How does Hindutva and the Gates Foundations Philanthro-capitalism affect #Reproductive Justice in India? – Conversation with Kalpana Wilson

Kalpana Wilson is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research explores questions of race and gender, labour, neoliberalism and reproductive rights and justice, and she has written extensively about contemporary population policies globally and in South Asia. She is the author of Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice (Zed Books, 2012). She is also a founder member of the South Asia Solidarity Group. @KalpanaWilson

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Dr Wilson, I want to start with the basics. In your work, you talk about Hindu fascism and its entrenched relationship to neoliberal capitalism. Can you tell us what this means and lay down the basics about foundations like the Gates and what they do?

Okay, well, I mean starting off with this term Hindu fascism, perhaps it is in fact, would be better to have this Hindutva fascism because as we know, Hindutva is the key ideology that inspires all of these Hindu far-right organizations. But we call it fascism for some very specific reasons. One of them is of course, that if we look at its history we can see that the core organization of this whole network of Hindu right-wing groups, the RSS, was founded in the 1920s and it was actually explicitly modelled on Mussolini’s Black Shirts, the Italian fascists. And then you have the writings of people like MS Golwalkar, who is one of the most revered Hindutva ideologues- who was really, extremely lavish in his praise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. He called Nazi Germany a model of race pride in its treatment of the Jews and said it was something that India should, should emulate. 

So,  those links are very clear and they’ve continued. Hitler is still, highly admired among the Hindu fascists. Under Modi, textbooks in Gujarat, for example, praise him as a great leader. But in terms of this relationship with neo-liberalism, the RSS, other Hindu right organizations and the BJP have always been pro-capitalists. In fact, right from the outset, you see them identify communists as one of their most hated enemies.

But for a long time, for many decades, they were kind of seen as representing the interests of small businesses, of small shopkeepers and so on because these were their main supporters at that time. But then from the 1990s onwards, you see a change where basically, you get the development of this kind of hyper-nationalism which specifically focuses on this idea of untrammelled growth and based on basically, untrammelled profits for corporates. And what goes with that as we know is extreme increases in inequality and poverty and so on. But this is the model which is increasingly being really celebrated and particularly of course in the diaspora. So, the kind of hyper-nationalism, we saw exhibited at the Howdy Modi event and so on. It very much sort of represents this kind of model of Indian nationalism. We have to remember there’s no element of economic nationalism in this because a lot of the corporates who are making these huge profits are foreign companies. So, there’s no problem within the Hindutva ideology with India getting plundered by, foreign corporates. You know, their nationalism is very much defined in relation to certain specific enemies as they are perceived, so Pakistan and of course the minority communities within India. 

Particularly in the 2000s when Narendra Modi became Chief Minister of Gujarat, you see this being put into practice with, huge swathes of land being, taken over for Special Economic Zones, people being displaced on a massive scale, the kind of complete ignoring or even abolishing of labour laws.  This, of course, got a very good response from the corporates, and they started, referring to him as “India’s CEO in Waiting”.  The coming together at events like Vibrant Gujarat and say, “this is the person we want to be to the next Prime Minister of India”. This is a very close relationship with the corporates has continued.  So, if we look at even what has happened in Kashmir recently with the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, a very important aspect of it is that people from outside Kashmir can now buy land in Kashmir. And as soon as the announcement was made, you had Ambani and Reliance Industries, kind of, rollingout their program for going into Kashmir. This whole agenda is very much part of what’s happening there in Kashmir. 

Because we are going to be talking about the Gates Foundation, I wanted to talk about the other side of neo-liberalism because, on the one hand, you get corporates taking over land, mining companies coming in and displacing people, the land being taken away for real-estate. All of these things are happening on a very big scale. But the other side of it is making the poor responsible for their own poverty. So, the kinds of social programs which you see under neoliberalism and which are now being promoted, for example, by the World Bank are all about basically, blaming the victim and saying that if only we can change the way people behave, then,  they will not be so poor, they will not be suffering from these effects of global capitalism.

The Swachh Bharat Campaign which you mentioned and the Clean India initiative which Modi is getting this award for is a very good example of this. A lot of Dalit activists have talked about how it doesn’t in any way address the whole question of so-called manual scavenging where overwhelmingly Dalits are, compelled to clean sewers and septic tanks in incredibly dangerous conditions where you have had a huge number of deaths- over 400 in Delhi alone in the last two years. People have been killed doing this.  Clean India doesn’t talk about this at all. In fact, Modi has gone on record saying that it is actually a “spiritual calling” to do this kind of work, really, kind of, demonstrating how embedded caste supremacy is within his whole approach. 

