Systems of medicine and nationalist discourse in India: towards "new horizons" in medical anthropology and history

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Jun;62(11):2786-97. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.10.039. Epub 2005 Nov 28.


While accepting medical "pluralism" as a historical reality, as an intrinsic value inherent in any medical system, and as an ideal or desired goal that any multicultural society ought to achieve, this paper argues the need to go beyond the liberal pluralist tendencies that have dominated the debate so far. It holds that while documenting or dealing with the "co-existence" of varied medical traditions and practices, we must not ignore or underplay issues of power, domination and hegemony and must locate our work in a larger historical, social and political context. With this perspective, and based essentially on Assembly proceedings, private papers, official documents and archival materials from the first half of the 20th-century, this paper identifies three major streams in the nationalist discourse in India: conformity, defiance and the quest for an alternative. It shows that while the elements of conformity to biomedicine and its dominance remained more pronounced and emphatic, those of defiance were conversely weak and at times even apologetic. The quest for alternatives, on the other hand, although powerful and able to build trenchant civilizational and institutional critique of modern science and medicine, could never find adequate space in the national agenda for social change. The paper further holds that although the "cultural authority" and hegemony of biomedicine over indigenous science and knowledge were initiated by the colonial state, they were extended by the mainstream national leaderships and national governments with far more extensive and profound implications and less resistance. In light of the growing global networking of "traditional", "complementary" and "alternative" health systems on the one hand and the hegemonic and homogenizing role and presence of multilateral organizations (such as the World Bank and IMF) in shaping national health policies on the other, such insights from history become extraordinarily important.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology*
  • Complementary Therapies
  • Delivery of Health Care / history*
  • Delivery of Health Care / organization & administration
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • India
  • Medicine, Ayurvedic
  • Medicine, Unani
  • Politics*