Inside India’s anti-natalist cult
- The anti-natalist and child-free by choice movements are gathering steam in India, thanks in part to one young man’s performance art
- Raphael Samuel set newsrooms buzzing when he announced that he was suing his parents for giving birth to him without his consent
It’s one of those ironic juxtapositions that seem to be meticulously arranged for Instagram but are actually completely fortuitous. When the photographer accompanying me sees it, she immediately asks, “That’s a joke, right?" As it turns out, it’s not. There really is a baby shower going on in the same Bengaluru café as the first national meet of Indian child-free proponents—and the announcements for the two events have been placed right next to each other, probably by an employee unaware of the irony.
The child-free proponents were supposed to get the larger upstairs space now occupied by the noisy baby shower, says Prathima Naik, one of the main organizers of the child-free meet. But the owner of the café moved them to the ground floor when the baby shower folks turned up. Baby shower 1, child-free 0—but this is a long game, Naik says with a shrug.
Inside, the meeting is in full swing on this Sunday afternoon. Naik, a petite ball of energy, is holding the stage, speaking rapidly into a wireless headset with a mic and switching effortlessly between English and Kannada as she takes questions from the audience of around 40—most of whom have turned up out of curiosity after receiving one of the intriguing WhatsApp forwards announcing the event. Some of the other members of the core group are also present—among them is a young man who has given over 50 interviews to media outlets across the world over the past week, speaking to newspapers and radio stations from Ireland to South Africa to Australia.
He’s Raphael Samuel, the current poster boy of the Indian child-free or anti-natalist movement who set newsrooms buzzing when he announced that he was suing his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. In interviews, Samuel may talk about the ignominy of non-consensual birth and the ubiquity of suffering, but in person he’s infinitely patient and cheerful as he talks, probably for the zillionth time, about his epic decision to sue his parents, admitting quite honestly that it was a publicity stunt. In fact, his whole “Nihilanand" persona is peak performance art; carefully thought through to bring maximum publicity to the movement he is passionate about—and spectacularly successful.
“Absurdity works. You need to do something absurd and weird and gimmicky to attract people’s attention. David Benatar, who wrote a book on anti-natalism, is a genius, he’s so eloquent, but he didn’t get as much publicity as this stunt," says Samuel, adding that it has been “great fun, but tiring". “My house turned into a war room—some of my friends came over to coordinate the interviews, and there was, like, an Excel sheet and stuff—dude, South Africa is at 4pm, Irish Times at 5pm...like that," he says.
He’s quite pragmatic too: “I know it will all die down—but at least we have started talking about it." And it’s not all a stunt, he does plan to see the lawsuit through and he and his parents (both lawyers) discuss what their strategies are going to be. “But my mom is clear—one week before the case goes up, we have to stop discussing all this with each other and just talk to our lawyers," he adds.
Child-free proponents, anti-natalists, voluntary human extinction movement, efilists—several groups around the world subscribe to the philosophy that giving birth is an immoral choice because life means suffering and the child has no say in the matter. And since there is no way to determine consent, it’s best not to have children (in fact, it is the only moral choice). There are subtle differences in the way the various groups look at the problem, and their motivations.
Benatar, whose 2006 book Better Never To Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence is a seminal book for anti-natalists, argues that life is painful, and that it is morally wrong to create more sentient beings. In a 2017 podcast with Sam Harris, Benatar argued that in his view, “the absence of suffering is good, and the absence of pleasure is neutral. So, by not having a child, we reduce suffering in this world—an ethical achievement—and incur no loss by depriving potential pleasure." The voluntary human extinction movement subscribes to the same methods and broadly the same philosophy—but its core motivations are environmental, as it believes overpopulation to be a major cause of environmental degradation. Efilists, meanwhile, are a slightly more fringe group of the fringe group: They want to break the cycle of selfishness perpetuated by the “blind god called evolution". Meanwhile, negative utilitarians believe that minimizing suffering has greater moral importance than maximizing happiness.
