In Nitish Kumar’s Population Control Remarks, An Important Message But Lack Of Proper Language

What could have been an important discussion on women’s rights in a state assembly, turned into yet another mockery of Indian political leaders purely because of the continued use of sexist language within the political sphere. 

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar

When Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar – who is known for mobilising women voters through his women-centric schemes such as alcohol prohibition law, cycle scheme for young girls, and the JEEViKA project for women’s empowerment among others – made crude and graphic remarks on population control in the state assembly, it was a grim reminder that the same political leaders who hailed the passage of women’s reservation bill a few months ago, lack the appropriate vocabulary to discuss sex and gender rights in the 21st century.

Here’s what Nitish Kumar said: "The husband's acts led to more births. However, with education, a woman knows how to restrain him... this is the reason the numbers (of births) are coming down” – this is a rough translation of what he said in Hindi, coupled with silly giggles from blushing male ministers around him and graphic, unwanted hand gestures. 

Outrage at Nitish Kumar’s statements

The Chief Minister was, although trying to make an important point on how education of women could give them more control over their reproductive decisions, his choice of words drew widespread condemnation from political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "Those who have this evil attitude towards our mothers and sisters are insulting our country. How low will you stoop," Modi said at an election rally in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna. 

Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) chief Chirag Paswan demanded that “President’s rule” be imposed in Bihar as “the entire State has been embarrassed by the statement of the Chief Minister”. BJP leader and party legislator Sanjiv Chaurasia said the whole State feels embarrassed because of what he said. Another BJP leader claimed that Kumar was 'mentally ill' and not in a position to run the constitutional office.

Lack of access to education, appropriate language

But many of them were left of the point. The lack of access to education about contraceptive methods and the lack of language to talk about family planning is what the outrage should have been about. Nitish Kumar’s concerns about the burgeoning population in a country that has already surpassed China’s numbers of 142.5 crore, are real and important to deliberate upon. 

However, the Chief Minister’s use of hand gestures and vulgar language suggested that he was advocating an unscientific method of family planning that seemed to place the onus of avoiding unwanted pregnancies only on the woman. He was appearing to suggest that if a woman has access to education, she can make her husband practice the withdrawal method in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies. This was a sexist way of putting across his message, which then gave an opportunity for political parties to attack him, rightly so. But what has once again been buried deep is the conversation on women’s access to education about reproductive rights and resources. 

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s State of the World Population Report 2022, between 2007-2011, 67 per cent  of abortions in India were classified as unsafe. Many of them happen firstly because of lack of access and awareness about contraceptive methods, then due to lack of access to safe (and non judgemental) abortion facilities. Every day an estimated eight women die in India because of unsafe abortions. 

Further, according to the National Family Health Survey (5), 45 per cent Bihari women do not have access to any method of contraception. What could have been an important discussion on women’s rights in a state assembly, turned into yet another mockery of Indian political leaders purely because of the continued use of sexist language within the political sphere. 

Language has been one of the most powerful means through which sexism or gender stereotypes are reinforced within society. Some signs of progress in terms of gender representation and language can be seen – for example, to avoid gender stereotypes, the Supreme Court of India had launched a handbook which would guide judges in avoiding usage of inappropriate gender terms, particularly those related to women, in court orders and legal documents; the Parliament also recently unanimously passed the much-awaited Women’s Reservation Bill. But are all these strides useful when our top political leaders refuse to implement them in their discourse?

Further, the hesitancy to talk about sex and family planning, and with this instance, the fear of political backlash could only add more taboo to an important conversation.