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Jacob Copeman and Dwaipayan Banerjee. 2019. Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in India

Laurent Gayer
Bibliographical reference

Jacob Copeman and Dwaipayan Banerjee. 2019. Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in India. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 272 pages.

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  • 1 All the quotes in vernacular languages are in Hindi/Urdu.
  • 2 Personal observation, Karachi, August 2011.

1Blood runs through South Asian languages and controlling its flows has been central to moral and political claims across the subcontinent. Hardworking men and women earn their bread with their sweat and blood (khoon pasine ki kamai1), while people of gentle manners must learn to tame their emotions by “drinking blood” (khoon ka ghoont pina). Great souls will not hesitate to shed blood for the common good and, from revolutionaries of the early-twentieth century to combatants and victims of contemporary struggles, the blood of the martyrs has not ceased to galvanize political and social movements. “Blood will bring color [to the world]” (khun rang laega) thus proclaimed graffiti on a wall of Qasba Colony, a strife-torn locality of Karachi (Pakistan), after a deadly bout of ethnic confrontation between its Urdu-speaking and Pashtun residents during the summer of 2011.2

2It is this morally loaded bloodscape that Jacob Copeman and Dwaipayan Banerjee set out to explore in an eclectic and theoretically sophisticated book, which not only sheds light on the cultural significations and political economy of blood in contemporary India, but also revamps the anthropology of the gift and theories of bio-power more generally.

3Like other bodily fluids (semen in particular; see Alter 1994, 1997), blood has long been a substance of political importance in India. As an index of violence but also as a proof of commitment, its spillage has been serving various claims, acts of contestation, and pledges of allegiance. Drawing on substance-based practices of truth, this “sanguinary politics” (Banerjee 2013) found its most elaborate expression in Gandhi’s “political imagination of blood” (Copeman and Banerjee 2019:62), where bloodshed exposed the violence and iniquity of colonial rule, attested to the commitment of true satyagrahis to ahimsa, and carried the promise of an inclusive polity through consanguinity. With the fading away of secularism and the rise to power of the proponents of Hindutva over the past decades, this politics of blood has come to serve less inclusive political projects. This is exemplified by the art of retired schoolteacher, amateur painter and self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist Ravi Chander Gupta discussed by Copeman and Banerjee in the second chapter of the book. Painted with his own blood, Gupta’s portraits of freedom fighters were exposed at Delhi’s Red Fort from October 2009 to the spring of the following year. Here, blood appears less as an artistic device than as a political tool indicting “weak” Gandhian nationalism while calling for emulation by depicting “models of and models for sacrificial bleeding” (p. 77). Further elaborating from this fascinating case-study, the two authors insist on the centrality of blood in the political imagination of Hindu nationalists, where this biomoral substance essentially serves to “assert the rights of a Hindu majority” (p. 80).

4These contests over the political signification of blood and its spillage permeate the book. Hematology, here, does not refer so much to the medical study of blood disorders as to the investigation of a “political style” encompassing a form of political enunciation through blood and the myriad contestations about blood and its use. To observe these “political blood flows” (p. 3) and to unearth the rich imaginary that informs them while transcending them, Copeman and Banerjee visit hospitals, blood banks, protest sites and political rallies. The structure of the book reflects this thematic diversity. After a rather dense introductory chapter, the second chapter follows the changing political significations of blood from Gandhian to Hindu nationalism. The third chapter explores various uses of blood for political and moral claims among contemporary devotional, social and political movements. The three following chapters shift the focus of the investigation to the circuits of blood donation and transfusion. The concluding chapter further elaborates the various theoretical claims made across the book, particularly in relation to the various temporalities of Indian bloodscapes.

5The authors’ ethnographic versatility might have a dizzying effect, especially for readers less familiar with their previous work. While building upon original fieldwork in blood donation camps and various protest sites across the country, from Delhi to Bhopal and Chennai, Hematologies is heavily indebted to the more detailed ethnographies of the two authors on blood donation (Copeman 2008) and cancer care (Banerjee 2020) in India today. Jacob Copeman’s masterful exploration of blood donations in contemporary Indian devotional movements, in particular, empirically and theoretically informs the present book. The authors’ insistence on considering blood as a vehicle for “aspirational technoscientific futures” (p. 6), as much as a biomoral substance rejuvenating older political vocabularies, is in direct continuity with this groundbreaking study.

