Aborting Indian Democracy

Population control trumps the democratic process in. . . the world’s largest democracy


Poll taxes, property requirements, and race and gender-based voting prohibitions codified thinly disguised discrimination in darker periods in United States history. Today, in the world’s largest democracy, local laws restrict political participation to people who have two or fewer children.

Seven Indian states currently prohibit those with more than two children from holding local political office.[1] These laws allow persons who had more than two children before the law’s enactment to hold office. Any additional children, however, make a person ineligible for office.

The laws vary slightly from state to state. Some states only count surviving children towards the limit; others are ambiguous.[2] Some count twins as a single birth; others leave the legality of twin births to the discretion of the district collector.[3] One thing does not vary between the states who restrict access to democracy based on family-size: every polity which enforces a two-child limit systematically violates both the reproductive and political rights of its citizens.

The seven Indian states which enforce these laws are home to over 430 million persons–over a third of India’s total population. This is larger than the total population of the United States and the Philippines combined. Recent research estimates that 1-3% of the childbearing population in these states runs for local office in any given election.[4]

India mandates that a certain proportion of local seats be reserved for women and lower caste persons. Ironically, this attempt at enfranchisement subjects these underprivileged classes to abusive fertility controls. Like other abusive laws in India, the two-child limit disproportionately hurts women and lower castes who cannot navigate through India’s chaotic corruption to ensure their own protection. Rather than becoming a stepping stone towards a democracy more open to all, the two-child limit has twisted political participation into an avenue of discriminatory abuse:

  • Powerful higher castes often wield the threat of a two-child lawsuit over lower castes while they use their influence to delay or evade prosecution.One woman from a lower caste described being blackmailed by a higher caste panchayat member to give the higher caste member extra bags of wheat or be accused of violating the two-child rule. She refused and stated that: “I spend 300 rupees every time I go for a hearing. Moreover, the work on the farm suffers as well. If I do not go for the hearing, I will be disqualified. . .I think I should resign.”[5]
  • Female office-holders must often choose between abortion or being excluded from political participation:“Maheshwari had three children but all were born before the cut-off date. She became pregnant before the election. She underwent an abortion terminating her five-month old pregnancy because she wanted to contest the post for sarpanch reserved for backward caste woman in the 2001 election. She lost the election. Later, her two-year old son died when he accidentally drank kerosene.” [6]
  • Wives of office-holders often must choose between abortion or husbands who will deny paternity and desert their families to avoid disqualification from public office.“M Madaniah, a 35-year-old sarpanch from the backward potter caste, won the election from Nalgonda in August 2001. He has four children from two wives. He knew about the two-child norm prior to the election. He made his first wife go for sterilization in 2000 and claims that his second wife, mother of two of his children, is no more his wife.”[7]
  • Daughters of candidates are much more likely aborted than sons; if they are not aborted, they are more likely to be abandoned, hidden under a false identity, or killed after birth.“26 year-old Menka. . . had not used any contraceptive or gone for sterilization as she wanted a son. During the third pregnancy, she had gone for a sex-determination test and the doctor had told her that she was carrying a son. So she carried the pregnancy to full term. But it turned out to be a girl — ‘If I had known, I would have aborted. Now I have lost my position and there is no son,’ that was all she could say. She tried to prevent her disqualification by getting a certificate that her child was that of her sister.”[8]

    “Ram Kunwar a thirty year old Rajput sarpanch from Rajasthan was educated up to class nine and came from a reasonably well-off agricultural family. . . The family wanted one more son since they believed that one son was equal to only one eye. She had her child, a daughter, when she was the sarpanch. Being aware of the two-child norm in panchayats, she had taken admission for delivery in the hospital in another city in her sister-in-law’s name. She also left the female infant behind in town to avoid detection where it died at the age of six months, allegedly of ‘rickets.’”[9]

While India’s national government pays lip-service to human rights, its national government chronically ignores or endorses such local population control programs. To the international community, India’s national government declared a paradigm shift from sterilization camps to empowerment and gender equality. Within its own borders, however, the unspoken policy is population control–by any means necessary. In 2003, India’s Supreme Court ruled the two-child qualification constitutional, stating: “disqualification on the right to contest two children does not contravene any fundamental right nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest” [italics added].[10]

Thus the world’s largest democracy continues to earn its title as a “land of paradoxes.” Women and lower-castes are encouraged to run for political office, yet those with three or more children are excluded from the process. The international population control movement forces millions of Indian men and women to accept authoritarian limits on reproduction as a condition of participating in their local democratic process.

[1] The seven states are: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Rajasthan.

[2] Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh only count living children towards the two-child limit.

[3] In Rajasthan, twins are classified as a single birth; in Madhya Pradesh, the legality of twin births is left to the discretion of the district collector.

[4] Anukriti, and Abhiskek Chakravarty, . “Fertility Limits on Local Politicians in India.” Boston College. (2014).

[5] Visaria, Leela, Akash Acharya, and Francis Raj. “Two-Child Norm: Victimising the Vulnerable?.” Economic and Political weekly (2006): 41-48.

[6] Buch, Nirmala. “Law of Two-child Norm in Panchayats: Implications, Consequences and Experiences.” Economic and Political Weekly (2005): 2421-2429.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rao, Mohan. “Two-Child Norm and Panchayats: Many Steps Back.” Economic and Political Weekly (2003): 3452-3454.

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