When will we learn our lessons from previous pandemics?

Some lessons from three epidemics of Modern India: 1896-97, 1918-20 & 2020

Image: AP Photo/National Museum of Health.

Why do we know very little about the three epidemics of modern India? Why do we avoid putting the histories of the origin, spread, human sufferings, administrative response, mis-prioritised attention of scientific research to the issue, into our syllabi? So much so that even the Masters courses in the best departments of History in our premier universities largely avoid offering courses (or topics in a course) on this particular theme. Our history textbooks barely mention these calamities, if at all, in just in few words. Even research on such themes are either inadequate, or, these have not transcended select highly micro-specialised academic spaces. Why have we not been letting such studies enter the popular, public domain?

A cursory look into some studies on this subject clearly suggest that there have been essential eerie similarities in the regrettable anti-people response of the ruling elites to all three epidemics of modern Indian history.  

What we continue to do is something we have done all along, hiding many truths from vast sections of our people, those that pertain to some specific issue of human miseries. Just as other exclusions and silences, the politics of the dominant plays a specific role even in determining contents and priorities of education, curricula, syllabi, etc.

It is a select section of people who undertake global travels for their respective professions (traders, high ranking officers and defence personnel) who ‘import’ such infectious diseases and spread these into India. This is exactly what had happened in Bombay in 1896. Yet, they succeeded in spreading widespread public opinion that it was the slum dwellers of the ghettos that were the causes of the origin of the epidemic. Consequently, the concentration of policing, its surveillance and repression was among the poor and labouring classes of Bombay. Thus, this questionable and elitist politics of blaming those among marginalised sections and classes was in play in 1896-97 as well. It is the same pattern that has been manifest today, close to a century later, in 2020!  The manner in which those who work in the informal sector, on daily wages, were disallowed the choice of leaving for their homes when the lockdown was announced all of a sudden. An ultimatum of less than four hours was given to the country, a decision that particularly affected these people. Even in terms of facilities in the quarantine centres, our class based discrimination has been manifest, albeit in a bizarre manner.

Historian Mridula Ramanna’s essay (2003), “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20: The Bombay Experience”, published in an anthology is really quite an eye opener. Added to this is  another useful reference, the speech delivered by the Darbhanga Maharaj Lakshmishwar Singh, in the legislative council (Calcutta) when the bill for the Epidemic Act 1897 was being debated. Just a few months ago, historian David Arnold has also published an essay (2019) pertaining to the epidemic of 1918-20. We need to look into all these.

Whatever little reference to the 1896 epidemic we get in our books, tells us very little about human sufferings. What we study and teach our undergraduate students skips the narrative of widespread human misery. Dealing with this period we shift easily to the Chapekar brothers, who went on to kill two British officers, Rand and Ayerst. During the trial, it was then alleged that the speeches and writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak had provided the incitement or provocation to them to kill the officers. Subsequently, section 124 A of the notorious Sedition Act 1870 was invoked against Tilak to penalise him. With this reference, our textbooks go on to describe the violent, extremist and right wing majoritarian shift in one of the trends of anti-colonial nationalism. This is arguably another version of popular jingoism that succeeds in excluding narratives of widespread human miseries experienced by thousands of Indians caused by the 1896 epimedic.

Arguably, the fashioning of different variants of nationalism also avoided discussing widespread miseries caused by these epidemics. Can any brand of nationalism really afford to avoid or ignore people’s sufferings?  This is another variety of exclusion and discrimination that our views on nationalism have been perpetrating. It has cost us heavily in the past. It also has a price being paid by large sections of Indians today.

It was in September 1896 that the first patient of plague in Bombay was detected. By February 1897, lakhs of people had out-migrated from Bombay to their respective villages and towns. At that time, this was possibly half of the Bombay population. It is said that the disease had come from Hong Kong and China. About two thousand people were dying each week in Bombay. The British administration was unnerved and had employed all its strength in containing the spread of the epidemic, particularly not letting it reach Calcutta. All in all, there are very inadequate sources or documents readily available for historians to write much about this. We cannot ascertain as to how many people actually died during their travel to homes. With historical commonsense we can however confidently conclude, and quantify that casualties were far higher than what is shown in official records.

