Rukhsana Sultana: Sanjay Gandhi's Enigmatic Right-hand Woman's Role In The Sterilization Campaign

Rukhsana Sultana: Sanjay Gandhi's Enigmatic Right-hand Woman's Role In The Sterilization Campaign

Remember, remember not the Fifth of November but our own gunpowder, treason and plot. We see of no reason why this censored out season should ever be forgot.

[25th June marks the 40th Anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of an internal Emergency.What happened at Turkman Gate? How many countless lives were lost and destroyed by forced sterilisation? Who ultimately was the figurehead running India then?  The deeply censored and scarcely talked about event has been clouded under a veil. Until now.]

‘Each one, teach one. We two, our two. Clean India, dream India.’

Eventually shortened to a crisper ‘Hum do, hamare do’, this was the catchphrase that went on to represent the family planning campaign in the country. Population control was an urgent issue that required addressing post-Independence, and while India was the first country in the world to launch a family planning programme in 1951, it was only in 1975, that the sterilisation drive in India took  a turn towards the aggressive, with Mrs. Indira Gandhi at the helm and her son Sanjay Gandhi, spearheading the campaign. The West had been pressurising Mrs Gandhi to step up the programme and had been advocating a crash sterilisation-based family planning programme at the time - ‘crash because, according to them, valuable time had been squandered since 1947’. Several horrifying

narratives regarding the forced sterilisations have been documented in the post-Emergency period, but details and official numbers as to how many of these sterilisations were actually voluntary still remain largely ambiguous. Marika Vicziany’s book Coercion In A Soft State: The Family Planning Program of India states, “between 25 June 1975, and March 1977, about 11 million men and women were sterilized and 1 million women had intra-uterine devices (IUDs) inserted”.

The sterilisation or ‘nasbandi’ campaign was first piloted in the capital, before being implemented in the rest of the country with Sanjay Gandhi’s closest aides implementing the program onground. The four given major responsibility were the Lt. Governor, Kishen Chand, his secretary Navin Chawla, Vidyaben Shah and the enigmatic Rukhsana Sultana, a boutique owner who had turned ‘social worker’ and swore by Sanjay Gandhi’s despotic leadership. “I am loyal only to Sanjay,” she is reported to have said. “Our country will never have a leader like Sanjay Gandhi.” A socialite ‘whose access to the rich and the powerful was legendary’, Rukhsana was a divorcee and moved in elite social circles along with the most ‘powerful politicians and rich businessmen’ at the time, and this was a woman who knew how to use her glamour to get what she wanted.

Rukshana Sultana

Vinod Mehta’s ‘The Sanjay Story’ recollects the first rendezvous between Rukhsana and Sanjay Gandhi:

‘On 25 December 1975, Vidyaben Shah met Kishen Chand and a ‘Family Planning Motivation Committee’ was convened. About the same time, Rukhsana Sultana, whose previous occupation was that of a boutique owner, went up to Sanjay Gandhi, introduced herself and asked: ‘What can I do for you?’ Sanjay replied: ‘You are a Muslim, go into the walled city.’ Among Rukhsana’s chief tasks there was sterilization motivation. Sanjay was determined that his programme begin in the walled city of old Delhi, which, as everyone knows, is predominantly inhabited by Muslims.’

Having become a minority since the Partition of India, and with communal tensions still tangible in the country, the Muslims had good reason to believe that they had the most to lose from the sterilisation campaign, which they perceived as ‘a Hindu plot whose only purpose was to achieve their gradual extinction’. Using her faith to her advantage, Rukhsana would go into the purdah houses to convince Muslim women of the benefits of tubectomies, while Vidyaben held durbars on the steps of Jama Masjid propagating the advantages of family planning. Both were hardly well-versed with the procedure to handle the scores of questions that listeners accosted them with, and Rukhsana herself confessed that ‘she was embarrassed’ talking about the operation. It was, after all, very natural for the families to wonder if it might be sensible, when there were eight children to feed at home, and no idea where the next meal was coming from; and this was one of the many reasons Rukhsana managed to get quite a response.

Source: YouTube

Tavleen Singh’s Durbar paints an intriguing picture of this personality about whom very little is known, despite her prominent role in driving the campaign forward.

‘..I noticed Rukhsana Sultana resplendent in a dark chiffon sari and very much the belle of the ball, possibly because it was by now well known that she was a close aide of Gandhi. She wore sunglasses that were tinted blue and I remembered that my school friend had told me she wore them all the time because she was short-sighted. I had not seen her for more than ten years and was struck by how good she still looked. She was in her late thirties and had gained a few pounds so there was a soft dumpiness about her body, but her skin was as clear as that of a young girl and she had a femininity about her that was, according to men of reliable expertise, her real allure.’

