Indian Journal of PsychiatryIndian Journal of Psychiatry
Home | About us | Current Issue | Archives | Ahead of Print | Submission | Instructions | Subscribe | Advertise | Contact | Login 
    Users online: 1014 Small font sizeDefault font sizeIncrease font size Print this article Email this article Bookmark this page


    Advanced search

    Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
    Email Alert *
    Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)  

   End of excerpt

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded147    
    Comments [Add]    

Recommend this journal


 Table of Contents    
Year : 2014  |  Volume : 56  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 402-404
A lunatic and a murderer or Berkeley-Hill's machine-gun

1 Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, Molecular Genetics Laboratory, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Web Publication8-Dec-2014

How to cite this article:
Sarin A, Jain S. A lunatic and a murderer or Berkeley-Hill's machine-gun. Indian J Psychiatry 2014;56:402-4

How to cite this URL:
Sarin A, Jain S. A lunatic and a murderer or Berkeley-Hill's machine-gun. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2014 [cited 2022 Dec 9];56:402-4. Available from:

As an introduction to the section "From the Archives," we present an excerpt from Owen Berkeley-Hill's book "All Too Human: An Unconventional Autobiography", [1] an interesting early account of attempts towards the rehabilitation of those with mental illness. The excerpt reproduced here speaks for itself.

We would here like to acknowledge the generosity of two people. One is Dr. S. Haque Nizamie from the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi, in sharing with us a copy of this book, which has sadly been out of print for many years. This was, in many ways, appropriate, as the Central Institute of Psychiatry is the present avatar of the European Mental Hospital in Kanke, Ranchi, which Colonel Berkeley-Hill writes about. The other is the historian Ramachandra Guha, who located a copy of the book in an antiquarian book shop many years ago, and kindly presented it to one of the authors of this piece.

   Excerpt Top

The essence of psychiatry is contained in two lines of Shakespeare:
"Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,

Charm ache with air and agony with words."

In 1920, owing to so-called "political unrest," those who considered themselves responsible for the maintenance of peace and goodwill in Ranchi got somewhat rattled. Measures - of sorts - were not only discussed but in part actually taken to save British lives from mob fury. The Ranchi European Mental Hospital was provided with a machine-gun. I am doubtful about the provision of any ammunition for it; probably this was overlooked. Anyhow, I was tickled to death by the present and began to look around for an operator for the gun. It just happened that at that particular time I had a soldier patient who had in a moment of mental abstraction shot dead a comrade. That he had displayed numerous symptoms of being off his head before the occurrence of this unfortunate episode had escaped the notice those officers of the R.A.M.C. in whose particular charge lay his well-being. But let that pass. He was the most attractive young man and fully contrite for the crime he had quite inadvertently committed. He had a wonderful war record and possessed the Military Medal (Authors note: This was one of the 77 medals awarded to the regiment in the First World War for service in France and Flanders [2] ).

Among other things, he was an expert machine-gunner. I appointed M. to the post of Officer Commanding machine-gun. Shortly afterwards the General Officer Commanding, Presidency and Assam Brigade, came to Ranchi and paid the hospital a special visit. He was particularly anxious to ascertain on what sort of terms we were with the machine-gun, which had been issued to the hospital particularly because it was an unusually good one. I gave orders for the weapon to be assembled and produced, and the patient M. to appear and give a demonstration. In due course, the gun appeared, in prime condition because M. cherished it.
"I congratulate you, Major Berkeley-Hill," said the General, "on the excellent manner in which you keep your machine-gun. Is there any member of your staff who thoroughly understands how to manipulate it?"
"Well, sir," I replied, "I have a man here who was an expert machine-gunner in the war and to him I have entrusted the charge of the gun."
"Very right and proper, Major Berkeley-Hill. You are lucky indeed to have someone on the spot who understands a machine-gun. Is he here, for I should like to meet him?"

I called out: "M., step forward the General would like to speak to you." M., observing every recognized item of military punctilio, stepped forward and saluted.

The General cast his eyes over M., who presented, as always, the most satisfying appearance and said: "What was your unit in the War?"
"Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, sir."
"How did you come to be in this place?" enquired the General.
"I am a patient, sir."
"What, a patient?" said the General. Then turning to me, "Do I understand, Major Berkeley-Hill, that you have entrusted a machine-gun to a patient?"

I turned to M. and said: "All right, M., you can go." As soon as he was out of earshot I said to the General: "That man is a lunatic and a murderer. Could you suggest anyone more suitable to be in charge of a machine-gun?"

The General looked at me in a manner which suggested that if I was not myself a murderer I was certainly a lunatic. I countered his gaze with my best imitation of a fatuous imbecile. Without another word, he walked off and sprang into his car. Feeling assured that my next immediate role was an imitation of the "Boy on the Burning Deck," I stood to attention, holding over my head a rather battered sun-topee. It is perhaps needless to add that that very afternoon the machine-gun was taken away from us.

