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India, This Side

The great Indian family

Published : Jan 26, 2023 10:25 IST

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The great Indian family

A strict population control policy sounds good on paper, but it ignores sociological correlations.

When Indians go abroad, particularly to the West, what strikes one at once is the stark difference between the family-related sentiments that people out there have and the family ties back home. While it is impossible to generalise for the whole of as complex and diverse a society as ours, Indians, generally speaking, have a rather expansive sense of family. It includes not just one’s parents and siblings but also relatives-in-marriage for all sisters and brothers, cousins and their relatives-in-marriage, uncles, aunts and various pairs of grandparents, one’s own as well as those of all cousins. If one is born into a pastoral or agrarian family, the animal-folk too are counted as family. For those who move out of their place of birth, nostalgia induces them to include immediate neighbours and close friends of the neighbours as well within the larger notion of ‘family’. You may have noticed how effortlessly two persons who have migrated to a metropolis own up each other’s claim of ‘ mera gaav-wala’—from my place—though the two may have never known each other back home. When Indians go abroad, particularly to the West, what strikes one at once is the stark difference between the family-related sentiments that people out there have and the family ties back home. While it is impossible to generalise for the whole of as complex and diverse a society as ours, Indians, generally speaking, have a rather expansive sense of family. It includes not just one’s parents and siblings but also relatives-in-marriage for all sisters and brothers, cousins and their relatives-in-marriage, uncles, aunts and various pairs of grandparents, one’s own as well as those of all cousins. If one is born into a pastoral or agrarian family, the animal-folk too are counted as family. For those who move out of their place of birth, nostalgia induces them to include immediate neighbours and close friends of the neighbours as well within the larger notion of “family”. You may have noticed how effortlessly two persons who have migrated to a metropolis own up each other’s claim of “ mera gaav-wala”—from my place—though the two may have never known each other back home.

A.K. Ramanujan, one of my favourite poets, captures the expansive sense of family in a witty poem titled “Small-scale Reflections on a Great House”. Describing the seamless “house” that keeps adding people and things from all over to its eclectic stock, he writes: “They come in everyday/ to lose themselves among other things/ lost long ago among thing/ lost long ago.” But wait, the Indian family that Ramanujan describes belongs to 1950s and 1960s India, the India where a film hero could sing “ mera juta hei Japani, yeh patloon Inglistani; sar-pe lal topi Rusi, fir-bhi dil hei Hindustani”—Shoes from Japan, trousers from England, cap from Russia, yet the heart is Indian.

Having lived through the times that Ramanujan describes, I recall that the idea of family in India—irrespective of one’s religion or caste—was a lot more open than what it is now. Yes, of course, births, marriages, and deaths did take place, but the elaborate formal architecture of social rituals that mark weddings and funerals now had not yet been invented. The rituals associated with these were mostly confined to the arena of superstitious beliefs, and, though mandatory, they were essentially nominal and carried out with ease and simplicity.

Shifting lines

When I think of the big change in familial bonds since the mid-20th century, I think of, for instance, a person I knew at close quarters, Akkatai of Nipani, a small town in north Karnataka. She had missed being named at birth through a rather peculiar circumstance. She grew up being addressed as “Akka”—sister—and that became her name. The story is that Akka’s father died a few months before she was born. Her mother, not yet 20, decided to take on another husband. So this as yet unnamed infant was left in the care of one of her father’s sisters, a spinster. The girl and her spinster aunt continued to live in the house built by Akka’s late father. In time, an aunt of the aunt moved in after she lost her husband in an epidemic.

This was a few years before Independence. So three generations of women, one in her 50s, another in her 30s, and one a toddler, formed an accidental family. Akka got married when she was in her late teens. Her husband, willing to take responsibility of all three women, agreed to move into their house, rather than Akka to his.

He brought with him a boy-child and a girl-child from his first wife who had died a few years ago. The three women asked him to change his family name, which was ‘Kore’ before this alliance, to ‘Vibhute’, the name in which the house was built. The land ownership on which the thatched house was constructed was inscribed only in oral memory. He obliged, being a Gandhian, a simple and truthful man. The marriage was successful and the two had several children. They grew up, acquired degrees, and went off in various directions. Akka died when she was in her 70s. In the most dignified manner, not guided by any of her children, she instructed the doctor treating her in her last illness to give her body to a medical laboratory. She understood profoundly that boundaries of family are shifting lines.