She certainly did use her charm to influence people about family planning. The notorious Dujana House, inaugurated April 1976, was the site of where the actual operating tables were, and thousands of forced sterilisations took place here. Several horrifying narratives of coercion have emerged from here, conducted under Rukhsana’s tutelage. When she met with furious local women upon arrival one day, with one burqa-clad woman even lying on the ground to try and keep a van full of sterilisation victims from undergoing the procedure.

Rukhsana Sultana single-handedly motivated a whopping 13,000 vasectomies in the hypersensitive ‘walled city’ area of Delhi with the family planning programme and resettlement scheme. As a direct consequence of the two, there was the ferocious rebellion by the residents that culminated in a disastrous clash with the police and scores of deaths .Interestingly, when the Turkman Gate residents had approached Rukhsana to get the demolitions stopped, she offered support on the condition that they help her set up a clinic at Turkman Gate, and provide her with 300 sterilisation cases in a week. Known today as the Turkman Gate riots, India’s closest post-independence reliving of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, the residents of Jama Masjid have a different story to tell. 26-year-old Firoza, a seamstress, lost her husband that year. She shared, “My husband had tuberculosis but they refused to take him to Pant Hospital till he got himself sterilised. He never really recovered.”

Source: YouTube

Rukhsana, however, said the riots were caused because of the resettlement issue.  “The people were shifted from the pavements and brought in here. They had no right to encroach on government property.” Insistent that they weren’t ‘just butchers chopping up people’, Rukhsana claims that there were about 30 rejected applicants a day, though the stories that emerged speak for themselves.

’There was a huge slander campaign against me and Sanjay,” she said. “The old Congress leaders like Subhadra Joshi couldn’t stomach the idea of someone going into their territory and actually doing something. They were jealous of me. Really, the people of the walled city love me.”

”It was surprising that there were many prominent women involved in getting other women into Dujana House to be sterilised,” political activist John Dayal says in the documentary ‘When the trains ran on time : A film on 1975 Internal Emergency in India.’ “Dujana House came to epitomise the forced sterilisations that were such an ingredient of the Emergency’s impact on the common people.”

”I’ve interviewed many of the - if I may call them - victims who passed through these places, and they told us how they were coerced and the people above them were coerced,” he continues. “Even if the person undergoing the vasectomy was going to get a tin of ghee, or 200 rupees, that was no compensation for what he was undergoing.”
”At another level, for the doctors, the government had printed pamphlets explaining how many of these vasectomies were done. So many of these people, maybe, were not even doctors.”
John Dayal brings up some pertinent points, and goes on to mention one of the victims he had interviewed, Om Prakash, who he says had definitely been vasectomised more than once. “I would like to think - and people told me - that the doctors because they were human beings weren’t even conducting vasectomies. They were making a cut in the skin and suturing it, they were just showing a scar and these were being registered. This is how people, in their small ways, rebelled.” 

The year 1977 witnessed a veritable turn of tides in Indian history. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to go for polls again, prompted by an intelligence report predicting a majority for her, and was thrown out of office, a decision which she apparently ‘felt relieved’ by. “I conveyed to her while she was having dinner that she has lost. There was a sense of relief on her face. There was no sadness or wrinkle on her face. She instead said, ‘Thank God, I’ll have time to myself’,” Dhawan, her then private secretary, said.

A vasectomy in progress at a family planning camp held in a government hospital in New Delhi. May, 1976. Source: Livemint

As for the femme fatale in focus here, she described 1977 as a ‘nightmare’, adding that all she did was ‘assist all these wretched committees and commissions’. “I’ve done nothing constructive in 1977,” she said, adding that all that had happened to her ‘was character assassination and trouble for her family and friends’.

Her charms endured, but that was perhaps all that did. When asked about her lifestyle, she said, “Sweetie, I have no life-style left.” Her jewellery boutique was still in business at the time, although her clients were slowly whittling away. “But money comes, money goes. What upsets me is that my family life, my friends and my character are all ruined.”

It’s only when the conversation turned to politics - which she said ‘was all chaos’ - and she was asked whether she thought Mrs. Gandhi would be making a comeback in the future, that her eyes lit up and she replied, radiating, “I hope so.”

Want to read more riveting stories from the period? Click on any of the images below to be directed to more from our Emergency Series.

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