The Epidemic Act, 1897 was more about how to prevent such epidemics in future and had little to do with how to tackle the moment. Those having access to the Darbhanga Raj Archives, tell me that the maharaj offered Rs 7000 to the Calcutta University to undertake research on finding medicine or vaccine for the disease. The follow up on this endowment fund is not known to the (presently) surviving descendants of the maharaj. One doesn’t know what does survive in the records of the Calcutta University about this? Inferring from here, do we see in 2020, any big business house coming out to offer such endowment for this purpose, except the offer made by the pharmaceutical firm, CIPLA (of Khwaja Yusuf Hamied; founded in 1935 by his father, a Gandhian, Khwaja Abdul Hamied), which is well known for producing low cost medicines?   

In 1896-97, there were complaints about Police-raids and, house-searches, and their misbehaviour against the women. These were precisely also the grievances of the Chapekar Brothers.

Ramanna tells us that on June 19, 2018, seven police sepoys were first of all found to have been infected with the Influenza in Bombay. From September 1918, it began to spread on a much wider scale. Malnourished women and children were more prone to infections and death. Gandhiji in Gujarat was infected and remained ill for a long spell. Premchand also got infected and many family members of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (1896-1961) succumbed to Inflenza-casued deaths, which he has recorded in his autobiography in Hindi.

We should keep in mind that in 1918, antibiotics had not been discovered, which treatment has a central significance in modern-day allopathy. Both David Arnold and Mridula Ramanna tell us that the British Indian administration was more concerned about counting the numbers of affected people and entering them in records, kept issuing advisories on how people should prefer living and sleeping out in the open rather than in herding together! These advisories were issued as “memorandums”. Today in 2020, we call such advisories “notification”! In the past two months (April-May 2020), the number of government notifications is close tot 4,000. If we study these notifications carefully, we find that one notification often contradicts the other. There are confusions, and clear signs of a policy paralysis. Yet, despite such situations of human miseries, the governments in Hong Kong as well as in India have shown their promptness in putting pro-democracy critics of the regime behind bars invoking the harshest possible repressive laws.

Lessons learnt? Through the course of a century, we have not changed much in terms of dealing with pandemics. This mocks the popular saying, ‘change is the only permanent thing’.

Many British officers had themselves gone off to the salubrious climate at India’s hill stations from which locations they issued racist and often contemptuous statements! These included questonable remarks on how ‘Indians living in dirty ghettos (were) making themselves prone to the disease.’ Refuge in hill stations and running away from handling the crisis seems to have been a pattern. In 1946-47, when Bihar was aflame with unprecedented communal violence, the Governor, Sir Henry Dow had also, then, run away to Shimla.

In 1918, the British government had closed cinema halls, schools, colleges for about two months in both Bombay and Karachi. They kept advising people to remain fit and healthy and to spray disinfectants. Now imagine, in the India of 1918, how many people could have afforded and could have succeeded in obtaining disinfectants!

During that time, that too very sparingly, perhaps only once, did the Times of India and a few vernacular newspapers muster the courage of subjecting the British government to criticism: to raise the demand for making disinfectants etc available for the people. Otherwise, over all, there was an absence of voices holding the regime accountable. Thus, on this count as well, republican India of 2020 is hardly different from the colonial India of 1918.

The British government too made unsubstantiated claims of releasing lakhs of rupees for the people. Evidence suggests that not much reached people. Today’s experience suggests that quite often, such packages are more to provide for administrative loot and less to ecutally enable people’s relief. A popularly held cynical belief is: what is a calamity in which the bureaucracy and politicians don’t find opportunity to loot public fund!

At the level of policy formulation, there was confusion and inconsistency, then. Two officers, Hutchinson and Turner, kept exchanging conflicting views (and making arguments) on the origin of the pandemic. In the India of 2020, too, we see that more attention has been paid to putting the blame on a particular community, India’s Muslims, already marginalised and oppressed. This politics of diverting people’s attention was at play at that time too, despite the fact that, given the level of consciousness, masses were then more prone to see it as a natural calamity rather than haul up the regime of the day on their handling of the situation.

An example: A Bijapur jailor had asked for instructions on infected inmates. He received no response. And they continued to infect more of the prisoners. The Economy was in doldrums, yet, we hardly see popularised studies on the economic impact. The central government allowed the use of traditional medicines (Ayurved and Unani), but, on the pretext of the Bombay Medical Act 1912, the provisional provincial regimes did not allow the use of medicines other than allopathy. Thus an apathy was perpetuated. Only the caste and community based volunteer organizations were able to provide some relief to the affected populations.

Yet, even after a century and more, we have not been able to learn a lesson and evolve a robust public health system. In the India of today, we have seen that those states like Kerala, having a better public health system, have been able to deal with the crisis in a better way.