Marriages, remarriages, separations, deaths—all these were, of course, serious affairs, but the bonding between the members of the extended family had warmth. This was neither just the caste bond nor a religious solidarity. Those social evils existed, undeniably, but there was something more to being a human in that era than mere caste, sect or religion tags. Perhaps it was the intangible idea of newly won freedom.

One wonders if the rise of the nuclear family, which undeniably has its socio-economic merits, has not impacted family sentiment adversely. Besides, it is difficult to say if the widespread feelings of intolerance and scorn for “others” have not been a result of rigidly drawn family boundaries.

There is also the question of India’s grasp of modernity as only the outer shell of one’s appearance and economic being, rather than its essential values such as individualism, liberty and the dignity of body.

Population control policy

All this reminiscence has been triggered by the proposed Population Control Policy, which has been causing ripples over the last couple of years. Various BJP leaders have spoken of the need to bring in a stringent law for population control. Several draft Bills have been introduced as Private Member’s Bills. Among the proposals is a watchdog committee to monitor population, based on the naive assumption that since the population of India is likely to exceed the population of China in the near future, it is necessary to “control” it through punitive legislation.

The proposed ideas include a simplistic mix of incentives and disincentives. Couples with two or fewer living children, it is suggested, will be entitled to (a) free treatment in public health centres (PHCs); (b) priority in promotion; and (c) higher education scholarships for their children. If a couple has more than two living children, neither husband nor wife shall be entitled to (a) contest elections to government bodies; (b) exercise their franchise; (c) get benefits of government schemes; (d) government jobs; (e) government scholarships; or (f) be engaged in a government institution.

There is no consideration for individual liberties in the proposal. Besides, “not being able to exercise franchise”, an element insidiously slipped in, violates the constitutional guarantee of universal franchise.

The idea of a stringent population policy may sound arithmetically appealing, but it entirely lacks a sociological grasp of the direct correspondence between the lack of family feeling and the level of violence in society. Even now, poorer sections of Indian society negotiate adverse economic and psychological situations by invariably falling back on the extended family for support.

It is true that the population is increasing and will soon match China’s level, which was restricted through a policy of disincentives. However, China’s “one child” policy has resulted in female infanticide and gender imbalance, with nearly 30 million males more than females.

India has arrived at its present 2.1 fertility rate from 5.9 in 1950, 5.7 in 1960, 4.9 in 1970, 4.2 in 1980, 3.4 in 1990, and 2.8 in 2000. It was accomplished not by any “stringent population law” but through gender empowerment, active contraception promotion, and educating people irrespective of religion or gender. A government obsessed with rapid privatisation of education and healthcare is a greater risk for population numbers than fertility rates.

India’s Infant Mortality Rate for 2022 is 27.695 (deaths per 1,000 born). It was 30.924 in 2019, 29.848 in 2020, and 28.771 in 2021. We are also facing the impact of climate change. Considering all these facts, our present level of “2.1” FR calls for no drastic measures.

The Hindu population

The BJP and RSS propaganda about Muslims outnumbering Hindus in India is as much a fabulation as is their claim that Muslims and Catholic Christians produce more children. The statistics of populations in various countries—Christian, Muslim, Buddhists—show that poverty and lack of education and healthcare are the reasons for excessive population growth. Theologies do not have any direct relation to the human desire to regenerate and maintain populations.

Perhaps we need to begin a fresh debate on the relationship between family structure and growing levels of violence. It calls for a regime that will appreciate love rather than scorn. Quite ironically, the non-state organisation calling itself a “parivar”, which is guiding the policy footsteps of the government, has not quite grasped how much the “great Indian family” is important for safeguarding peace in India’s multicultural, multilingual, and multireligious society—something that millions of illiterate Akkas in Indian villages know so well. Three cheers for the great Indian  parivar.

Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 10, 2023.)

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