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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 24, New Delhi, May 30, 2020

Coronavirus from Wuhan in 2019 Reminds catastrophe plague from Manchuria in 1896 wrought in India

Lessons of history

Saturday 30 May 2020


by Dr. Atulkrishna Biswas

Part-I Widespread plague havoc across India

 Bubonic plague, travelling from Manchuria, China, broke out in Bombay in 1896. The first case was detected at Mandvi in September. By 1917 plague deaths aggregated at 98,41,396 out of total population 31,51,56,396 returned in 1911 census. 1 The deaths represented 3.12% of subcontinental population in little over two decades! Bombay Presidency, the Punjab and United Provinces (now U. P.) together accounted for 73,22,345 of the deaths of 98,41,396 black deaths. Three regions represented the darkest spots, accounting for 74.4% of the subcontinent’s plague deaths---Punjab, 29%; and United Provinces, 23%; and the Bombay Presidency, 22%. In terms of population (basis 1911 census), Punjab lost 11.8%, Bombay Presidency, 8.33% and United Provinces 4.66%. 2 The plague invaded Poona from Bombay and then spread literally like wildfire to almost every nook and corner of India. Save and except few provinces, every part of India came under its clasp between 1897 to 1898 with no parallel in history.

Two events---one, a grim tragedy and the other, a humanitarian episode involving a good Samaritan during ravages of plague stand out prominently in the history of plague. The second escaped limelight.

Good Samaritans in plague ravaged East Bengal villages!

After the year 1897-98 closed, there was a sporadic outbreak of plague of plague in Calcutta. 3 In August 1898, the disease travelled with rats from Bombay borne in   merchants ships and hit the Capital of British Empire. The outbreak sparked off    exodus of panicked people to their native places afar. Perhaps the first case of        plague in rural East Bengal occurred in ill-fated Siddhakati, a village which          incidentally figured in debates of Bengal Legislative Council in December 1898.     Enquiries were conducted into the outbreak and found that “the infection was imported from Calcutta by Girija Prasanna Roy, who, with members of his family and a servant left Calcutta on the 30th August and reached Siddhakati next day. The Council’s proceedings disclosed that “a small but virulent outbreak of plague occurred” in the village Siddhakati and adjoining Ahoynil under Nalchiti thana in September (1898) and that in all 11 persons were attacked by the disease, and all of whom died between the 4th and 23rd September.” 4 A zamindar of Siddhakati, Girija Prasanna Roy was a pleader of Calcutta High Court. The accursed villages thus became the theatre where a unique humanitarian episode played out beyond  imagination of the dominant section in Poona (to be discussed later). Two high     officials---District Magistrate, Beatson-Bell and Commissioner, Dacca [Dhaka]       Division, H. Savage--- warmed the heart of the villagers by their unconventional    gesture, which Surendranath Banerjea described as “self- denying.”

 The Government also clarified that the residents themselves arranged to burn down their huts in which cases occurred and also spontaneously established a system of isolating the families of patients. Reportedly, they were greatly alarmed at the outbreak of plague, but they acted in a very reasonable spirit, cooperating with the district authorities in their effort to check the disease in an emergency totally unknown to them. 5

In the Legislative Council, Bengal Government admitted that Beatson-Bell, the [District] Magistrate showed “the greatest courage, promptitude, and judgment in dealing with the outbreak.” The statement continued that the Magistrate and also the Commissioner, Mr. Savage, “assisted in removing and cremating the bodies of the dead, when their relations had deserted them through fear or were unable to dispose of them unaided.” 6

A Member of the Council, Banerjea wanted the government to recognize publicly the glowing services of these two dutiful--- but above all, conscientious---officers rendered towards the rustic people in far off villages. Fortunately, no bogey that Hindu religion, rituals and culture in danger was raised in East Bengal for what the two British did in line of their duties in an hour of grave emergency. The rituals for cremation for Hindu son are performed in conformity to scriptural ordinance.

Poona Plague Commissioner’s assassination:

A striking contrast to Barisal episode

The Government of India passed the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 1897 “for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases.” The Act received assent of the Governor General in Council on February 4, 1897. 7 Walter Charles Rand, a young and energetic ICS officer was appointed Assistant Collector, with charge of operations against plague. He assumed charge on February 19, 1897. His first (and sadly, only) official report on plague left for posterity, shows that “Poona had become a very dangerous plague centre.” His detailed plan of action included campaign, military search, disinfection and segregation, conservancy, segregation camps, inspection of incomers and out-goers, inoculation, troop deployment, etc. 8 which were integral for combating the menace. For augmenting infrastructural facilities to meet the fast-growing danger, community plague hospitals, on encouragement and/or patronage of the authorities, by Hindus, Mohammadan & Parsis were established in Poona. 9

Within four months of Charles Rand’s joining, in a dastardly attack launched on him on June 22, 1897 at midnight his companion Lieutenant Ayerst died on the spot. Plague Commissioner Rand succumbed to his injuries 11 days later on July 3.