But also, the other aspect of it is that so much of Clean India, Swachh Bharat has been about shaming people who are forced into, defecating in the open because of the lack of toilets. So that was a huge part of the campaign. And interestingly,  one of the cases of mob lynching actually, demonstrates some of these connections. There has been this tremendous, epidemic of lynchings of Muslims in particular, as well as Dalits, very much supported by the state, and carried out by Hindu Rights groups. But in this particular case, I want to briefly talk about a Left activist. He belonged to the CPI(ML) in Rajasthan, and he’s called Zafar Hussain, and he was basically found out that the officials of the Swachh Bharat Campaign were going to a particular area, and they were harassing women who were going to relieve themselves in the fields because they didn’t have toilets. And they were taking photographs of them, videoing them and trying to shame them. When Zafar Hussain, intervened and tried to stop this from happening, he was brutally attacked by the workers of Swachh Bharat. In a way it was obviously also about his being a Muslim and, he was beaten to death. These kinds of cases really show the sort of connections between Hindutva and a particular kind of neoliberal model which we are now seeing now, I think, in India.

I  want to also talk about philanthrocapitalism and how foundations like the Gates Foundation, which is one of the richest foundations in the world, now operate with no transparency and without any oversight. Can you tell us how this climate of impunity was created and how it enables the corporate plunder of India or other places even, like in Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world?


Well, I mean the Gates Foundation, as you said, is now tremendously powerful. In the field of global health, it basically, completely sets the agenda because it’s donating more than any other foundation but also then more than any other country in the world. So, it is really the major actor. And because it puts so much money into research and also into the media,, it is very difficult to criticize it. So, there is a kind of silencing effect because of the fact that so much of the research which is going on is actually funded by the Gates Foundation and so people are afraid actually openly to criticize it. A lot of major media outlets are also partially now funded by the Gated Foundation. So, for example, The Guardian newspaper in the UK, its whole Global Development section is funded by Gates, and as a result, it is extremely reluctant to publish anything which could even mildly be construed as, a criticism of, of Gates. So, there is a real lack of accountability.


And the other thing which I think, we should bear in mind when thinking about Gates is how the Foundation’s money is generated partly of course from, the huge profits of Microsoft and the huge scale of tax evasion as well by Microsoft. But also, by its investment in the very industries which cause the problems which Gates then claims to be trying to address. So, they talk a lot about Climate Change but they hugely invest in fossil fuels, extractive industries, also in pharmaceutical companies, which really calls into question their policies which claim to be about women’s reproductive rights.   But basically, this is what happens when you have a global climate of neo-liberalism and austerity where, state spending across the world has been massively cut and then you have corporations like this coming in, which are not in any way elected, which have huge amounts of funds and which are completely unaccountable. And this is some of the research which I have been doing on their work. As I said, on reproductive rights and family planning. I have also written with my colleague Amanda Shaw about their work on climate-smart agriculture which works in a very similar way.

And previously you wrote that “a key aspect of the Gates-Modi synergy is Gates’s commitment to population policies which project the fertility of women in the Global South as the cause for crises of capitalism has generated from poverty to climate change to the conflict”. Can you break this down for us? And also placing this in the larger history, as you rightly said, criminalizing people for their own poverty and also somehow claiming that it is the population explosion among the world’s poor, mostly Brown and Black women, that’s the reason for the crises of capitalism?

This again has quite a long history because if you look at the whole period of the Cold War,  from the 1950s onwards right up till the 1990s, you had this idea being promoted by the US and by international organizations like the World Bank, that, as you said, it was Black and Brown women having too many children which really made them poor. And so, this had to be controlled. Beyond this, there was the idea that poverty was the cause of communism. So, it was very much a geopolitical imperative. And so, in this whole phase, you had a huge amount of funds being given to countries in the Global South on conditions that they met certain targets in reducing fertility rates and birth rates. 

