Even though, by the mid-1930s, (Hanuman Prasad) Poddar’s relationship with Gandhi had started wearing thin on many counts, certain ideas and principles the Mahatma held helped the Gita Press counter threats to its views on women’s sexuality. One such threat was the use of contraceptives by women as a means of “birth control” – a term coined by Margaret Sanger, the American feminist and propagator of the slogan “every child should be a wanted child”. The use of contraceptives by women was still in its infancy worldwide and was being resisted by conservative elements, and Sanger was tirelessly lobbying for a woman’s right to choose when to have a child.

At the end of 1935, Gandhi in a long interview to Sanger had argued that the remedy did not lie in contraception or any other artificial birth-control measure but in women saying “no to their husbands when they approach them carnally”. Confident that husbands, not all of whom were “brutes”, would understand this resistance from their wives, a method he claimed to have taught to many women, Gandhi upheld another principle – that physical union should take place only to produce children. Otherwise, he told Sanger: “When both want to satisfy animal passion without having to suffer the consequences of their act it is not love, it is lust . . . When a husband says, ‘Let us not have children, but let us have relations’, what is that but animal passion?”

Sanger’s counter that Gandhi’s method of self-restraint could result in “irritations, disputes and thwarted longings” did not convince him.

When she gave “hard cases” of people who had experienced nervous breakdowns as a result of sexual restraint, he responded that these must be “based on examination of imbeciles”. Gandhi reiterated his sex-only-for-procreation position in Harijan in March 1936, while also expressing admiration for Sanger’s “zeal”.

For Poddar, the Gandhi–Sanger debate was a godsend. In his April 1936 article Vartaman Shiksha, Poddar acknowledged that in India having too many children was a cause of misery for parents, but called it divine providence. “Birth is pre-ordained . . . If someone does not believe in this, then self-restraint is the only solution.” Echoing Gandhi, Poddar said he did not want to be disrespectful to Sanger as her intentions were right, but contraception in the Indian context was both harmful and sinful. He argued the sole purpose of birth-control measures was to satisfy sexual passion, and that could encourage adultery.

Without mentioning the source (a common habit with him), Poddar referred to an article by Gandhi that warned of negative consequences of artificial birth control, many of which were still not apparent. One consequence was the wave of sexual liberty among school- and college-going females, as restricting the use of contraceptives to married women was impossible. Besides, with the availability of contraceptives, marriage had lost its sanctity and become merely a means to satisfy the sexual urge.

Even as late as 1969, Kalyan used a relevant portion from Gandhi’s Navjivan article of 1925 to make its point against contraception. Gandhi had appealed to doctors, saying that that they would do a great service to mankind if they stopped prescribing artificial methods of birth control. “Encouraging artificial methods is like encouraging evil. It makes men and women frivolous. Artificial methods would result in impotence and decline in sperm count. This remedy would prove to be worse than the disease.”

Gandhi’s stance on birth control through abstention was integral to his view of marriage as an institution that, as he told C.F. Andrews, “is a status lower than that of celibacy”.

Writing to Andrews way back in 1920, Gandhi had said, “Take it from me that there is no happiness in marriage.” Sex between husband and wife was abhorrent for him: “I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of man and woman. That it leads to the birth of children is due to God’s inscrutable way” and “. . . the occasion of marriage should remind us of self-restraint. If desires cannot be conquered, they should be harnessed.”

Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s closest disciples, lent his support to Gita Press’s campaign against family planning that for him represented the defeat of “spiritual and moral values”. Disputing the theory of population becoming a burden, Bhave warned that birth control would negatively impact not only the birth of children but also intelligence: “The creative energy we call sperm has given birth to the great poet Valmiki and fearless Hanuman. People are now misusing that creative energy. Husband and wife are making such an arrangement (using birth control) so that they can have sex but not produce children. If they continue like this, the nation will lose power.” Bhave’s one-point solution was to return to a life divided into four ashrams – brahmacharya, garhasthya, vanaprastha and sanyas – in which the garhasthya (householder) phase was to last from the age of twenty-five to forty- five, the right age for having children.

