Guwahati: Any talk of birth control had once been taboo for Muslims, particularly the uneducated Muslims living in remote areas of Assam. This has changed, thanks largely to Ilias Ali, a professor of surgery at the Gauhati Medical College & Hospital, who had launched a kind of 'jihad' (holy war) against the misconceptions about birth control and has thus far carried out a staggering 48,000 vasectomies on Muslim males.
Now, Muslim males with two or more children are voluntarily coming out in large numbers to get sterilized and help control the population.
"Muslims, particularly the uneducated ones, are opposed to birth control. It is not only in Assam but in many other parts of India as well. They believe children are the blessings of Allah and all births take place as per his wish. They consider it a sin to go against the wishes of Allah," Ali, who conducted his first No Scalpel Vasectomy (NSV), also known as 'keyhole vasectomy' in Assam in 2008, told IANS.
"NSV is one of the most popular techniques to conduct vasectomy through a single puncture in the scrotum and which requires no suturing or stitches. It causes less pain and fewer post-operative complications.
Ali went to China for being trained in NSV by Li Shunqiang, who had invented the procedure in the mid-1970s. However, it was introduced in India only in the mid-1990s.
"I have realized that there is ignorance among the people, particularly among the uneducated Muslims over this. The Holy Quran has been misinterpreted by some and the people have taken it to be true due to their being illiterate," he said while explaining that, in fact, Islam is perhaps the only religion which talks of family limitation methods.
"There is a mention about 'azol' in the Holy Book, which means coitus interruptus (ejaculation outside vagina). During the time of Prophet, some of his companions tried to reduce the chances of conception and pregnancy by practising azol. The Prophet was aware of this," Ali said, explaining that this method became widespread during the Prophet's lifetime.
"I have been using this and other references from the Holy Book to explain to the people that birth control is not against Islam," he said.
One of Assam's best-known surgeons, Ali said that he also often refers to Chapter 46, Verse 15 of the Quran which says "Wa hamluhu wa fisaluhu salasuna sahran", which means there should be a gap of 30 months between a child's birth and his or her weaning.
"Since lactation is understood to act as a natural contraceptive for a mother, this implies that there should be a gap of two-and-a-half years between two children," he said.
"It is incumbent upon fellow Muslims to arrest the spiraling population and preserve the environment. The population growth rate among the Muslims, particularly among the non-indigenous Muslims living in the riverine sandbars, is comparatively higher than other communities in Assam. The shrinking land availability due to the population growth is a matter of concern," he said, adding that his efforts have shown results over the years.
Ali said that the total fertility rate (TFR) among the Muslims in Dhubri district, where the number of non-Indigenous Muslims is greater, have come down over the years - from 2.7 percent before 2007 to 2.6 percent at present.
"We believe that the population growth will stabilize when the TFR comes down to 2.1 percent. Our target is to achieve this by 2019," he added.
For Ali, this success has come after much pain. He had to risk his life for trying to popularize sterilization among the Muslims. In 2009, an Islamic organization issued fatwa against Ali and his programmes were boycotted for being un-Islamic.
"I had received several threats in those days. My meetings and NSV camps were boycotted and some organization issued fatwa against me. My family was threatened if I continue my mission. But I do not blame anyone for this. I am happy that I have been able to break the jinx and popularize NSV," he said.
"Of late, the marginalized sections of the Muslim community have realized that a well planned family is the key to prosperity and progress. That is why they have extended their support to our programme," he added.
Hasan Ali, a resident of Dhubri district who underwent NSV at a camp organized by Ali in 2009, told IANS: We have two children. I was first hesitant to accept what doctor sahib was trying to convince us in our village. However, he mentioned about the Holy Quran and explained to us that Prophet Mohammed was not averse to family planning. I decided to undergo NSV and now I encourage my friends to also do so."
Educationist and associate professor of North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) Dwijen Sarma termed Ali's efforts as pathbreaking. "I had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Ilias Ali during a programme and he explained how he works among the rural uneducated Muslims encouraging them for birth control," Sarma told IANS.
"It was a herculean task to convince Muslims in remote areas to go for birth control. However, Dr. Ali has succeeded in his mission and I am sure he would achieve his target of bringing down the TFR to 2.1 percent," Sarma added.
(Aditya Sarma can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)