Historians and geneticists have the same answer

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Mohenjo-Daro (Indus Valley) stamp-seal, 2600BC-1900BC. Image courtesy: the British Museum

When British colonial writers and part-historians began to write their versions of Indian history in the 1700s and 1800s, they popularized an idea that became known as the Aryan invasion theory. Basically, when Europeans learned about South Asia’s Sanskrit language and discovered its connection with the classical languages of Europe, they assumed that there had to be, in the distant past, some kind of common “Indo-European” language, hence culture and peoples, which gave rise to later Indians and Europeans. This common culture was labeled “Aryan” culture. …


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“A group of Plague staff, Karachi, India [now Pakistan]. Photograph, 1897.” Credit: Wellcome Collection

Over the past two years I fortunately have had the time and resources to read some excellent scholarship on the history of medicine and public health in India. These books and articles have helped me better understand the historical origins and trajectories of the different unique aspects of healthcare in our country.

For example, one of the most common themes in discussions on public health in India is federalism — the fact that much of the decision-making power lies in the hands of state and other local governments and not the Central government. [Federalism is in my opinion is absolutely important and necessary, and recent trends towards undermining it are highly worrying.] However, it is not commonly known that the origins of this power-sharing lie in the politics of India’s struggle for independence during the British colonial rule. In the late 1800s Indians were becoming more and more assertive in demanding autonomy, and British administrators had to make increasingly expansive compromises. Public health was considered by the British as a kind of dispensable area of governance, a subject which they could bring themselves to part with in order to placate politically demanding Indians. …


And about dying better

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Image by Daan Stevens, courtesy Unsplash

Conversations about end-of-life care have become more mainstream in the past decade. One of the most common entry-points into the topic is the painfully true fact that as a society we focus far more on delaying death than on living a meaningful life till the inevitable end. This is a commonsense point, but something we forget when the time comes for it. Another way to think about end-of-life can be found in one of the many wise lines given to Dumbledore by J.K. …


And how it has played out during Covid-19

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“Plague-infected house which has been demolished, Karachi, India (now Pakistan), 1897;” Credit: Wellcome Collections

In August 2020, an Indian court made some observations that certainly will be considered momentous by future historians of medicine and public health. These observations pertain to the discriminatory actions of the Indian state against the Tablighi Jamat, an international community of Islamic missionaries, many members of which caught Covid-19 during a congregation in Delhi in March. The Hindu supremacist state, with the assistance of the government-friendly mainstream media — often ridiculed as “modia”— created a narrative which blamed this event, and by dog-whistle corollary the entire Muslim populace of India, as the main cause of India’s rising Covid-19 cases during those early months of the pandemic. …


Understanding the rationale for therapeutics in the past

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“George Washington at Mount Vernon at the end of his life, 1799,” by Howard Pyle. Accessed through Digital Commonwealth

One of the most important concepts one learns during training as a professional historian is the “Whig interpretation of history,” which refers generally to “oversimplified narratives that achieve drama and apparent moral clarity by interpreting past events in light of [the] present...” Historians call such narratives teleological: that is, narratives that judge the past with reference to values in the present.

Applied to the history of medicine, the Whig interpretation often manifests in the form of narratives where the methods of therapeutics used by humans in the past are dismissively described as “primitive” and “barbaric” procedures which were — and this is where the teleology comes in — dramatically and triumphantly conquered by modern medical ideas and procedures beginning in the mid-1800s. While that is a fun story to tell if one wants a convenient, simplified narrative, it leaves out much of the richness of the human aspects of this history. It ignores the historical fact that those “primitive” procedures were part of mainstream medical ideas for hundreds of years across cultures and societies. …


What Academic Scholarship Says

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Refugee camp in New Delhi for people displaced due to Partition. Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White / LIFE Picture Collection / Getty, Accessed via The NewYorker

Anyone who grows up in India and Pakistan ends up hearing dozens of versions of the 1947 Partition story by the time they reach adulthood. As someone who heard his share of these stories and then went on to study and write history professionally, I can vouch that almost all the versions we heard as kids and teenagers were… well, wrong. The gargantuan accumulation of fake and bad history around this crucial historical event has ensured that it hardly ever gets discussed dispassionately in its right historical context. However hard it is, it still needs to happen. …

About

Kiran Kumbhar

Physician. PhD student, History of medicine @Harvard. History & culture of India. Public health. Twitter @kikumbhar. Blog: kirankumbhar.com

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