Discourses on insanity are intricately connected to history, culture and politics and reflect the deeply embedded power structures in a society. In her book Curing Madness: A Social and Cultural History of Insanity in Colonial North India, 1800-1950s, author Shilpi Rajpal, traces the history of psychiatry and colonial power in India. The book explores institutional and non-institutional histories of madness in colonial north India and proves that ‘madness’ and its ‘cure’ are shifting categories that assumed new meanings and significance as knowledge travelled across cultural, medical, national, and regional boundaries in colonial India.
The following are excerpts from Chapter 1 of the book that elaborates on the role of legal structures in managing insanity and explores how the discourses of legalism and medicalism were brought together to etch out the definition of insanity.
Asylums marched along with colonialism in India. Much before the consolidation of imperial power, the incarceration of the insane became a widespread phenomenon. The insane hospitals were initially opened for the sequestration of insane soldiers but soon the provision was extended to the ‘native’ insanes. In 1800, an abstract from the Secretary to the Governor General in Council authorized ‘the reception of the insane natives of various descriptions not in the company’s service into the same house with the insane native soldiers for whose reception the hospital at Mongyr was originally established’. The histories of the establishment of the lunatic asylums are not uniform. The asylums grew in number along with the expansion of the empire. By 1802, the Governor in Council ordered the establishment of ﬁve lunatic asylums in the Bengal presidency.
Writing in 1827, Scottish physician Andrew Halliday provided a general survey of the six lunatic asylums functioning at the time in the Bengal Presidency. By the 1830s a few more asylums were established. James H. Mills argues that after 1859 there began two decades of unprecedented activity of providing buildings to contain those the British encountered as ‘mad’ in the Indian population. Waltraud Ernst highlights,
The creation of Courts of Law, the establishment of police forces and the erection of jails were vital means of guaranteeing English power and of controlling public life. So were other, less conspicuous measures of social control, such as the erection of public hospitals—characteristically called ‘police or pauper hospitals’—dispensaries, licensed brothels, work-houses, and last but not least lunatic asylums.
Ernst, though cautious of the concept of social control, argues that it is ‘taken up merely as a heuristic device to describe the process’. Such a view fails to situate asylums in the broader context of colonial institutions of medicine and punishment. Asylums and psychiatric knowledge should be considered critically important in the colonial settings. Lunatic asylums were established for twin purposes. The primary reason was to safeguard the public from the ‘dangerous’ insane and the second rationale was to provide shelter to ‘the most unhappy class of human beings’. Thus, asylums were made for both coercive and therapeutic purposes. Existing scholarship has ignored the signiﬁcant role of law in regulating and managing ‘insanity’. Legal frameworks reﬂect necessities of colonialism which in turn mirror blurred ideas on governance, benevolence, and social control. The investigation into lunacy laws will help in contextualizing imperatives of psychiatry and colonialism.
A speciﬁc legislative measure related to lunacy in India was introduced by the colonial government only in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1849, an Act for the safe custody of criminal lunatics was passed. Clause VI of the Act states:
Whereas it shall appear to the government that any person, imprisoned by the sentence of any court, is of unsound mind, the government, by a warrant which shall set forth the ground of belief that such prisoner is of unsound mind, may order the removal of such person to a lunatic asylum, or other ﬁt place of safe custody, there to be kept and treated as the government shall order; and when it shall appear to the government that such prisoner has become of sound mind, the government, by a warrant directed to the person having charged of him, shall remand such prisoner to the prison from which he was removed, if then still liable to be kept in custody, or if not, shall order him to be discharged out of custody.
The 1849 Act was extremely signiﬁcant as it set forth the deﬁnition of legal insanity in India. This Act, based on English law, made the insanity defence possible in India. The discourses of legalism and medicalism were brought together for the ﬁrst time in order to deﬁne insanity and their responsibilities related to it.
The Act became the basis of what is popularly known as the ‘insanity plea’. It is diﬃcult to say to what extent the Act provided any relief to Indian subjects. Colonial oﬃcials had a stereotyped image related to ‘eccentricity of conduct in natives’. This stereotyping should not be ignored while understanding the use of the insanity plea. Norman Chevers’s incisive study, A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence, delves into the subject of insanity among ‘natives’. He discusses in detail methods of judging the insanity or sanity of ‘natives’:
Upon committing an act of frantic violence, a native of this country, hav-ing undergone examination at the thannah and at the Magistrate’s court, is generally placed as soon as possible, in the jail under the observation of the Civil Surgeon. Here it, of course, becomes the duty of the latter at once to endeavour to distinguish how much of any disorder of the intellectual facilities which the culprit may present is dependent on physical, and how much on mental causes … the Medical oﬃcer may, upon observing that his eyes are inﬂamed, his head hot, his tongue foul, and his pulse excited, and, upon learning that he is sleepless at night, feel disposed to exercise the remedial portion of his art, and to prescribe purgatives, nauseates, sedatives, low diet and cold aﬀusion … it is always safer and fairer towards the subject of our scrutiny to leave his case untreated—under the most careful watching … under these circumstances, it may fairly be expected that the eﬀect of intoxication, whether by sharab or gunja, will gradually pass oﬀ … and true mania will probably remain unaﬀected, except in character and degree … it is only after the Trial that the physician can be justiﬁed in treating the criminal lunatic.
Observation was the key to judgement with regard to lunacy. The vital question, however, here was, to what extent was a fair and a balanced judgement possible in the context of insanity among ‘natives’. Chevers’s A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence reveals an innate bias present in the opinion of the colonizers. The basic characteristics of Indians including caste organization, religion, and customs were regarded as ‘abnormal’. This abnormality was measured in terms of the diﬀerence between their own and the ‘native’s’ way of life.
 Extract from the proceedings of the Board in the Military Department, O.C., no. 23, 6 November 1800, NAI.
 Andrew Halliday, A General View of the Present State of Lunatics and Lunatic Asylums in Great Britain and Ireland and in Some Other Kingdoms (London: Thomas and George Underwood, 1827), 65.
 Mills,Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism,12.
 Waltraud Ernst, ‘The Establishment of “Native Lunatic Asylums” in Early Nineteenth-Century British India’, in Studies on Indian Medical History , edited by G. Jan Meulendbeld and Dominik Wujastyk (New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 2001), 155.
 Ernst,‘The Establishment of“Native Lunatic Asylums”’, 155.
 Waltraud Ernst and James H. Mills in their scholarly works have discussed the 1858 Act. The subsequent amendments of the 1858 Act and the 1912 Act have been overlooked. My endeavour would be to contextualize the signiﬁcant amendments. This chapter tries to unravel the ways in which laws were used by ‘natives’ and the colonial state. The legal case histories would help in under-standing the nebulous connections between law and medicine.
 Act no. IV of 1849, An Act for the Safe Custody of Criminal Lunatics, 1849, NAI.
 Norman Chevers, A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for Bengal and North-Western Provinces (Calcutta: Military Orphan Press, 1856).
 Chevers,A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence,559–61.