   End of excerpt Top

Quite apart from the obviously interesting nature of this story, what is intriguing here is the perceived need of a machine gun to "guard" the mental hospital. In the history of troubled times, this seems to be the only instance in which such a need was felt.

Why was this so?

The authors offer their thoughts:

To put this in context of the "political unrest" that precipitated the arrival of the said machine-gun (even without ammunition), 1920 saw the first of the organized labor movements and general strikes in India. Around Ranchi, the Tana Bhagat movement, which resulted in a significant peasant uprising, was linked to the 25-year-old youth Jatra Oraon of Gumla, Ranchi, who proclaimed in April 1914 that he had received a divine message from Dharmes, the God of the Oraons. Jatra Oraon was to be a king and his followers, the Tana Bhagats, were to share the kingdom. All those who did not join the movement, Jatra prophesied, would be struck dumb. Reciting what he claimed were divinely inspired Mantras (devotional verses), Jatra advocated that Oraon religion should be freed of evils like ghost-finding and exorcism, belief in Bhuts (spirits), animal sacrifice, and drinking. In 1919 Sibu Oraon, who emerged as the new leader of the Tana Bhagats, stated that he had been instructed by Bhagwan (God) to leave his home and family and wander over the world in order to reform it. The Raj (kingdom) was shortly to be restored to the Oraons. Bhagwan, Sibu claimed, would send him letters. [3]

By 1920, in Ranchi, the Tana Bhagat movement had merged with the Congress party inspired non-cooperation movement, and at the hugely attended meetings, speeches were often said to contain "passages violently anti-European in tone" that succeeded in "arousing considerable excitement amongst their hearers". [3] In conjunction, significant workers' movements had also begun, and were affecting the mining and iron industries that were now located in the areas around Ranchi. The revolutions in Europe in the recent past (the Russian revolution), and the growing political storms in India, especially at the heart of Imperial power (Calcutta and the Bengal Presidency) implied that, in response, militaristic protection of Imperial assets (and power) could possibly thus be extended all the way to the "European" Lunatic Asylum.

Berkeley-Hill, being somewhat iconoclastic, perhaps saw this as officious bumbledom, and proceeded to show up the absurdity, at the risk of appearing "a fatuous imbecile." He otherwise continued to be deeply engaged in larger issues of Indian society, taught himself many languages, including Telugu, and was often in earnest correspondence on psychoanalytic issues with Bose in Calcutta and Satyanand in Lahore, as well as being a prolific writer. This did not really matter much, as in the riots that accompanied the Quit India Movement in August 1942 that led to the deaths of hundreds of protestors in Bihar, Berkeley-Hill was targeted as a European and was "wantonly and mercilessly assaulted by a mob near Patna, but he never bore any grudge towards anyone on that account" as his obituary says. [4] He passed away in 1944, having stayed on in Tatisilwai, near Ranchi, upon retiring from service after a generally well-regarded (though, at times, ambiguously viewed) [5] career in India. His life in India thus bookended both the beginning and the end of the struggle for Independence in India, and other totems of the 20 th century like the machine-gun, the asylum, and psychoanalysis.

   Acknowledgments Top

We would like to acknowledge the advice of Sanjeev Saith, Mukul Kesavan, and Rukun Advani in helping to clarify for us various issues regarding copyright. We would also like to acknowledge the invaluable help of Ashim Mukhopadhyay at the National Library, Calcutta.

   References Top

Hill OB. All Too Human: An Unconventional Autobiography. Kingswood Surrey: Printed in Great Britain for Peter Davies at the Windmill Press; 1939.  Back to cited text no. 1
War Office Records. Available from: [Last accessed on 31 October 2014].  Back to cited text no. 2
Reading Adivasi Histories: Tana Bhagats in Colonial and Postcolonial Times; Sangeeta Dasgupta; Centre for Historical Studies. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University. Quoting Roy SC, Oraon Religion and Customs; Ranchi; 1928. p. 341. [Last accessed on 31 October 2014].  Back to cited text no. 3
Bose G. Owen Berkeley-Hill, in memoriam. Indian J Psychol 1944:145-6.  Back to cited text no. 4
Sinha VK, Sarkhel S. Owen Berkeley-Hill (1879-1944), Icons of Indian psychiatry. Indian J Psychiatry 2010;52:165-8.  Back to cited text no. 5
  Medknow Journal  

Correspondence Address:
Alok Sarin
Consultant Psychiatrist, Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: The work is supported in part by a grant from the Wellcome Trust (WT096493MA), Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0019-5545.146513

Rights and Permissions