 The assailants Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev---known as Chaupekar brothers involved in the crime, were hanged. Khand Vishnu Sathe, a juvenile, was awarded rigorous imprisonment for 10 years. 10

Malicious propaganda over Poona plague acquired a deafening pitch, leading Gopal Krishna Gokhale, then in England, to tell in an interview to The Manchester Guardian, July 2, 1897 that the British soldiers “ignorant of the language and contemptuous of the customs, the sentiments and the religious susceptibilities of the people”, were ‘let loose’ upon the town; they had wantonly destroyed property, appropriated jewelries, burnt furniture, entered kitchens and places of worship, contaminated food, spat upon idols or broke them by throwing on the ground, and dragged women into the streets for inspection before removal to hospitals.” Two of the women thus humiliated, “one of whom is said afterwards to have committed suicide rather than survive her shame. 11

Gokhale’s explosive press statement inflamed the public passion in England. The Government conducted an enquiry into the allegations, which were found baseless. Lord Sandhurst, Governor of Bombay Presidency termed it as “malevolent invention.” The House of Commons was informed accordingly and Gokhale, thereby, stood publicly disgraced. His letter of August 1, 1897 of apology the Governor, Bombay Presidency he stated,

“I once more tender my unqualified apology to all, to His Excellency the Governor, to the Members of the Plague Committee, and to the soldiers engaged in Plague operations.” 12

However, Bal Gangadhar Tilak taunted him by saying that “they will not find in me a kutcha reed as they did in Prof. Gokhale.” 13 Strange, he, who was esteemed for his stubborn character but hated same qualities in others. His failure to influence the plague administration to bring to his own sway, he launched malicious attack against the plague administrators. Under the garb of cultural offensive, the Poona press declared aloud that “if an Englishman’s house is his castle, a Brahman’s house is his temple.” The young Tommy who stepped in on in with his shoes on his room reserved for his worship or for eating did not know that he had “committed a sacrilege.” 14

A wise man tolerates the cow that gives milk, even if she kick him.

A glimpse of the curse plague brought on India

A brief survey of the ravages savage plague inflicted on India is chilling and instructive. Table-1 illustrates plague mortality.

Table-1 15

Showing plague deaths between 1896 and 1917 by administrative regions

Though far away from ground zero Bombay, the Punjab and United         Provinces in [Table-1], occupied the epicentre of plague devastation. Assam,        blissfully, acquitted itself with a solitary plague death in 1914 though the whole     country was battered brutally. The native State of Jammu & Kashmir reported 278 plague deaths in 1914 whereas Coorg reported 10 deaths in the same year. According to the authorities, “the vast majority of plague deaths occurred in Bihar, for      Chota Nagpur and Orissa have been almost immune from the scourge.” 16

Punjab had no parallel. “The total loss from plague amounted to 2,025,220 in British Territory, 238,857 in the Native 34,338 States, or 2,264,077 deaths in all, during the whole decade.” 17 The Census of Punjab underlined the “abnormal        excess” in the female plague mortality. 18

 During the period under review, Punjab suffered @ 620 plague death on    average per day. In 22 years, the province lost 28,62,852 out of 2,41,87,750, at      11.8% of population (basis 1911 census). Identical misfortune visited no other      province in India. Of 27,084,317 population returned by census of Bombay          Presidency in 1911, plague deaths at 2,257,682, accounting for 8.3% its population. In contrast, plague was less savage for Bombay Presidency.

In ‘Plague’ (1916), Thomas Wright Jackson noted that number of deaths from       plague in India during the first six months totalled 604,634---most prevalent being (1) United Provinces, 281,317; (2) Punjab, 171,084; (3) Bengal, 58,515; (4) Bombay Presidency, 28,109. 19 The death toll in Bengal was initially larger than that in       Bombay Presidency. The fewer number of deaths in Bombay than Bengal testifies to the efficacy of preventive measures under the leadership of Charles Rand, who by  then, we have noted, was brought down by his assassins. Since the first week of    April 1897 plague began  to die down and by May it disappeared from Poona. 20 The murders of Rand did not note the welcome development. Before two months of    Rand’s duties completed (from February 19 to April first week) as Plague            Commissioner, the disease had “disappeared from Poona” which nonetheless invited fatal attack on him. This presupposes that there was organized build-up against    Rand before his joining for plague duties.

