Fragmentary History of Reproductive Health

The book under review is an outcome of a conference on “ Population, Birth Control and Reproductive Health in Late Colonial India”, held at the Centre for the History and Culture of Medicine, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. It is also one in the series of New Perspectives in South Asian History. This academic book under review is topical at the beginning of the 21st century when politics and controversies continue to shape and redefine notions of reproduction and reproductive health in the context of women’s lives in changing societies. The volume — for its title – will certainly draw the attention of a wide range of scholars engaged in not only social science inquiries in the history of medicine but also public health, women’s right to health among other areas of interest.

Concerns Beyond Targets

Reproductive and Child Health Programme was seen as a radical departure from the ‘target oriented’ family planning programme after the ICPD conference in Cairo. This programme was seen to be a more comprehensive approach that included sexual and reproductive health concerns. The book under review draws together articles that have examined various aspects that are included under the rubric of RCH viz. contraceptive use, maternal health and progressing related care, abortion, reproductive tract injections and STIs; young people’s sexual and reproductive health; infertility and domestic violence. Based on an analysis of available data and published studies these articles examine the status of the various aspects of the programme.

New Poisons, Old Remedies

The late nineteenth century in Punjab, as in Bengal, witnessed huge debates about the role of “indigenous” science and “western” science – harbingers of today’s concerns with “Hindu” science, mathematics and so on. Many factors went into the making of these discourses. One of course was the reaction to colonial efforts to deligitimize them as unscientific and empirical medical methods, to be distinguished from the universal, scientific and rational methods of biomedicine. The second was a product of the work of Orientalists, as some indigenous practitioners harked back to the glory of ancient “Hindu” sciences, to the arts, and indeed to their “Aryan” past, a civilization that was said to have been at its pinnacle of achievements in diverse fields.

A Royal Chronicle

Babur Nama is an autobiography of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, which he established in 1526 after defeating Sultan Ibrahim Lodi in the first battle of Panipat. More appropriately, Babur Nama is a memoir and a diary kept by Babur since he was ten years old until a year before his death in December 1530. Babur began chronicling events soon after he became the governor of Andijan (now in Uzbekistan) at the age of ten following the assassination of his father Omar Shaikh Mirza in 1493.

More Than Just Money

Many years ago, one of my students gave me a Marg volume titled Of Kings and Coins. Its sumptuous, luminous photographs were my introduction to the beauty of ancient and medieval Indian coinage. I held on to that volume and used it for many years as a teaching aid to show students the variety and aesthetic richness of numismatic sources. Over a decade later, here is another Marg volume on coins, this time with a special focus on coins as expressions of power and as media of communciation.

A Varied Collection

These essays have been put together in honour of Professor Hermann Kulke, one of the finest historians of his generation of pre-modern India. Although Kulke’s list of publications covers many aspects of the history of India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, he is particularly known for his contribution to the study of regional state formation and construction of regional identities in early medieval India. His ‘concentric integration’ model that suggests three stages in a continuous process of state formation from a nuclear core territory to the imperial regional state was a major advance on the hegemonic feudal state model, and his monumental study of the cult of Jagannatha and the regional tradition of Orissa remains one of the best examples of an interdisciplinary work of its kind that highlights the origin, development and organization of a regional tradition. Professor Kulke eminently deserves a felicitation volume.

History as ‘Passion’

Reconstructing ancient society has always been a challenging task for a historian. How do we shrug off the ‘baggage’ of modernity that we carry and relocate ourselves in the (very distant) past so as to be accurate? The only way to do it is with curiosity and with honesty—approach the ‘sources’ with an open and eager mind, without preconceived notions, which is what is being attempted in this compilation of articles written over a period of roughly two decades. Uma Chakravarti, in her incredibly inquisitive and penetrating style, moves, quite literally, ‘beyond’ hackneyed discussions of state, political institutions and the caste system, to highlight lives of wideranging groups and communities which played a significant role, but have been treated cursorily by most historians. She seeks to ‘represent’ Ancient India with essays related to peasants, servile labour, dasas and karmakaras, widows, monks and householders and the bhaktin; hitherto grey areas of historical studies and in doing so, reveals how methods of production, processes of social stratification, creation of ideological structures and institutions are inherently linked to each other.

A Monumental Effort

The history of the preparation of critical editions of Sanskrit texts has been long and somewhat complicated. Both the potential and the pitfalls of this endeavour have been best exemplified in the attempts to produce critical editions of the Mahâbhârata and the Râmâyana. Olivelle tackles a text that is apparently simpler: it is obviously far shorter than either of the epics. Nonetheless, the task is a heroic one. What we have at hand is a Sanskrit text prepared through the painstaking and meticulous collation of the text from over fifty manuscripts, with variants carefully documented in endnotes, a new annotated translation in English, as well as introductions to both text and translation that will enrich our understanding of what Olivelle aptly characterizes as a controversial but important document (p. 4).

Timeless Hunger

‘In the first half of nineteenth century, there were seven famines, with an estimated total of one and a half million deaths from famine. In the second half of nineteenth century, there were twenty-four famines (six between 1851 and 1876, and eighteen between 1876 and 1900), with an estimated total according to official records, of over 20 million deaths’.– R.P. Dutt, India Today, Calcutta, 1970, p. 125.

Engaging with Geography and Space

Colonial and Post-colonial Geographies of India, a collection of fifteen essays by scholars from India, western Europe, and the U.S., is a pointer to emerging critical geographical work on India, though it is not, as the editors point out in their introductory essay, the first time that geographers have invested in India. Colonial ‘technologies of governance’ mapped India through gazetteers, district reports, surveys and the census. The departments of geographies established during the colonial period were tasked with the discursive and literal mapping the country for imperial rule (p.14). Despite these rich documents, there is much that remains to be understood and revealed about both the colonial mapping of India as well as postcolonial geography of opposition. The editors for example point out that Gandhi’s strategies of resistance employed a profoundly geographic politics of opposition to imperial rule which has received little attention. While much has been written about Nehru’s vision of India, the imaginative, discursive, and material geography of modern nationhood mapped through dams, canals, roads, and industrial centers, has in comparison been neglected.

Universal Within: Local, Regional, National

This book brings the Indian Ocean forefront to the study of Empire, anti-colonial nationalism and ideas about globalization. It views the Ocean as the site where the local, regional and national intermingled with ideas of the universal. Together they constituted a sub-culture of tremendous economic and intellectual potential that could challenge the western global Empire. Sugata Bose focuses on this sub-culture that was the underbelly of Empire and sees it as an important propellant of anti-colonial nationalism. He laments that South Asian historiography has failed to integrate this referent to its larger narrative of nationalism and the formation of the nation state. He regrets that it has remained outside the purview of ideas of globalization as well.

Dissonance Between Officialese And Ground Realities

Raghuvendra Tanwar’s weighty volume provides a wealth of material on developments in the Punjab during the period 1947-8. Despite its title, the work only in passing reflects on the different ‘spins’, news outlets imparted to the events of Partition. It rather uses newspapers and other documentary sources to piece together a detailed narrative. This begins with the breakdown in communal peace following the resignation on 2 March 1947 of the Khizr Tiwana Coalition Government and concludes with the impact on the Punjab of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. While the coverage is stronger with respect to East Punjab, there is considerable material also on West Punjab, especially on developments in Lahore.