Epidemics in South Asia — V: The Plague

While opposition to the plague measures dissipated among the people the deadly disease continued to wreak havoc in the Punjab, and the rest of India

Just like the coronavirus today, fear, panic and rumours were the most distinctive features of public reaction during the plague in South Asia. With no religious or local recourse for the disease, and with government measures being stringent, there was a strong reaction from the people, making its containment, let alone cure, even more complicated.

In the case of Bombay, the first major city where the plague hit, one of the most immediate reactions of the residents was to flee the city. Out of nearly 850,000 residents of the city, around 380,000 left during October 1896 and February 1897. In Calcutta too, a quarter of the city’s population fled, leading to a standstill of commercial and other activities in the city and its surroundings. David Arnold notes that ironically the “flight was precipitated more by the onset of plague operations than by the advent of the epidemic itself.”

One main reason why there was such a strong public reaction against plague control measures was that it was seen as an ‘assault on the body.’ As David Arnold argues, in trying to contain and cure the plague, for the British, “the body was treated as a secular object, almost as state property, not as sacred territory; as an individual entity, not as an integral part of a wider community. The body, moreover, was exposed not just to the ‘gaze’ of the Western medical practitioner but also to his physical touch.” Thus, Arnold concludes that the people reacted strongly to such measures as they were seen as “an intrusion of the greatest concern to a society in which touch connoted possession or pollution.”

Local newspapers were at first critical of the government for not taking enough measures to prevent the spread of the plague. But as soon as the government sprang into action the focus of criticism shifted to the preventive actions. For example, a Calcutta newspaper opined that a “law more dangerous and drastic as the Plague Act was never before enacted in the country.” On the other side of India, a newspaper of the Bombay presidency lamented that the plague measures had “interfered so largely and in such a systematic way with the domestic, social and religious habits of the people.” Other newspapers complained of segregation, removal of the sick to hospital, quarantines etc, as “…revolting to the mind of the Native community.”

For caste Hindus, the idea of going to a hospital and mingling with outcastes was abhorrent. A Bombay newspaper reported that a Brahmin had to live on milk for weeks since the person serving him was a Shudra. There were numerous reports of “caste violation” in the hospitals, and upper castes refusing to be even near any other caste. Some people saw the plague as divinely ordained and refused to go to the hospital in any case. As noted by Arnold, one Muslim refused to go to the hospital in Bombay claiming that “our Musjid is our hospital.”

The rising opposition to the plague measures was such that the chairman of the Calcutta Corporation wrote to the authorities warning that “people would prefer to die of the plague rather than consent or submit to the removal of their mothers, wives, daughters or sisters to hospital.” In a number of cases infected people were physically prevented from being taken by the authorities to hospital, as in a case in March 1898, when in Bombay the authorities were prevented from taking to hospital a twelve-year-old girl infected with plague. In the ensuing scuffle, the accompanying magistrate was injured, and the hospital and some other buildings were attacked and set on fire. Public reaction went overboard in Poona where the Plague Commissioner, WC Rand was assassinated on June 22, 1897, for trying to enforce plague prevention measures.

People also reacted to the mandatory inspection of corpses. Many simply hid the corpses (as they did with patients) while others literally fought government attempts at an autopsy. For example, the insistence of a government doctor to inspect the body of a deceased woman in Calcutta in October 1896 caused great uproar and a local newspaper charge that “if this is not highhandedness, nothing is.”

As a reaction to the plague measures, several types of rumours also began spreading, causing more panic—and more importantly, distrust of the government, which led to further reaction from the government. One set of rumours claimed that the government was trying to destroy caste and interfere in the religious observances of the people. There was also speculation that this was an attempt by the government to convert people to Christianity. Another focus of rumours was that the government was trying to poison people under the garb of treatment. One Poona newspaper commented: “In some villages the people have come to think that the sarkar (government), finding its subjects unmanageable, is devising means to reduce their number. They say that it mixes poison in opium.” In Lahore, the major rumour was that the government was using the plague as an excuse for killing people.

Extraction of momiai—oil or balm, was also rumoured to be a reason why the British were hospitalising people, and the cause for deaths therein. It was rumoured that people were taken to the hospital, killed, and then cut up to take out this momiai for the benefit of the British. A number of people refused to enter hospitals for this reason.

A Poona newspaper noted that people thought that hospitals were “…slaughter-houses for the benefit of human vivisectionists.” In Bombay, mill workers claimed that hospitals were “the very incarnation of the Devil.” Another rumour in the metropolis claimed that: “officials were seizing men and boys with the intention of hanging them head downwards over a slow fire and preparing a medicine drawn from the head.”

In the Ambala district of the Punjab there was a strong rumour against inoculation. It noted that the needle for the inoculation, “…was a yard long; you died immediately after the operation; you survived the operation six months and then collapsed; men lost their virility and women became sterile…”

Some rumours, however, went beyond the body, and the immediate surroundings of the person. Some claimed that the plague heralded the end of the British in India, or that the end times were near. A Calcutta rumour was that the viceroy had made a pact with a yogi in the Himalayas to sacrifice two hundred thousand bodies to the goddess Kali and that the plague was all part of that plan. A rumour prevalent in northern India insinuated that the plague was deliberately brought by the British to prevent a Russian attack.

The Government of India got very concerned about these rumours, especially since they not only prevented people from getting examined and the plague coming under control, they were causing serious law and order issues, with several attacks on government buildings and some deaths. An 1898 report of the Government of India noted: “In India the customs and prejudices of the people offer a more or less important obstacle to the adoption of the measures which have been found best adapted to check the disease.”

In order to contain the disease, the government had to devise means to overcome the opposition of the people. Already, the sanitary commissioner had noted that “experience is beginning to show that, what is medically desirable may be practically impossible, and politically dangerous.”

Thus, slowly, the Government of India, and the provinces, began to ease their plague control measures. For example, in the Punjab a resolution of the provincial government ended all compulsory measures in 1903. The sanitation report noted: “…the element of compulsion has almost entirely been eliminated, and while the Government has recognised and provided for the obligation of rendering assistance to the inhabitants of plague-stricken towns and villages it has left the choice of adopting or neglecting precautionary measures almost entirely to the people themselves.” Therefore, from 1903 onwards only the reporting of the plague remained compulsory, while almost everything else was left to the people to decide. Inoculation and disinfection were freely and widely available through the government but there was no longer any requirement to get any of it done.

Within a year of the easing of the plague measures the government noticed that none of the exhortations worked, but that opposition to the government had subsided. The sanitary report from 1904 for the Punjab noted: “The people remained on the whole apathetic in their attitude to the precautions advocated by the Government. Comparatively few presented themselves for inoculation; the isolation of the sick and the separation of contacts was seldom resorted to, and the inhabitants of uninfected villages in very few cases exercised their right to exclude people coming from infected centres.” The easement of the rules led to a near complete disregard for them as many people decided that “…that it was no use fighting against fate (qismat), and that nothing but the will of God could remove the disease from among them.”

By 1905, it was seen that even though the plague remained in the province (and the country), the disease was becoming “less proactive of panic, which is one of the chief causes of the dissemination of the disease.” However, despite persistent government efforts it seemed that the people were not following safety precarious. In the year 1907, when the plague was particularly deadly, the sanitation report of the Punjab noted that while the people “…endured the epidemic with splendid patience and fortitude which has characterised them in the past…they have not shown any willingness to avail themselves of inoculation or to practice evacuation…” Thus, while opposition to the plague measures dissipated among the people the deadly disease continued to wreak havoc in the Punjab, and the rest of India, for decades to come.

(To be continued…)

The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

Epidemics in South Asia — V: The Plague