Systems of medicine and nationalist discourse in India: Towards ‘new horizons’ in medical anthropology and history


This article from Social Science & Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, uses the lens of medicine to understand India’s social history. The author examines how different systems of medicine – biomedicine (based on biochemical principles), Ayurveda, Unani, among others – were perceived in mainstream Indian national politics in the first half of the 20th century. Not only did the British colonial state give biomedicine “cultural authority” over indigenous medical systems, but nationalist leaders and later governments did too. This has greatly shaped the contemporary view of medical practices. The article discusses the three main positions (listed in the Factoids) of policy-makers and the influential Indian elite on national healthcare, including the opposing views of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. The author uses as his source material the proceedings of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) Legislative Assembly and the published views of national leaders. He concludes that the bias of both the colonial and national governments is the major reason for the “deterioration and decline” of Indian indigenous medical systems.


  1. The three distinct positions in the national healthcare debates were: (i) conformity with the idea of allopathy as superior; (ii) defiance against this idea and a demand for greater regard for indigenous medical systems; and (iii) a quest for an alternative to biomedicine.

  2. The United Provinces Indian Medicine Bill, which was passed by the UP legislative assembly in 1939, sought to ‘modernise’ traditional Indian medicine and hold it to the gold standard of allopathic medicine.

  3. A major chunk of government grants went to biomedicine, and very rarely was an Ayurveda or Unani graduate appointed as a Medical Officer in the Provincial Medical Service, and almost never assigned to higher posts. The reason cited was lack of ‘background’ and ‘fundamental education’.

  4. While allopathic medicine was confined to urban areas, the 1946 report of the Health Survey and Development Committee (Bhore Committee) states that indigenous medical systems were very popular in rural areas because they were culturally integrated.

  5. During Jawaharlal Nehru’s term (1947-1964) as prime minister, the government found it very difficult to provide allopathic services to the rural population and banked on indigenous systems to fill the gap. These indigenous systems were praised for their low costs and not for being valid knowledge systems.

  6. Nehru, like other western-educated elites, saw biomedicine or allopathy as the only way forward, whereas Mahatma Gandhi was against hospitals and emphasised prevention rather than cure, with a minimum use of drugs. He called biomedicine “black magic” and said that the body could be treated by purifying the soul.

    Factoids and Focus by Samyukta Shastri.

    PARI Library's health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


Shamshad Khan


Social Science & Medicine 


28 Nov, 2005