And then you had, of course, a lot of women’s movements in the Global South, in South Asia, in Africa and in Latin America, kind of challenging this and organizing against the kind of abuses that came out of this.  One of the things which were kind of established at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, was that when you have targets, you inevitably have coercion, you inevitably have abused, you have forced sterilizations,  you have women being put on to dangerous contraceptives without their consent being sought. And there was extensive evidence of this and so there was,  a recognition that targets were generally a bad thing. But, what we have got now, really, is the return of the targets in a big way. 

The Gates Foundation has been very very central to this because they have been the key player in setting up the FP 2020 Initiative which seeks to get 120 million women into voluntary contraception by 2020. Of course, they haven’t met that target and now the whole thing is being extended and renamed as FP 2030. But within this, you have basically a return of targets in new forms. So, in India, they no longer talk about targets but they talk about, “Expected Levels of Achievement”, which is just really a euphuism for targets, right, which are then set at the state level and then are passed on to health workers who are under tremendous pressure to achieve them and that’s when you get, women being forced into sterilization camps and so on. Of course, these camps are also now run by private doctors who are given massive incentives to basically get the numbers down. So, these then take place under extremely dangerous conditions, very extremely unsanitary conditions and you have women dying, which is what happened in Chhattisgarh when 15 women died in a sterilization camp in 2014. 

And of course, the other aspect of this is that Gates is also very much involved in the promotion of long-acting hormonal contraceptives. So, recently, India has agreed after a very long time to include Depo-Provera in its National Family Planning program. Experts in sexual and reproductive health and rights and feminist activists in these areas have been extremely critical of the use of Depo-Provera, because of the fact that it has severe side effects. It is known to lead to things like osteoporosis. There is also still a big question hanging over its relationship to HIV acquisition and transmission. And, so there is a great deal of opposition to it. 

The biggest problem is that it is not designed to be used by women in situations where there is not a proper healthcare system in place. You know, it needs follow-up, it needs the support of doctors,  women will have side effects, and some of them can be dangerous to their health. But it is being promoted precisely in those contexts where healthcare has been completely eviscerated and is,  in a very bad state. As is the case in India because, under Modi, the existing, quite inadequate healthcare system has really been completely undermined as in a report last year when a number of healthcare experts and doctors published a report in The Lancet showed where they actually expressed their deep concern about what’s happening to health under Modi.

You already mentioned the Global FP 2020 Initiative. I was wondering if you could explain what the FP 2020 and soon-to-be FP 2030 Initiative. How the Gates Foundation is involved in this? How it targets women in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa? Can you break it down for those who have never heard about what this Initiative is and things that they should be cognizant of?

So Depo Provera which is manufactured by Pfizer, Jadelle which is manufactured by Bayer and Implanon which is an implant, manufactured by Merk. And basically, all these three big pharmaceutical corporations are given, what is called “volume guarantees” where basically aid donors promise to, to kind of sell a certain number of these and as a result, these corporations offer them at lower prices. So once again you have targets coming in and as I said once you have targets in place, there is bound to be an element of coercion.  Well, as I said FP 2020 is really, very much geared to promoting, what they call family planning. It stands for Family Planning 2020. And in particular, it is these three long-acting hormonal contraceptives. So Depo Provera which is manufactured by Pfizer, Jadelle which is manufactured by Bayer and Implanon which is an implant, manufactured by Merk. And basically, all these three big pharmaceutical corporations are given, what is called “volume guarantees” where basically aid donors promise to, to kind of sell a certain number of these and as a result, these corporations offer them at lower prices. So once again you have targets coming in and as I said once you have targets in place, there is bound to be an element of coercion. 

But coming back to what we talked about earlier in terms of the relationship with Hindu fascist politics,  in any case, you have a situation in India where those who have always been seen as having too many children are the poor, Dalit women, and Adivasi women.  And they are the ones who are targeted for these policies. But currently, you have a situation where this has really intensified and where you have a constant, discourse of fear, fear-mongering and hate-mongering around this question of numbers and particularly, of course, this focus is on Muslims. 


So, the population is something that is constantly being mentioned by the ruling party, by elected politicians. Every other day, you will hear of a BJP politician making a speech saying we need a law to control Muslim population growth or saying that, Hindu women should be having at least four children because our communities are under threat. Now, of course, these are based on completely false figures because, in fact, the latest census information shows that the population growth rate among the Muslim community is actually falling faster than any other community in India. So, there is no question of it having any kind of basis in reality. This is similar to the kind of fearmongering which we also see in the West around, white supremacy — this idea of people being outnumbered is constantly invoked. 


