ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Situating Medical Modernity

Nandini Bhattacharya ( teaches history at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

Society, Medicine and Politics in Colonial India edited by Biswamoy Pati and Mark Harrison, London and New York: Routledge, 2018; pp 325, ₹ 995.

Locating the Medical: Explorations in South Asian History edited by Rohan Deb Roy and Guy N A Attewell, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp 307, ₹ 950.

As the editors of both the volumes in question have pointed out, the literature on the medical history of South Asia has burgeoned in the recent times. Social historians have robustly debated public health and epidemics, drugs and indigeneity, institutions and discourses of medicine in colonial India in the past two decades and have enriched the scholarship of both colonialism and the histories of modern India. These two collections have added to the rich seam of such scholarship; and although the assumptions they begin with differ, the methodology and treatment of their historical subjects are similar.

First Volume

The first collection of essays titled unassumingly Society, Medicine and Politics in Colonial India is the third in the series of edited volumes on medical history by Mark Harrison and the late Biswamoy Pati. In the introduction, the editors identify the exploration of “colonial modernity” as the unifying theme of this volume. Borrowing variously from and yet differing within contending usages of colonial modernity, the editors choose /identify colonial modernity as that “process” or “discursive space” which straddles the promise of modernity with the “impossibility of its realisation.” The volume articulates this colonial modernity in the plural, not as a “hegemonic” term, and offers it as an “alternative” modernity to what one presumes is a (possibly hypothetical) monolithic modernity.

The chapters vary in themes; they are arranged in a loose chronological frame and range widely, from an examination of the interpretations of law in criminal courts in Bengal in early 19th century to a study of the institutionalisation of ayurvedic medicine between 1870 and 1940 at the Travancore court to a discussion on the campaign for a Women’s Medical Service in the 20th century.

In Chapter I “The Sentencing of Assisted Suicide in the Nizamaut Adawlut, 1810–1829: Religion, Health and Gender in the Formation of British Indian Criminal law” (pp 16–36), Jane Buckingham argues that the Nizamat Adalat (criminal court) in Bengal interpreted the laws on abetting suicide through the custom of burying alive those afflicted by leprosy and sparing them a painful and ostracised life, on the intent of the accused and not on the act itself. This was the consequence moreover, she claims, of British criminal justice moving away from its Mughal antecedents and borrowing more closely from Brahminical interpretations of custom, based on shastras. Through a reading of parliamentary papers on “assisted suicide,” where the focus on suicide by leprosy sufferers was as prominent as on the self-immolation of sati, she uses several court cases to identify that the shastra-based injunctions to sati influenced leniency in sentencing of those charged for assisting it.

Buckingham’s conclusion is that compassion for the very ill in the case of lepers, and young and vulnerable girls who had no intent to commit self-immolation, influenced conviction of abettors before the enactment of legislation to abolish sati. The chapter borrows heavily from extant and now conventional scholarly writing on criminal law and British dependence on shastras in colonial India. The study of a smattering of court cases, comparing cases of abetment of sati and suicide by leprosy afflicted persons, however, could not substantiate the claims of the “agency,” that is, the will of lepers to die as being respected by the criminal courts.

Mark Harrison’s essay “The Great Shift: Cholera Theory and Sanitary Policy in British India, 1867–1879” (pp 37–61) moves from leprosy to cholera; it re-examines the well-known shift in the official and medical discourse on cholera from contagion (the view that cholera spread through human contact) to anti-contagion (that it does not spread through human contact or any other agent, for example, the air/water) in colonial India. Throughout the late 19th century, official Indian medical opinion had insisted on the position that human contact had no role to play in the spread of cholera. British Indian medical experts persisted in this position long after the discovery of the cholera bacillus by Robert Koch in 1884. Harrison argues his case against historians who have contended that the anti-contagion position was encouraged by officials in London who feared that its acceptance would lead to a global policy of quarantine, adversely affecting British maritime commerce.

Instead, Harrison posits that the shift to anti-contagionism was the consequence of British–Indian medical experts’ experiences in the field in colonial India. He argues that the regime of sanitising the sites of cholera epidemics facilitated anti-contagionism, and D D Cunningham, its most ardent exponent, used his own experience in controlling cholera epidemics to argue for the anti-contagionist stand. And indeed, the experience of the man in the field usually determined policy on the ground in colonial India, in medicine as in any other policy. It is a seductive argument, not least because medical historians, in particular, have to remain wary of presentism.

Another essay in the volume also examines cholera in the 19th century, in this instance through unani medicine and the cures it offered. In “Hakims and Haiza: Unani Medicine and Cholera in Late Colonial India” (pp 61–73), Saurabh Mishra examines unani texts to interrogate the binary of biomedicine and indigenous medicine. He presents a view of multiple cures for cholera within indigenous systems in the 19th century that were often tried by practitioners of Western medicine as well. He points out, too, that indigenous medical systems like unani involved eclectic practitioners and cures, and significantly, that the educated among them borrowed from biomedical concepts of miasma and that they also reinvented their cures, sometimes in cognisance of the new discoveries of vitamins, when they were confronted with epidemic cholera.

