
First, Gandhi delivered this gem while commenting on the proposed Disability Bill: “If a person is mentally ill like schizophrenic, how can he be given a job?” (Call me unimaginative, but I’d say pretty much in the same way that someone who isn’t schizophrenic is given a job — upon the understanding that they’re to fulfil certain responsibilities while the employer, in return, gives them a salary and an office environment that’s respectful and conducive to work.)
Then on February 1, Gandhi came up with a magnificent suggestion while at a conference in Jaipur. According to her, we should get rid of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act and make sex determination mandatory in India. Why? Because the minister feels the law harasses those providing the ultrasounds, rather than the pregnant women or the families that want to know the sex of the unborn child.
“Till when will we keep arresting people?” asked Gandhi. “In this country, if a person goes to an ultrasound owner and asks the gender of his (unborn) kid, who will dare say no?” A doctor who doesn’t want to go to jail or pay a fine, would be the most obvious answer. However, Gandhi feels sex determination is so easy that there’s no point criminalising it. She makes it seem like finding out the sex of your child is as easy as spotting a pothole. “We’ve even read in newspapers about a blood test which tells the gender immediately,” said Gandhi, “so till when will we make criminals of people?” Till they’re committing criminal acts, perhaps? Apparently not, according to our venerable minister. “Better still, we change the policy and make it compulsory to tell a pregnant woman if it is a boy or a girl and get her registered,” said Gandhi.
I’m not one to identify women by the male members in their family, but there’s something morbidly coherent in the fact that Gandhi is the widow of the man who spearheaded a campaign of forced vasectomies and tubectomies upon Indians, during the Emergency in 1975. Sanjay Gandhi wanted to tie the country’s tubes in order to control the population. Four decades later, Maneka Gandhi wants to “monitor” every pregnant woman in the country. You really can’t make this stuff up.
But back to the person entrusted with the welfare of women and child development in India. According to Gandhi, the big problem with sex determination is that the officials are struggling to keep a check on ultrasounds. This in itself is not fiction. There is indeed a bustling market for those who provide illegal ultrasounds. So since we can’t keep track of the illegal ultrasound providers, the solution Gandhi offers is to register every single pregnancy and the sex of every foetus in every womb in the country. That sounds more practical to her than tracking and rapping the wrists of those dabbling in illegal ultrasounds. In case you were wondering, the 2011 census’ numbers indicate there are more than 30 babies being born every minute in India.
There’s a lot that’s alarming in Gandhi’s comments. The system isn’t perfect as far as pregnant women’s health is concerned and the laws banning sex determination don’t leave the mother with much agency over her body, but you’ve got to wonder just how cut off from reality Gandhi is to think making sex determination mandatory will be good for our society, given the long history of prejudice and gender bias in India. It’s almost as though Gandhi dreams of an India which is a Minority Report kind of land, where the state can keep an eye on what every citizen does.
When a lone wolf writer with a fevered imagination comes up with this worldview, it’s fiction and potentially gripping. When a politician from the ruling party imagines India as a country in which every single pregnancy – a phenomenon that occurs mysteriously and spontaneously within a human body – can be monitored, that’s intensely worrying. What’s next? A list of the ‘fertile’ women, like The Handmaid’s Tale? We can only hope that this sort of scrutiny is impossible in overpopulated India and that Gandhi is delusional
Flawed as they may be, the laws governing sex determination and sex-selective abortions have had some impact in India. They’re not something that you admit to freely or flaunt proudly. Most people who will agree to talk about sex determination will invariably speak about the compulsions that cornered them into needing to know their unborn child’s gender. There are a few communities, like the Sikhs and the Jains, in which the number of girls being born has risen in the past years. Hindu families have seen the fastest rate of decline in the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys, which indicates that it’s here in the mainstream majority that misogyny is most deeply embedded.
Perhaps there’s greater complicity from the mothers because they’re aware of just how difficult it is for women and girls to breathe, to live and to survive the world around them. Recently, I was speaking to someone about pregnancy and she told me quite bluntly that if she knew she was having a daughter, she’d opt for an abortion. “I can’t say she’ll have a better life than me and I don’t want anyone else to have to live my life,” she told me. I asked if she’d feel like a killer. “A mother’s responsibility is to do the best for her child,” she said. “Remember Ganga? She drowned seven sons, for their own good.”
It suddenly struck me that all the dead babies in our stories are boys while the corpses that surface in our news reports about sex-selective abortions are all flesh that would have been girls. Which stories and crimes have slipped through which cracks?
Deepanjana Pal dreams of being a “secret feminist agent”, but having missed the boat as far as secrecy goes, she has resigned herself to being a writer and a journalist.