Self-Mortification and the Stigma of Leprosy in Northern India


This article examines the biocultural dynamics of social discrimination and physical disfigurement among people with leprosy, or Hansen’s disease (HD), in Banaras, northern India. Based on the narratives and observations of people living in colony and street settings, I trace three destructive processes by which the social stigmata of leprosy become physically expressed. First, strategies of concealment further the progression and spread of HD through late detection and undertreatment. Second, the internalization of stigma can lead to bodily dissociation and injury through self-neglect. Finally, some people intentionally seek injuries under conditions of desperate poverty. As a result of such mortification processes, these people came to embody, quite literally, the prejudices that exacerbated their condition in the first place.