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Introduction

This collection of papers discusses in detail the role of disease epidemics in south Asian history. The available historiography is assessed critically as also complex ideas about the identification of the origins of diseases and their geographical spread in numerous forms.

EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 22, 200839IntroductionSanjoy BhattacharyaAll the papers in this special section (other than that by Mridula Ramanna) result from presentations made at an international conference in Bardhman, West Bengal, that was organised over three days in November 2006 and allowed scholars from a number of universities to carry out detailed discussions about the role of disease epidemics in south Asian history.A number of facets were usefully examined, from a variety of perspectives. The available historiography was assessed critically, as were complex ideas about the identification of the origins of diseases and their geographical spread in numerous forms. In this way, the very definition of the term “epidemic” was prob-lematised and then studied, in relation to specific diseases and their location within social, economic, administrative and scientific contexts. It was noted that the identification, announcement and control of “epidemics” were intensely political acts, frequently involving people from both medical and non-medical backgrounds whose actions were informed by diverse motives associated to their workplace, neighbourhood, economic calculations, social posi-tion, religious beliefs and, not least, political conditions. Cases where the authorities, located at different levels of the state structure, refused to declare epidemic outbreaks of disease, infectious or otherwise, were informed by an equally broad range of judgments.Discussions at the meeting revealed that these great variations – both in relation to theoretical understandings as well as practi-cal responses – are often ignored by historians, to the detriment of nuance. Indeed, academic assessments of the nature and the impact of epidemic diseases tend often to operate with a range of presentist notions and labels about disease causation and spread, wherein select, contemporary etiological understandings are retrospectively imposed on past actors and events. The situation is not helped by the habit of many scholars to focus on the thoughts and the actions of a select few, whose standpoints are then presented as largely representative of complex societal and political formations; viewed from this perspective, the biases and Sanjoy Bhattacharya (sanjoy.bhattacharya@ucl.ac.uk) is at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College, London, UK.The papers in this special issue are drawn largely from the conference “Epidemics in South Asian History” organised in Bardhman in 2006 by the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College, London, in association with Burdwan University. The conference was made possible by support from the Wellcome Trust, UK.EPW is grateful to Sanjoy Bhattacharya for putting together this special issue.This collection of papers discusses in detail the role of disease epidemics in south Asian history. The available historiography is assessed critically as also complex ideas about the identification of the origins of diseases and their geographical spread in numerous forms.
EPIDEMICS IN SOUTH ASIAN HISTORYmarch 22, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly40motives of historians in the contemporary world appear to frequently privilege relatively small bits of an enormously complex mosaic of medical, political and social attitudes. The need for a more inclusive analytical framework was, therefore, recognised at Bardhman.Interestingly, the biological reality of the disease – in the form of physical manifestations in a human body or causative micro-scopic living organisms – was not denied by any of the presenters. However, several flagged the subjective nature of the thoughts and the actions of those identifying, countering and experienc-ing particular illnesses, as well as the simultaneous existence of numerous explanatory frameworks for the existence and effects of disease. Affecting government representatives, medical practi-tioners and those that they sought to treat, this situation ensured great practical complexities, as a multiplicity of preventives and cures were offered and then used in manifold ways. Strikingly, there was general agreement at the conference that the introduc-tion of what is often unquestioningly referred to as “scientific medicine”, through the agency of disciplines like tropical medicine, complicated matters even further. “Science” was, of course, not value free, monolithic or un-changing. Its boundaries and efficacy were constantly discussed and debated, especially as supporters of particular theories and practices busily advocated, with varying levels of success, their ideas amongst financiers, administrators and patient groups; as a result, “scientific medicine” became one of the many options available to non-European and European populations in their efforts to combat the effects of damaging illnesses.The following papers are representative of the great breadth of issues discussed and debated in Bardhman; they describe histo-riographical variations and also delineate trends not discussed at any great length by historians before. Kalinga Tudor Silva’s con-tribution is a detailed discussion of “malarial fevers” and malaria in pre-colonial and colonial Ceylon, wherein he examines the complex factors attending the labelling of disease over the dec-ades and the effects of the late 19th century entry of the discipline of tropical medicine within this territory. Achintya Kumar Dutta, on the other hand, looks at the linkages between colonial economic interests, in the form of the provision of labour for Assamese plantations, and the spread of kala-azar in eastern British India. With a focus on the province of Bihar, this paper also describes the efforts made by the state authorities and patients to combat the disease, often with mixed results. Sujata Mukherjee’s paper is an explication of the links between changing perceptions of environmental improvement, economic development and disease control; its looks at the prevalence of a great complexity of viewpoints within structures of British administration, amongst a disparate group of medical practitioners and observers, and also within sections of Indian society, includ-ing figures who would play an important role in the development of nationalist responses to colonial rule.Rohan Deb Roy, in turn, provides a fascinating 19th century case study of “Burdwan fever”, which was presented by many observers as an “epidemic” form of “malaria”. However, as Deb Roy shows convincingly, the term “malaria” was far from clear in that century – it represented many things to many observers. This contributed to a situation where numerous ideas about the nature and impact of the spread of the disease coexisted side by side, in Burdwan, Bengal province, British India and beyond. Indeed, while many highlighted the fears of the spread of epi-demic forms of Burdwan fever, within and outside the locality, others doubted the existence of a specific disease and questioned its ability to inflict significant damage. This study in variations in medical, administrative and civilian attitudes provides an impor-tant lesson for researchers – it is important for historians to under-stand and describe how disease categories existed in the past, and how these were transmitted and interpreted by multiplicity of actors, in the complex mosaic of colonial social and political structures, at different points of time. Once this is done, we will be better placed to assesses continuities and changes, which, in turn, can provide invaluable insights into the complexity of medical theory and practice in south Asia; it is well worth adopt-ing this analytical approach to studies of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods, especially in research projects that aim to examine periods overlapping one or more of these historical phases. The important question of agency in relation to the transfer of discrete sets of medical ideas does, of course, also have to be ex-amined. This is the focus of the last paper in this selection, writ-ten by Mridula Ramanna – the article describes the role of south Asian women medical practitioners in hospitals in colonial Bombay, who are described as vital agents for the transmission of a new form of medical knowledge and practice. Apart from leav-ing us better informed about a range of pioneering – but relatively little known – individuals, Ramanna provides us with valuable hints about the challenges faced by doctors in convincing patient groups about the workability of new treatment regimes, even though these were regarded as “modern” and efficacious by indi-viduals influential within the formal institutions of medical education and practice. Future researchers will do well to take note of these suggestive insights.7th IIDS International Seminar, 23-24 May, 2008 on Regional Economic Integration among SE Asian Countries (Sub-Themes: Regional Trading Blocks, FDI Inflow and Its Role in Economic Development, Role of SAARC in Economic Integration, Impact of WTO on South East Asian Countries, Economic Liberalisation, Trade Policies and Its Impact on SE Asian countries). ABSTRACTS within 300 words to be sent within 15 April to Prof Raj Kumar Sen, rk_sen25@rediffmail.com,Prof G.M.Bhat, pgdoeku@rediffmail.com,gmbhat.ku@gmail.com at Srinagar, Kashmir University.

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