Interestingly, many of these ideas are traced—even by Western philosophers—to the teachings of Buddhism and Jainism. In 400 BC, the Buddha wrote in his teachings: “Oblivious of the suffering to which life is subject, man begets children, and is thus the cause of old age and death. If he would only realize what suffering he would add to by his act, he would desist from the procreation of children; and so stop the operation of old age and death."
The “Child-free India" movement is a distillation of all these schools of thought, and the core group is still in the process of refining its positions on issues. This is why the poster announcing the event was a bit of a mishmash, with all of the above-mentioned movements clubbed together in a “come one, come all" gesture. In fact, the purpose of this “first national meet" was to define purpose, set the agenda, devise strategy and spread awareness about the movement, Naik clarifies. “The immediate next steps are to get ourselves registered as an organization, set up a website, form an official committee with well-defined responsibilities, reach out to international child-free movements and form alliances, prepare to celebrate International Childfree Day on 1 August, etc., etc.!" she says. “Also, do press outreach and set up a funding channel."
So far, the expenses have been borne by the volunteers—many of whom came from Mumbai, Pune, even Goa, to attend the meet. Some of the points that come up during the meet and are argued vociferously: “Is adoption a moral choice?", “Is animal breeding for commercial purposes and of pets immoral?", “Should all anti-natalists be vegan?", “Is IVF immoral?"
Surprisingly, not all the organizers of the meet are child-free. Anugraha Kumar Sharma is at the meet with his 17-year-old daughter Preeti, who he says is a committed member of the movement. Preeti, an attractive, poised young woman, is hovering around the room, setting up mics, recording videos and taking notes. “She is determined to end the cycle," Sharma says. Preeti nods shyly.
“See, the point is to build a discourse in society. Some of the points may sound foolish or absurd. A lot of it is theoretical and philosophical. But the ultimate aim is to build a consensus that being child-free is okay, that you are not alone if you don’t want to have kids and have all these weird thoughts that make people around you question your sanity," says Samuel. He says his inbox is full of messages from women who don’t want to have children but don’t have support or even the courage to say so openly. “What is more responsible than refraining from producing a being who can feel pain? In our society, men who want to be child-free do find partners, but it’s very tough for women. We want to be a support group for those who want to be child-free, maybe even have a category in matrimonial sites."
Most members of the group found each other through Facebook pages such as “Childfree India" and “Antinatalism". “We all had these thoughts but we didn’t know others who did too. Then, slowly, we started talking to each other," says Naik, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer. She’s the state general secretary of Swaraj Abhiyan, a sociopolitical organization founded in 2015 by Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, and was once associated with the India Against Corruption movement and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “We suddenly noticed a spike in the number of people joining the FB groups this year—maybe it was a result of increasing global warming, or the scary pollution stories from Delhi," she says.
A few years ago, she was in a relationship with a young man who wanted to marry her. “I made it very clear that I won’t have children, won’t wear a mangalsutra, that I will spend more time on activism than at home. He was okay with all that. But then he said we would not discuss with anyone that we were deliberately child-free, that we would pretend there were some health issues. This was not acceptable to me," says Naik. It was one of the major reasons for the breakup. “In future, if I get married and my husband starts putting pressure to have a child, I am ready to divorce him," she adds.
In July 2017, columnist and podcaster Amit Varma wrote a controversial piece for the The Hindu Business Line headlined “It Is Immoral To Have Children. Here’s Why". Even though Varma distances himself from anti-natalism, elifism and all the other isms, his piece does raise some philosophical questions. “There are two common types of arguments offered for having children. One, that parenting is rewarding, and it’s good for the parents, who become better people or have someone to look after them in their old age, and so on. This is a selfish argument. If we did everything to maximize our own happiness, and didn’t care about the impact on others, then conversations about ‘morality’ would be pointless," he writes.
The column ends with lines from a poem that child-free proponents are particularly fond of, and which is fast becoming a sort of anthem—Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse: “Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself."