How the Delhi Police was forced to participate in the sterilisation drive during Emergency

Elections 2024
26 June, 2018

On 25 June 1975, the prime minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. The subsequent months have come to be referred to as one of the darkest moments of Indian democracy—the period saw disturbing censures of the press, an excessive control over the government and the judiciary, and the implementation of policies such as a draconian family-planning scheme launched by Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s younger son.

In their 1977 book For Reasons of State: Delhi Under Emergency, the civil-rights activist and writer John Dayal and the journalist Ajoy Bose recounted the travails of the common citizens during the Emergency. Dayal and Bose report on arbitrary arrests and detention, demolition of houses, and the forced sterilisation campaign that resulted in the deaths of thousands. The book has now been republished. The authors write in the introduction to the 2018 edition that “the time has come once again to recall the assault on the democratic rights of people more than four decades ago.”

In the following extract from the book, Dayal and Bose describe how the Delhi Police was forced to implement sterilisation targets, even among its own ranks.

Summer of 1976: With the advancing days and the soaring heat, the higher officials mounted the pressure. “Get the quotas. Get the figures. The need is dire.” The junior officials turned the screw further down. The jamedar in charge of the contract labour told the workers, “No advances till you get vasectomies. No advances and no more jobs.”

On 15 May 1976, the lieutenant governor’s order was repeated in a codified form by Reva Nayyar, the medical secretary to the Delhi Administration. The order was forwarded to all departments. Meanwhile, the officials held special meetings with their subordinate officers and exhorted them to fulfil the quotas. The education department which had been active during the April examinations in asking parents to volunteer had not been very successful. The teachers had asked the students to call their parents. The parents told the teachers that if they got vasectomised, it would be to get their own salaries, not to help the teacher with his. They needed the motivation slip themselves. In primary schools, the efforts met with slight success. This was because in the rural areas and in some of the colonies of Shahdara, parents agreed to do it for the good of their children, especially if the child happened to be in Class X and the only way to get him promoted to Class XI was this. This time, Class XI was particularly important because it was the last year of the three-year higher secondary course. From next year, the 10 plus 2 scheme would be in place, and if the child failed in Class X, he would have to waste not one but two years before he could get out of school.

The teachers drew a blank when they approached the sons and daughters of labourers. Promises of making them pass in exams did not help. The labourers had already been caught in the vast vasectomy net spread all over the city, particularly in the poor labour colonies. The search for cases among employees had not yet begun. The heat was now on for their own sterilisation. In various departments the meetings continued. In the police, the superintendents were being exhorted at the meetings with the inspector general to espouse the national programme. At official meetings the SPs (superintendents) were reminded that the task had to be done. Suddenly, the Delhi Police, which had so far been almost exempt from becoming the target of any concerted drive of family planning found itself in the midst of the general excitement.

Earlier, the thinking had been that the policeman was too vital a unit of the State apparatus to be antagonised by such an obvious attempt to bring him down to the same level as the ordinary citizen or the government employee in the degrading routine of compulsory sterilisation. There had also been the fear that if driven with the same whip, the Delhi Police as a body might rebel at a time when there was a dire need for its services. Buttressing the argument was the thought that the average Delhi policeman in the ranks came from a people especially sensitive to the castration connotations of vasectomy. The Jat, Ahir, Gujjar, Rajput, the farmer and the son of the martial race, all of them held male virility to be sacred. To them virility made the man. There was only scorn for the impotent male. More so, if the male wore a uniform of authority and had pretensions of being an alpha male. But reason had taken a back seat in those strange times. The decision had been taken. The Delhi Police were in for “voluntary” sterilisation. By 20 July 1976, over 1100 policemen and officers had undergone vasectomy, it was announced. In a tree plantation ceremony just a fortnight later, the Inspector General of Police Bhawanimal announced that the number was now 2000, “including three superintendents of police.”

That this wave of sterilisation was not voluntary was quite obvious. There was tremendous dissent, particularly among the lower ranks of the police. This dissent threatened to become a full-scale rebellion in the traffic police unit when they heard the story of the gruesome death of a traffic head constable after he contracted an infection following a sterilisation operation.

The story which was repeated from barrack to barrack in New and Old Police Lines was indeed horrendous. The traffic head constable had, like so many other policemen, been forced to get sterilised. A few days later, he noticed there was an infection. So he went to his superior officer and asked him for medical leave. The constable, however, was refused leave as his superior thought that if the news leaked that there had been a case of infection, no other traffic policeman would be willing to get sterilised. The constable was told that it was a minor thing and no leave was possible. The infection, however, worsened with every passing day. The head constable’s testicles had within a week swollen up to enormous balloons.

Finally, in pain and desperation, the head constable went to the chief of Delhi Traffic Police. There, in the office of his chief, the constable took off his trousers and showed the superintendent his ghastly state. Aghast, the superintendent telephoned for an ambulance. The head constable was admitted to hospital but died two days later.

The story had created such a furore among traffic policemen that sterilisation had to be called off among their ranks. Reports of the death of three other policemen after they had been sterilised also reached the police barracks. One of the dead policemen was a head constable in the East District Police.

Bhawanimal, who was in the forefront of the sterilisation campaign among the police, had a taste of the policemen’s anger when he was gheraoed at Old Police Lines. He had gone there to give a call for more enthusiastic participation by the police in the family-planning programme, but instead of a response, he found resentment.

“If I have one more child, shoot me, sir. But please don’t sterilise me,” pleaded a constable, the father of two children. The IGP was furious. “Shut up! Who is talking of shooting? We are talking of a national programme,” he shouted. But the IGP was again cornered by another constable. “I am a Brahmin, sir, I have to take my holy bath every day. If I have my bath after getting operated, I will catch an infection, sir,” the constable said. “Take the man away,” the IGP ordered. “We will have everybody pleading that he is a Brahmin.”

In the departments of civic bodies like the corporation, the DDA and the NDMC, in electricity departments and the water supply undertaking, peculiar cases were happening. Endless lines of aggrieved people waited on the senior officers with long lists of complaints. The complaints at this stage were that the officers who had asked them to volunteer to get sterilised were no longer keeping their promises. There were also complaints that those who had undergone sterilisation had been totally forgotten since they could not get sterilised again. The officers just pushed them into a corner. One man who had just undergone a vasectomy and had been told by the doctor not to cycle or walk long distances, had been transferred to a place 20 kilometres from his house. The bus fare took up a sizeable portion of his salary. The man was in a dilemma. He could not cycle, given his condition.

A woman sweeper was in a worse situation. She had been tubectomized in a camp. The wound refused to heal. She had run out of leave, and then taken a few more days off. Now she needed leave again. She had been coming to the head office every day for a week to meet the establishment officer but in vain. One day, as she was climbing the stairs, she collapsed, bleeding.

This is an extract from For Reasons of State: Delhi Under Emergency, by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose. The book was first published in 197, and has been republished in 2018 by Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House.