During the discussion the other evening, I muse say that you were bold and enterprising in
some of the assertions you made. I had not expected a young lady to be so forthright.
Although, I must tell you that you were somewhat unfair about birth control in the context
of Islam. I had an Urdu teacher for a good eight years. His name was Agha Iqbal Mirza, a
pre-war graduate of Delhi University. In the course of our many conversations, I remember
he told me that Islam was not against birth control per se. It only insists that
control is achieved either through abstinence or through coitus interruptus. Even the
orthodox religious leaders were only against the use of artificial contraception.
It is true that an impression exists that Islam has been for increasing
population, as opposed to controlling it. I do not believe that the impression is backed
by substance. It is widely accepted that in the time of its birth and for centuries
thereafter, Islam was the most modern social prescription. In contrast to most other
traditions, women had rights to their father's property. Hindu law in this regard was
amended as late as 1955 when the Hindu Code Bill was passed.
Mirza Saheb used to say that the needs of Arabia in those times were
such as to require as large a population as was possible. The permission to marry more
than one wife not only helped to find a home for war widows, who were many, but also
ensured the procreation of more legitimate children. The second or the third wife was
normally younger than the first one. Perfume, especially in the form of itr, was
favoured perhaps in this context. The use of aphrodisiacs was popular. Dyeing of grey
hair, whether with the help of mehndi (henna) or otherwise, was recommended to
preserve the illusion of youth. So much for Arabia. The Bangladesh of today is avery
different case. In sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia it is wet, fertile, short of space and
overcrowded. Surely, if a prescription of life is to be written for these conditions, it
would be very different from the Arabian one.
This is enough as a defence of Islam by a Muslim. Now let us get to the
Hindu view. This also is important because I feel that our first task should be to
convince our people how important it is to plan the family. How vital it is not only to
the family and its future health but also to the economy and the polity of India. In other
words, the importance of family planning must first register on the mind. Thereafter, its
practice would willy nilly follow. Without a universal, or at least a widespread,
conviction the control of births is likely to be uncertain and patchy as has been the
record so far in our country. On the one hand, we have Kerala with a laudable performance
of a zero growth. On the other, we have the example of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the
population continues to increase nabated.
To bring about a revolution of the mind, myths have to be exploded. For
instance, the Hindu believes that he cannot attain mukti or salvation unless he
was cremated by his son. A conservative father may feel the need to have at least two.
Often, in trying to have two sons the family ends up with five daughters. Little does the
Hindu realise that in Vedic times boys and girls were treated on par, that the girls were
as eligible to learn the Vedas as the boys. Those who studied, did justice to education
before getting married. In any event, girls married as late as boys and child marriages
were not in vogue.
Another common myth is that a son is necessary as an insurance against
the vagaries of old age. The son and his wife would look after the parents when they are
sick or infirm. Perhaps this was true in agrarian societies especially for those families
which owned property. The son and his wife needed to remain obedient. In
reality, a daughter is likely to welcome her parents more than a daughter-in-law who would
come from another family. The goodwill of the lady of the house is surely crucial for
anyone to stay happy. In other words, it makes more sense to depend on a daughter. The man
of the house does not usually interfere provided his wife is happy.
I am sure there are several more myths which come in the way of
families controlling births especially in the villages. There is however no religious
taboo in the Hindu ethos. There was no priestly uproar when abortion was legalised. A
philosophical explanation could be that a foetus has no soul. Life yes, but soul no until
it is able to perform karma. In sharp contrast, in the Judaic ethos, it is believed
that God created man and therefore He alone has the right to take his life.Human beings
have no right to interfere in the process of birth and death. Which explains the
Christian, especially Catholic, opposition to abortion.
The point I am making is that amongst the majority of our people, there
is no conceptual or philosophical barrier to controlling the birth.Which means that if we
have failed in preventing birth of our billionth citizen in August 1999, we have only
ourselves to blame. Talking of a revolution of the mind, I feel that our family planning
programme has been largely adopted from ideas in the west. The government or the NGOs
could have talked to the people in their own idiom. For example, never has a reference
been made to the importance of brahmcharya or celibacy till the age of 25 and the
practice of grihasth jeevan for the next 25 years. Going by this tradition, no man
should become a father till he is nearly twenty six. Nor should he become a parent much
after the age of fifty.
The other point that comes to mind is the value attributed to a drop of
semen which is widely believed to be worth at least a hundred drops of blood. I am not
saying that reiterating these traditions would by themselves achieve a control on
population but it would certainly be a far more convincing introduction to the subject
than, say, the display of a red triangle accompanied by the faces of two children!