Chomsky and Harari, in their recent columns and essays on the pandemic, have explained that scientific research in recent decades has been concentrated on the medicines for cardiac diseases, on lung and liver ailments and on cancer, in which the pharma capital lobbies minted millions. The cost of production of such medicines is low, the cost passed on to patients very high.  The manufacture of both the stent (and angioplasty) is one such pro elite mega scam in the health sector.  In contrast, as Chomsky and others argue, research on vaccines for epidemics just do not get the requisite funds of reserach attention.The politics and priority of medical research should be the subject matter of Indian political and policy debate! Questions need to be asked. Why are vaccines for afflictions like polio and epidemics the sole responsibilities of governments and of the WHO-UNO, whereas private capital extracts money from people only on other medicines?Do we not need to launch a huge mass awareness and mobilisation on these horrific anomalies?

During the 1918-20 pandemic, the repressive Rowlatt Act (1918) was enacyed and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919) was perpetrated. Just as in 2020, the Delhi communal violence and arrests of pro-democracy students, activists, intellectuals are underway. Shall we continue to remain immersed in the politics of hatred? Or shall we togethert launch a mass movement demanding better public health?

Neglect by Litterateurs 

Besides our historians and economists, our litterateurs have also paid little attention to pandemic and human miseries. Rajinder Singh Bedi (1915-1984) was a towering Urdu story writer; widely read and well-received within Bollywood as well. His Urdu story “Quarantine”, remained least read. So was the attendant negligence of literary critics. Even in the life-writings and reportage of such perosnalities, we hardly see references of such accounts. Even in the developed world, we hardly get much of such accounts, except the novel, “Plague” (1945) of Camus. Has this novel got enough of attention?

John M Barry’s book (2006), The Great Influenza, is an eye opener. A reading tells us that the book is based more on oral accounts as very little wriiten documentation is available. It is clear also that the Americans, dominant in world politics by then, preferred to hide and downplay the pandemic of 1918-20. The facts were revealed by Spain, hence the name, Spanish Flu, whereas it had acutually originated from within the barracks of the US navy at Kansas. Barry says that sharing the truth about the pandemic is the first prerequisite before tackling or handling it. The second prerequisite is for those in power to obtain confidence and trust of the people. He says,

 “The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that …those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best a leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart”     

Amit Kapur’s book, Riding the Tiger, cursorily refers to the economic depression after 1918. Inflation had skyrocketed and GDP was down to a negative 11%. Thus, even economists have not made such studies and assessments as popular as they should.  Just as the incumbent regime in 2020 did not consult the state governments while issuing diktats of the first lockdown, the colonial regime in 1896 had not consulted the Calcutta Municipality. The Darbhanga Maharaj had protested against this call. He had also warned the regime that administrative high handedness will be counterproductive.

We don’t seem to have learnt lessons from history.

David Arnold’s essay (2019), “Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India” reveals that no other country in the world suffered as many deaths as did India in 1918-20. Government documents, newspapers, memoirs, correspondences, and even obituaries of the day, don’t record much about inflation, food scarcity, and famine like situation. Arnold says that more than the epidemic death, people were concerned about hunger, whereas, the regime was attempting more to put the blame on sections of population. Thus, Arnold concludes, the epidemic of 1918 remains almost as a forgotten one. 

The kind of anti-intellectual ambience that has been created in recent years has contributed to the present malaise. Our historians, economists, health scientists, journalists need to pay attention to such dimensions of history –human miseries– so that intellectuals are able to regain people’s trust. This trust-deficit seems to have pushed the sections of today’s popular news media Rightward. More worrisome than that, even the judiciary also appears to be slipping.

Saumya Saxena in her essay (2018) warns us about this: “This therefore cannot be written off simply as an unholy alliance between political parties and courts, or a compromise on the separation of powers because the concern here is not with judicial overreach or compromise, but the slippery slope that the Hindutva judgments enabled of campaigning through courts”. Saxena says this even without taking into account certain alarming judicial verdicts on many crucial issues subsequent to 2018. The judiciary seems to be ignoring what the Supreme Court noted in the State of Madras vs V G Row (1952) that the judiciary has to play the role of “a sentinel on the qui vive”—an eternally vigilant institution.     

We have to wake up, learning from the history of the three epidemics of modern India.

(The author teaches at Centre of Advanced Study –CA-) in History, AMU, Aligarh, India)



1. Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours, Routledge (Taylor Francis), London/Delhi, 2014/2018 (Reprint).

2. Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857. Primus (Ratnasagar), Delhi, 2014.



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