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.
In this conversation about the book and her research with the Indian Cultural Forum, Shilpi Rajpal explains various aspects of colonial psychiatry.
Indian Cultural Forum (ICF): In the book you mention that there is a need to study insanity, and particularly colonial psychiatry, through fieldwork that focuses across the borders in India and Pakistan, can you elaborate on that?
Shilpi Rajpal (SR): Yes, being a Punjabi and a third generation refugee, when I started working on my research topic I wanted to focus on north India. I also wanted to focus on Punjab. Now the cultural context of Punjab is divided by partition. When you work on Lahore you don’t have access to the material as half the material is on that side. There is no research visa available to do research in Lahore. If you have read the acknowledgement in my book then you would realize that I acknowledge people across the border and the entire concept of the scholars across the border. There is almost no work on the other side of the border in terms of history of medicine, which is now almost thirty years old. In the context of Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh there is not much written about it. So there is a lack of scholarship on this in the South Asian context.
After 1900 Delhi asylum was shut down and the patients were sent to Lahore. Manto who wrote the story of Toba Tek Singh talks about the madness of partition and one comes across many such sources while working. I came across these sources while working in the Lahore mental hospital where I found names of people who were Hindus, Sikhs which show that the people like Manto’s character Toba Tek Singh did exist in reality. For all this cultural context and the familiarity we need to study insanity across the border
ICF: In the book you mention that Foucault, as he writes about asylums in the European context, uses the term ‘great confinement.’ However, there is a difference in the way the asylums functioned in colonial India and the same term may not be applicable. Can you elaborate on the differences?
SR: The difference in India and in the Indian context is that when you think about psychiatry from the European point of view there were asylums for the rich and asylums for the poor. In India there were asylums for whites and there were asylums for the natives. That distinction was very clear. Another distinction is about the purpose of incarceration. In Europe the idea was to provide the patients a cure, but in the context of India the idea was not to provide a cure but to keep them away from further creating any problem. In other words, the purpose was to deal with delinquency. Since the intention of the colonial officials was narrow, so was the infrastructure. Infrastructure was bare minimum. In the Indian context you find that there was more a reformist sort of zeal in functioning of asylums. When the European asylums started transforming into hospitals, India was still using asylums as asylum spaces.
ICF: What was the logic of incarceration in these asylums during the colonial period? When was a person labelled as insane?
SR: I will talk about this question in a different way, just to initiate the conversation. Even till the 1960 or 1970 the Indian psychiatrists continued to use the same taxonomy (of colonial psychiatry). We completely missed the cultural context of India till the 1980s when the cross cultural psychiatry developed. There was also a lack of the idea of the colonised and the colonizer. The idea of superior and inferior continued to mar the understanding of the British about insanity and it also continued to influence psychiatry in India. So to give you an example, in case of a fakir or a mendicant, In India we may not culturally say their lifestyle is not normal. However, for the British such a person formed a threat and, hence, was seen as insane. Delinquency or threat was seen as a sign of insanity by the British.
ICF: The book mentions the transition of colonial psychiatry in India to post-colonial psychiatry and the rupture during this transition. Can you explain the rupture?
SR: So the rupture can be explained and I will also touch upon my future project in this way. Just to give you an example, I end my book with a particular report which mentions that after partition, a certain number of lunatics were sent to that side of the border and others remained on this side. At this point Delhi as a capital of India did not have any mental hospital. So initially the lunatics were kept in the Tihar Jail. Later on the hospital in Amritsar was established and eventually you have the Shahdara Hospital in 1950 and 1960 respectively. So this is exactly the kind of rupture that I am talking about. Because of the partition there were no institutions left. There were also no places to train the psychiatrists. They continued to be trained in the west. I am still working on a project for mapping the decolonizing of psychiatry. From 1950 to 1980 is a period where India continued to rely on the western understanding and also the western infrastructure of psychiatry. In this period, more and more psychiatrists continue to visit Europe, USA or UK for training. As a consequence of that the training was so western that they could not comprehend the Indian cultural issues. The 1980s is when the Indian Lunacy Act was changed and you have the first law for mental health. So it took almost 30 years.
ICF: How can we understand the current state of psychiatry in India from this perspective?
SR: As much as I can say we still have the colonial hangover, in all areas, but more than anything else in psychiatry. It still remains as the stepchild of the medicine. The infrastructure is far limited. The developed countries in the world are spending more and more on mental health and issues related to depression. There is also a concern that the pandemic may create another pandemic of mental health. But we do not have the infrastructure to deal with that. The continued lack of infrastructure somewhere comes from the past and it’s continuity to the present. In addition to this, there is stigma. When I visited the mental hospitals I realised that they still use the words such as lockup. At the end of the day there is usually a question, “aaj ka lockup kitna hai?” which means how many people have been jailed today. The term lockup suggests jail. I have explained in my book how asylums were located around the jails. This shows that the ideas of a jail have continued in mental hospitals.