And this is also linked to then the idea that demonized minority communities are somehow over fertile comes to be linked to the tremendous violence which is unleashed on the women of these communities. We saw this in Gujarat in 2002 where the rapists, those inciting rapes were, constantly talking about, preventing more Muslims from being born and those kinds of things. So, this is, the other side in a way of these policies around population which are presented as not only benign but they presented as actually being about women’s reproductive rights because they are saying, oh! women will be given choices and so on. But one of the things which feminists working on sexual and reproductive health and rights have emphasized is that women having real choices, women having control over their bodies is simply incompatible with the situation where you are talking about targets and numbers and about particular groups of people being compelled to reproduce less. And that’s why it is extremely dangerous.

I just have a quick follow-up question. Does the Gates Foundation have any direct investments in three of the companies that you mentioned but also produce the injectables and the implantable hormonal contraceptives? Do we have information on that? Is there any data?


I mean, there is certainly data about its investment in pharmaceutical corporations and this in a way links not only to the production of contraceptives but also, to its whole involvement in, other forms of chemical industries which again linked to all kinds of,  health issues which it then claims to try to address, so around reproductive health and so on. So, there is, I mean more research needs to be done as I said, it is not only very secretive but it is quiet, and very obstructive in terms of researchers. One of the reasons this research needs to be done is precisely because it is so difficult to hold the Gates Foundation accountable. Certainly, there are very close relationships between the Gates Foundation and these companies. And as I said they are actually,  giving them guarantees and so on that certain amounts of sales will take place. So, it is a very close relationship.

And very often, these drugs which are being then promoted in the Global South are actually ones that have been rejected in the Global North. So, if you look at the case of Implanon, for example, the first generation of Implanon, there were a lot of complaints in Britain, for example, because it was getting lost in the body and it couldn’t be seen by x-ray. So, then they developed a new generation which is called Nexplanon- which is actually the same, has a lot of the same problems but you can actually see it in the body through an x-ray. And then you found that well, the company is obviously left with huge stocks of Implanon. So, these were then incorporated into a scheme to promote this in Ethiopia and several other lowest-income countries. So, it is literally, the dumping of contraceptives that are known to be inadequate or dangerous. 

And the other thing, I think we need to think about is that one of the reasons that Gates has become so very preeminent in the field of contraception and family planning is because of the current policy under Trump where, because of his extension of what is called the Global Gag Rule, where any organization which can be seen to have any kind of have a tenuous connection of providing abortion services will not be funded by aid from the US. So, that has left a huge gap to be filled and that’s why the Gates Foundation is particularly significant we really need to think about what it’s doing at the moment in this field.

But also, one of the things which are perhaps less known is that the Gates themselves and Melinda Gates, in particular, are opposed to abortion, actually. What this means is that they are very keen on promoting contraceptives, like long-acting hormonal contraceptives which are the most effective in preventing pregnancy,  because they believe that will then reduce abortions. But the question we have to ask is, do we want to promote that level of effectiveness at the cost of women’s health when we have these very serious side effects and dangers associated with them? And is this really the only concern to have something which is like supposed to be 99.75 per cent effective as opposed to other contraceptives which are,  maybe one or two per cent less effective?

You also speak about this idea of how India’s population policies are gender violence onto themselves. Can you break it down this idea of existing public policy is an act of gender violence because often, public policy is often seen as neutral, is seen as benign, and often not associated with any particular ideology. So, can you break that down for us?

Well, I mean I think when you look at the state, implementing public policy, then you need to look at what kinds of power relations that state represents and for…If you look at, for example, the state of Chhattisgarh where I mentioned, you had this sterilization camp in 2014 where many women died as a result of botched sterilizations and as a result of infection. When you look at,  the women who died, they were mainly either Dalits or Adivasis or from what’s called Other Backward Classes. And they, so they were and they were all from very low-income households. So, their experience of the state, in any case, has always been of violence of various kinds. You know, this is a state where you are seeing,  as I said, the sort of, the take-over of land on a huge scale, people being dispossessed, people being driven into highly militarized zones where they are basically surrounded in what are essentially camps. And then, you have this huge militarization, acute violence by police and paramilitaries, you have experiences of rape by the police. So, these are all, these are the only ways in which people a lot of times experience the state. And then you have,  a drive like this coming in where women, they don’t have regular healthcare, they don’t have access to clinics. And suddenly, health workers will arrive, and start basically, telling them that they must get sterilized.

