3 May 2022 14:00 - 16:00 Online


An event organised by Hidden Epidemics and Epidemiological Obfuscation research network.


  • Sohini Chattopadhyay (Department of History, Columbia University)
  • Justin Feldman (Harvard University)


Dr Feldman
US police officers kill civilians at far higher rates compared to other wealthy democracies. These killings, however, are severely undercounted in national public health and criminal justice data systems. Moreover, when civilians die in police custody due to restraint techniques or medical neglect, the state typically contests the cause of death and denies the causal role of police action. This talk will explore these issues in depth with particular attention to the role that medicine and public health play in obscuring government accountability for police violence.

Ms Chattopadhyay
Famines between 1877 and 1901 led to a loss of six million lives in Western and Southern India. While previous famines in India were appraised through local or regional inquiries, the famines from 1877 produced the Famine Inquiry Commissions (FIC) with implications across India. The FIC studied the economic impact of the famines, and created guidelines for colonial administrators to mitigate the risks of famines. This presentation demonstrates that the FICs were also one of the early grounds for debates on mortality data collection. Two contenting groups of experts emerged 1) Those who argued that pathological causes obfuscated the real social cause of death: poverty and starvation. Many proponents of this view had studied the Irish famine, or had worked on diets in Indian prisons. 2) Those who argued that pathological conditions were sufficient. They justified their stance by adopting caste-based biases, arguing that Indian chowkidars (village guards and enumerators, drawn from stigmatized communities in rural India) were incapable of noting the differences between starvation and the symptoms of tropical diseases such as cholera. A longer history of mortality statistics collection in India also structured the FIC debates. The colonial government had a prior history of focusing on tropical diseases, and the FIC members were constrained by existing modes of recording mortality data in Britain. Finally, despite the internal debates, the FIC was tasked with upholding the principles of colonial political economy. As a result, the FIC debates resulted in a peculiar obfuscation of starvation in mortality records: starvation did not appear in statistical tables that were published, even though the reports included detailed descriptions of starvation and emaciation without clarity around their numbers. As the FIC focused on the fiscal relationship of the state with those that the state identified as poor, other markers of social differences in death such as caste were made insignificant.

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