The theme of integration of medical systems continues in Burton Cleetus’s essay titled “Western Science, Indigenous Medicine and the Princely States: the Case of Ayurvedic Reorganisation in Travancore, 1870–1940” (pp 98–121). Cleetus outlines how the princely state of Travancore (which was celebrated as one of the few “modern” native states in colonial India) legitimated its rule through the veneration of “tradition,” and simultaneously pursued modernist innovations by integrating ayurvedic and local medical practices with biomedicine in its state hospitals and dispensaries. In the process, it enabled the social mobility for local, low caste medical practitioners such as the Ezhavas. From this discussion it is clear that Travancore’s encounter with modern medicine was unique, for other modernist states like Baroda depended exclusively on biomedical practitioners and institutions in their state-supported medical infrastructure.

While the essays in this volume allow for discussions on medical modernity in colonial India, one is not entirely certain if they reveal a process of “alternative” modernity. If anything, the studies in it resonate with recent works on medical history in India that posit eclectic, hybrid medical discourses and praxis in colonial India. 

Second Volume

The second volume under discussion is more ambitious in its intent. The editors wish to identify, or, as the title insists, “locate” the medical in colonial India beyond the conventional sites of the hospital, the clinic, the pharmacy, and possibly the historian’s archive. Instead, the collection of essays aims to establish the ontologies of medicine in “social practices and networks of power.” The editors locate the medical in colonial India through production frames, that is, production, enactments, discontinuities and contours, and the book is divided into sections that correspond to these frames.

Durba Mitra’s essay “Sociological Description and the Forensics of Sexuality” (pp 23–46) examines how forensic science, the police, and intelligence networks were complicit in policing women’s sexuality in colonial India. Through a lively study of police and medical manuals, it discusses how forensic evidence was collected and used to convict women, most often widows, for abortion or infanticide. Colonial functionaries, including the police, the coroner and the medical examiner, mustered a slew of scientific, legal and sociological disciplines to view, examine and classify the bodies of women. Most often the classification identified women as dead as they went through savage and futile attempts at abortion. Mitra argues that scientific knowledge, medical and legal officialdom and intra-community surveillance were all used to police the sexuality of women. Her argument is compelling, although not unfamiliar and one wishes that the author had extended the primary source base of the essay beyond the two manuals on medical jurisprudence and a handful of corroborating correspondence.

Chandak Sengoopta’s “Treacherous Minds, Submissive Bodies, Corporeal Technologies and Human Experimentation in Colonial India” (pp 47–70) highlights how medical science reinforced the colonial rule of difference through two very different examples; the use of fingerprint as markers of individual identity and of mesmerism or hypnosis in surgical procedures in the mid-19th century. Sengoopta discusses how fingerprinting emerged in colonial India and was used in the surveillance of entire communities; he points out that in Britain, however, it was rarely used and recorded to identify individuals. He cites the interesting case of the mesmeric hospital in Calcutta to similarly identify how medical experts identified colonial subjects as ideal candidates for mesmeric surgery for a brief period in mid-19th century.

The use of mesmerism or hypnotism as it is known today originated in and remained insignificant in surgery in the 19th century Britain. But through the efforts of the Scottish surgeon James Esdaile, an “experimental” mesmeric hospital was established where Esdaile conducted operations after putting his Indian patients in a trance. Esdaile argued that the mesmeric surgery was a success on Indians as their inherent docility (and by inference, inferior intellect) easily facilitated hypnosis. Medical and surgical sciences in the mid-19th century enabled the classification of Indian (colonial) subjects en masse. Mesmeric surgery was rendered irrelevant after the discovery and popularisation of chloroform.

In his essay “Colonising Cannabis: Medication, Taxation, Intoxication, and Oblivion, c 1839–1955” (pp 200–218), James H Mills “locates” the medical in colonial India through the scientific, commercial and discursive histories of the cannabis plant. He echoes the query “what is colonial about colonial medicine.” Demonstrating the multiple identities of cannabis—as a medicine, as an intoxicant, as a source of lucrative government revenue and as an emblem of Indian debauchery that appeared to surpass the moral and corporeal corruptions that opium represented, Mills shows the contingent nature of the “medical” itself in colonial India.

The essays in both volumes above vary in analytical rigour and most of them engage with long-standing research queries. Nonetheless, these essays span a range of interesting themes that engage with colonial governance and its ambivalences. In that respect, both volumes are useful additions to the colonial historian’s bookshelf.


Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019


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