6While Hematologies may not have the same ethnographic depth as these earlier works, it is brimming with theoretical insights. In line with Alter’s and Banerjee’s own remarks about the “truth-force” of bodily fluids (Banerjee 2013:240), it elaborates the revealing power of excorporated blood in a world of false pretenses. Taking forward Copeman’s argument from his previous book, it also rejuvenates the anthropology of the gift by showing how blood donations operate at the intersection of various vernacular categories of sacrifice (dan) and pristine service (seva). Whether they take place in the camps set up by political parties or in the more sanitized compounds of private clinics, these donations carry an aspiration for the sublime transcending of petty politics. And yet, these supposedly disinterested acts are often suspected of being driven by secret agendas and tainted by vested interests, while the specter of the fake looms large over these performances. Along with others, Copeman has been an important contributor to the emergent anthropology of fakes (Copeman and da Col 2018), which shows how the tropes of deception and betrayal saturate contemporary times (Appadurai 1998; Bubandt 2009; Gayer and Kirmani 2020). This economy of suspicion runs at full throttle in the public controversies surrounding the blood donation camps organized by political parties, where it is never entirely clear whether blood is actually given or not and, if so, voluntarily or under duress. The suspicions of coercion and predation falling on these camps then reactivate the motif of politicians “sucking the blood” of the people. Blood donations in health care settings are prone to a distinct form of suspicion and “productive confusion” (p. 176). Here, the religiously loaded concept of sacrifice serves to conceal the extraction of economic surplus. When patients come to donate blood for their relatives, most of them are unaware that, thanks to component separation technologies, a single donation will allow three transfusable units to enter the market. In line with David Harvey’s indictment of the predatory streak of contemporary capitalism (Harvey 2005), the two authors describe this concealment of business logics through the language of sacrifice as a form of “accumulation through unconscious dispossession” (p. 175). They are careful, though, not to push this line of argument too far. As Banerjee has shown in his comments on Copeman’s earlier work, the emphasis on coercion, in these forms of biological exchange, always falls a bit short. Without concealing the violence infusing the extraction of such biomoral substance, the two authors thus continue to take seriously “the ethical self-fashioning of donors and how practices of biological giving reveal not just structural constraint, but intensively creative ideational work within which conceptions of a modern Indian personhood are in formation” (Banerjee 2011:489).

7While rejuvenating the anthropology of the gift, Hematologies also makes an important contribution to theories of biopower. Drawing inspiration from Ann Stoler’s attentive reading of Michel Foucault (Stoler 2016), it challenges the idea of a clear-cut transition from blood-soaked sovereign power to biopolitical impulses. The “re-animations” and “conversions” of past political metaphors drenched in blood show that “hemo-politics” proceeds through “co-temporalities and temporal overlays” (p. 19). This “heterochrony of blood” (p. 20–22) cautions us against the temptation to establish clean breaks between pre-modern bloodshed and a supposedly more sanitized present. As an “older” sort of biological material, connecting seemingly disjoint temporalities and political imaginations, blood may well be the perfect antidote to the techno-fetishism infusing both celebratory and catastrophist accounts of bio-engineered futures.

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Alter, Joseph. 1994. “Celibacy, Sexuality and the Transformation of Gender into Nationalism in North India.” The Journal of Asian Studies 53(1):45–66.

Alter, Joseph. 1997. “Seminal Truth: A Modern Science of Male Celibacy in North India.” Medical Anthropological Quarterly 11(3):275–98.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1998. “Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization.” Public Culture 10(2):225–47.

Banerjee, Dwaipayan. 2011. “No Biosociality in India.” BioSocieties 6(4):487–500.

Banerjee, Dwaipayan. 2013. “Writing the Disaster: Substance Activism after Bhopal.” Contemporary South Asia 21(3):230–42.

Banerjee, Dwaipayan. 2020. Enduring Cancer: Life, Death and Diagnosis in Delhi. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bubandt, Nils. 2009. “From the Enemy’s Point of View: Violence, Empathy, and the Ethnography of Fakes.” Cultural Anthropology 24(3):553–88.

Copeman, Jacob. 2008. Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Copeman, Jacob, and Giovanni da Col, eds. Fake: Anthropological Keywords. Chicago: HAU Books.

Gayer, Laurent, and Nida Kirmani. 2020. “‘What You See Is What You Get’: Local Journalism and the Search for Truth in Lyari, Karachi.” Modern Asian Studies 54(5):1483–525.

Harvey, David. 2004. “Accumulation by Dispossession.” Socialist Register 40:63–87.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham: Duke University Press.

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1 All the quotes in vernacular languages are in Hindi/Urdu.

2 Personal observation, Karachi, August 2011.

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Electronic reference

Laurent Gayer, Jacob Copeman and Dwaipayan Banerjee. 2019. Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 29 | 2022, Online since 07 December 2022, connection on 24 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Laurent Gayer

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