And even in cases…and there are many cases of women themselves,  very much want to access effective contraception which they can control but then they find that the only things which are on offer are either sterilizations under these kinds of conditions very often or contraceptives which essentially are quite likely to make them ill and which they have little control over like the injections and the implants. 

So, this is the kind of context where we can talk about these family planning initiatives fitting into a wider context of gendered violence. And, I think,  this is not just in one place or one state, this is a very…a much wider question, really, about the gendered violence of the state. It is something which in the context of Hindutva has been really really intensified because as I said, the targeting of women’s bodies, particularly women who belong to, belong to minority communities, particularly Dalit women, and Adivasi women is absolutely central to the way that the Hindutva ideology works. There is this idea that Hindu upper-caste men have been somehow emasculated and they have to prove their masculinity through these acts of extreme violence, often sexual violence. And in response to myths of Love-Jihad and so on,  this idea that Muslim men are somehow out to seduce and convert Hindu women. And of course, there are a lot of parallels the, with the ideologies of white supremacy and so on, and the kind that Trump mobilizes in the US at the moment.

And I was just wondering if would it be right to make a historical comparison between the forced sterilization that happened during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in India and the kind of gendered policies that are now being put into play by the Modi government?

I mean, I think that’s a very interesting question because, of course, the Emergency was a very, was a very very disturbing chapter in India’s history. From 1975-77, you had this complete suspension of civil liberties, press freedom and so on. And a lot of people are saying that what we are having at the moment in India is an undeclared Emergency. So, without ever declaring that this is anything out of the ordinary, it has actually become normalized to have, the kind of take-over of the media in various ways, the suppression of any critical voices, arrests of people who dissent, assassinations of people who dare to critique the government.  

And when we look at what happened around the mass sterilizations is quite interesting because during the Emergency, what really led to mass protests and played a big role in the downfall of Indira Gandhi’s government was the mass vasectomies program, so aimed at men where men were the ones being hoarded into camps and forcibly sterilized. And this is quite an unusual kind of chapter, really in the history of sterilization because it targeted men and that was one of the reasons I think for this sort of, a really massive kind of opposition to it.

 After that, family planning policy has concentrated overwhelmingly on sterilizing women and there hasn’t been the same degree of opposition to it. Of course, women’s movements have been vocal around it and progressive and Left movements have, but it hasn’t generated the same degree of massive opposition. And I think, now you have got a situation where it is, as I said been kind of normalized, so that  it is not, , a situation of kind of these are some special measures that are being taken

This is a kind of, just as, there is this undeclared Emergency in other ways. You have all of these things going on. And, women are dying regularly through forceful sterilizations. Of course, recently there has been a judgement of the Supreme Court and there has been a claim that, they will be phased out but as long as the Indian government is signed up to these globally set targets, it’s going to be very difficult to avoid reliance on sterilization, sterilization camps in particular. And when you have sterilization camps, you can’t avoid elements of coercion and elements of extreme malpractice, really coming in. 

And as we are coming to the end of this conversation, I was wondering if there are ideas, suggestions and strategies that we can take to those, in communities resisting these actions and also perhaps ways in which we can mainstream and platform these important crucial ideas around policies and gendered violence?

Yeah, I think, there are, a lot of, organizations on the ground and campaigns going on, so I would really encourage people to find out more about that, they do have a presence on the internet so it is possible to find out and to kind of publicize and share those, that kind of information especially, right now when there is so much publicity around Gates giving this award to Modi. But also, I think just to think a bit more about what it means when organizations like Gates talk about reproductive rights, choice and empowerment, the way those ideas have been kind of used to put forward a particular model which really involves a lot of violence, and a lot of reinforcing of inequalities, really. So, I think that’s important. 

 I think that the other thing on a broader scale, which comes to mind it is really important to counter this idea that Modi really represents the Indian diaspora and that the Indian diaspora is some kind of monolithic, group of, kind of, rabid Modi supporters and Hindutva supporters. So,  if you don’t agree with some of the things that we have talked about or some of the information which you are getting about what’s happening in India then you should really make your voice heard, reach out to organizations that are,  organizing protests right now, which are,  which are active in kind of actually saying that we are also the diaspora and this does not, is not being done in our name. 



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