When Gandhi told British birth control activists that contraceptives were a sin

An exhibition at the London School of Economics sheds light on how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were made.

On a quest to learn about the life and works of Ludwig Van Beethoven, Madeline Slade, the daughter of a British admiral, ended up learning about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Upon hearing Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata 17, Slade was mesmerised and began reading French writer Romain Rolland’s biography of the composer. It was through Rolland, who had also penned a biography on Gandhi, that Slade learnt about the man leading a non-violent revolution in India.

It wasn’t long before her fascination with Beethoven shifted on to Gandhi and his philosophy of satyagraha, or non-violent protest, and the Swadeshi movement. She wrote to Gandhi asking if she could come work with him in India, a request that Gandhi accepted. Soon after she turned 33 in 1925, she joined Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, adopted the name Mirabehn and remained there for the next 20 years, dedicating herself to the advancement of Gandhi’s principles.

In a document she wrote in 1932, while in prison for her involvement in the non-cooperation movement, she wrote about the “shame that was ours (Britain’s)”.

“There is one golden rule for resisting an evil, in which one and all can cooperate, rich and poor, young and old, and that is complete boycott of all things tainted with that evil. We should not touch a single thing which supports this British Raj. That will bring this system to an end quicker than anything else. And then, and only then can we lift from our heads the shame which is at present ours.”

This document, titled Read, Realise, Act, is preserved in the Politics and International Relations collection of the library at the London School of Economics. It is currently on display as part of an exhibition titled Journeys to Independence: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, from September 18 to December 15.

Mirabehn with Gandhi. Image from the Women’s Library at LSE.
Mirabehn with Gandhi. Image from the Women’s Library at LSE.

The exhibition has been curated by Daniel Payne to mark 70 years of India’s independence from British rule and the birth of West and East Pakistan. Journeys to India displays written documents related to the civil disobedience movement, evidence of British women campaigning in India for birth control, and the founding of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some exhibits will also explore Britain’s relationship with the Indian subcontinent in the 20th century.

“For the exhibition I focused on finding some of the more unusual stories we had in the archives that may tell some aspects of this relationship,” said Payne. “When I first started searching for documents to include in the exhibition, I took the rather obvious step of searching for material that was authored by Gandhi. I spent a lot of time with the archives in the reading room, where the stories started to emerge.”

A telegram sent to George Lansbury, leader of the Labour Party. Image courtesy: LSE.
A telegram sent to George Lansbury, leader of the Labour Party. Image courtesy: LSE.

While poring over LSE’s archives of documents, letters, diaries and photographs, Payne came across some diary entries and letters exchanged between Gandhi and two British birth control activists, Edith How-Martyn and Eileen Palmer. “There was a letter in the archives by Gandhi addressed to Martyn. In this short letter Gandhi said: ‘I’m quite at one with you that women are the greater sufferer in this matter, only the remedy suggested is worse than the disease.’ When I read this, I wasn’t sure about the context so I did some further digging and came across this collection of correspondences. Both women worked for an organisation called the Birth Control Information Centre founded in London in 1928. This organisation also merged with various other organisations and became, what is today, the Family Planning Association.”

Edith How-Martyn (far left). Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
Edith How-Martyn (far left). Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

Although Gandhi and the two British activists could not quite agree with each other on using artificial birth control, Martyn recognised the influence that Gandhi had in India. However, in a diary entry after her meeting with him, she wrote:

“Mr Gandhi will have nothing to do with birth control, he regards it as a sin, as a temptation to mankind to pander to his lower nature, as an invention of the devil to lure men and women from the path of renunciation.”

Apart from material on Gandhi, also on display is a bust of Dr BR Ambedkar, gifted to the LSE by the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations. Ambedkar, considered the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, was awarded a PhD at LSE for his thesis on the Problem of the Rupee.

BR Ambedkar's bust on display at the LSE Library. Image courtesy: LSE.
BR Ambedkar's bust on display at the LSE Library. Image courtesy: LSE.

Payne admits that the exhibition is by no means a balanced representation of Britain’s relationship with India. “This was the most problematic aspect of curating this exhibition, and the problems it poses haunted me right from the start. How can you tell a balanced story about the journeys to independence for three countries using a random bunch of British archives collected by British people and organisations, where most of the story is actually missing? In my opinion, you can’t.”

A poster right at the beginning of the exhibition, therefore, explains its biases. “India made a huge contribution to Britain’s war effort in both the first and second world wars,” Payne said. “We have no archives that really talk about this, and so it’s not mentioned in the exhibition. Rather than try to artificially fix this by trying to borrow archives from another institution, instead I wanted to make this problem conscious, and share it with the visitors to the exhibition.”

Peter Shore (Labour MP) with the founding leader of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1973. Image courtesy: LSE
Peter Shore (Labour MP) with the founding leader of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1973. Image courtesy: LSE

According to Payne, most of the material on Bangladesh comes from the archives on Peter Shore, a British politician active between the 1960s and 1980s, who had taken an interest in Bangladesh. “There are photographs of him addressing the Bangladesh Student Action Committee, a group who went on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s residence in order to raise awareness of Bangladesh,” he said. “We also have his speech in the House of Commons about Bangladesh.”

Cover of the first constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1956. Image courtesy: LSE.
Cover of the first constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1956. Image courtesy: LSE.

Journeys to India also has archival material charting the formation of Pakistan. One such display is a pamphlet written by Choudhry Rahmat Ali, titled “Appeal against the coercion of Pakistan into the proposed Indian Federation”, that was published in 1935. There is also an appeal to the British government from a Pakistan Society in Manchester condemning the British government’s supply of arms to India in 1971 on display, along with the preambles to the constitutions of all three countries, including the 1956 constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

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