Charu Chandra Mitra’s 1948 serialised article Nari included a scathing attack on the practice of birth control and its impact on women’s freedom. For him, the freedom that birth control promised was harmful to women and the nation, and would have a direct and adverse impact on marriage since the age-old concept of marriage as “the sole way to contain the sexual urge” would no longer hold. Marriage and domesticity – the pleasure of bearing and rearing children – would be the biggest casualty of this freedom, he contended. Men and women who practised birth control, he predicted, would lead a lonely old age.

Gita Press’s opposition to artificial birth-control measures continued into the late 1960s. Kalyan now turned to KC Mishra, a medical practitioner who articulated a medico-religious argument. With over three decades of practice, as he claimed, Mishra regretted the adoption of Western methods, “that was akin to people in the plains wearing winter clothing required in Kashmir”. Mishra said birth-control measures being used in the cold countries of Europe could not be used in a warm country like India. Listing their side effects, Mishra said that even Dr Robert BMC Clure, who had worked on family planning in China for twenty-four years, in the Arab world for four years and in India for twelve years, had found problems with contraceptives.

Clure had said that “until public health education made sterilisation acceptable, there would be no good contraceptive available in rural areas”, and that “unnatural methods all have serious side effects on the nervous system besides leading to digestive trouble, etc.”. Mishra’s invocation to Indian youth was not to go in for sterilisation as it would in the long term weaken the nation. “If youth lose their power to produce, the nation would face a shortage of soldiers.”

The subtext of Gita Press’s sustained, often shrill, campaign with religious and moral overtones was not so much resistance to modern methods of birth control as it was another reflection of an Islamophobic mindset.

Population was an important ingredient in the communal competition, the bogey of the Muslim population rising at an unimaginably greater pace than that of the Hindus being one of the many used by Hindu nationalist groups.

Right from its inception, through the intense communal polarisation during the 1940s and 1960s, Gita Press made repeated use of common Hindu nationalist phrases such as “Muslim violence against Hindus”, “Muslim rape of Hindu women”, “Muslim pillaging of Hindu property”, “Muslim virility” and “increasing Muslim population” to drive home the story of victimhood of the Hindus at the hands of invader Muslims.

Already, Gita Press had carried Hitler’s appeal to German women to confine themselves to the roles of wives and mothers. Drawing from Hitler’s Germany was not an innocuous act, but Gita Press’s affirmation of its regard for the fascist ruler. In fact, when it comes to the “women question”, there is a great deal of similarity between Nazi Germany, Gita Press and other Hindu nationalist organisations like the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and others; in particular, the “hysterical protective anxiety about numbers” vis-à-vis the Muslims shown by Gita Press and the entire Hindu right owes a lot to Hitler.

Much of Gita Press’s concern about the declining Hindu population emanated from successive census reports that created the fear of Muslims racing past the Hindus, at least in the politically and socially volatile United Provinces. The census report in 1911 gave official credence to the Hindu nationalist narrative by making statements like “Musalmans are more fertile than Hindus”, and in 1921, “prohibition of remarriage of widows does not affect Muhammadans” and “both relatively and absolutely Hindus have lost”. Further, between 1911 and 1921, “Hindus decreased by 347 persons per 1,000”. Such reports only fuelled fears based on the belief that “the social and political influence of a population is in direct proportion to its size”.

The hysteria of “saffron demography”, a term coined by Particia and Roger Jeffery, was echoed by Poddar himself in reply to a Kalyan reader who wanted his views on family planning. Poddar severely criticised the government for its family planning programme. Repeating the moral and physical problems caused by the government initiative, he said the biggest threat was to “the future of the Hindu jati”.

Poddar was angry that the government’s family planning was gaining ground only among Hindus, while Muslims had termed it “anti-religious” and kept away from it. Muslims, he said, were allowed to keep more than one wife and, therefore, their population was rising at a greater pace while that of the Hindus was declining and was likely to dip further: “If the situation continues like this, the number of Muslims would be the same as the Hindus or may even surpass them. The adverse impact of such a scenario can be gauged from the formation of one Pakistan. Even the Christian population is rising. Every law-abiding citizen should pay heed to this, especially the Hindus.”

Poddar batted for self-restraint as the best form of birth control. It seems the reader had expressed concern about the shortage of food due to rising population; Poddar dismissed such a fear and told him to leave the task of feeding everyone to god.

Excerpted with permission from Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, Akshaya Mukul, HarperCollins India.