East Bengal (now Bangladesh) plague free

The views of medical experts, which, on the subject suggest that the nature was magnanimous to Bengal in protecting her against the plague ravages, are simply surprising. According to them, “epidemics of plague have been conspicuous by their absence in nearly all parts of Bengal...” though Calcutta witnessed considerable mortality. Notwithstanding constant influx of labourers coming from infected areas to seek employment in the fields, or on the railways, or in the mills and factories, “immunity of Bengal is remarkable.” 21

The Editor of the Indian Medical Gazette offered a favourable account of the neatness and tidiness of the houses of Eastern Bengalis as compared with those of the inhabitants of other parts of India, and “while these habits of tidiness help to keep away the rats, the construction of the houses does even more.” The country-tiled roofs, which are so infested with rat’s up-country, are not seen in Eastern Bengal. In fact, the rat is a domestic animal in the thick mud-walled houses necessary to protect against heat and cold in Upper India, while in Eastern Bengal he finds but few places to live in and, in fact, is not a domestic animal." 22 This implies that rat was a domestic animal elsewhere.

By the way, be it noted, Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) enjoyed definite advantage in “geographical distribution of leprosy. The lower delta, included in Central and East Bengal, which has a humid climate and a soil composed mainly of recent alluvium, is most immune.” 23 Eastern Bengal had escaped blissfully the ravages only of not plague but of leprosy also.

Virulent misinformation in Poona

Though magnanimous to bless the plague as ‘merciful’, Lokmanya Bal     Gangadhar Tilak, was endowed with venom against those were engaged in fighting the catastrophe. According to him,

Plague is more merciful to us than its human prototypes now reigning in the city. The tyranny of the Plague Committee and its chosen instruments is yet too brutal to allow respectable people to breathe at ease. 24

This was perhaps the vilest rumourmongering ever attempted about plague operations by a responsible political leader. Plague merciful? Table-1 above shows how plague was a curse for the people of Indian subcontinent which never ever had experienced before any as devastating as this.

All-pervasive rumourmongering around plague operations in Poona can be cited from contemporary journals. A few may be helpful to understand the prevailing environment in the city. The Tommies on plague duty during house search operations allegedly indulged in “mild pleasantry” by “lifting a flower from the idol and throwing it at a trembling Brahman maiden.” 25 Such rumour was potentially powerful to provoke and trigger popular indignation and hatred. Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s own journal Sudharak wrote: -

Fie upon you! Your mothers, your sisters, your wives are outraged and still you are calm! Even the animals would not be so tolerant and passive. Are you so impotent! The most unbearable thing that is shattering the innermost recesses of the heart is not the oppression of the soldiers so much, as your cowardice and your impotence. 26

Further insinuation therein may be noted: -

Till now they were committing thefts, but now they are laying hands on your women! In spite of this your blood is not boiling? What a shame! It must be admitted that we will not find cowards like Indians in any part of the world Are you weeping like old ladies? Can’t you teach law to these brutes? 27

The Poona Vaibhav, Modavritta, Pratod, and Dnyan Prakash, besides Sudharak joined  the cacophony and provoked anti-plague sentiments in Poona, inviting attention of the colonial masters. 28 Strange harmony of sorts in their tone and tenor.

Tilak seems to be the pioneer in anti-Rand campaign with announcement of his     appointment as Plague Commissioner. He wrote in his journal that appointment of such an officer in Poona was perhaps a significant indication of the determination  of Government to show no mercy and no hesitation in enforcing the preventive and remedial measures. Rand was known to be a thoroughly firm and determined        official who doggedly adhered to his orders irrespective of public opinion. 29 Tilak’s aversion against the Plague Commissioner found place in his report. "A section of  the Brahman community including some of the most influential men of the city,”   who were disinclined “to support any measures that emanated from an official       source, and were more likely than not to work against any operations that might be set on foot by the Government to deal with the emergency." 30

To substantiate this view, the authorities recorded that “Malicious rumours were set afloat and disloyal and inflammatory articles appeared in the local vernacular press.” The excitement that thus was engineered “culminated in the dual murder of Mr. Rand and Lieutenant Ayerst just at the time that the former of these officers had succeeded in subduing the epidemic.” 31

In administrative culture, precedence plays dominant role in determining approach, policy formulation and initiatives more often than not to guide any course of action with firmness of conviction. London suffered some 40 outbreaks of bubonic plagues, with a gap of 20-30 years, in 317 years between 1348—1665. The Great Plague of 1665 carried off 20%, i. e., 100,000 of Londoners. Evan Andrews observed that “at its peak in September 1665, some 8,000 people were dying each week. The wealthy—including King Charles II—fled to the countryside, leaving the poor as the plague’s main victims. “Never did so many husbands and wives die together,” a reverend named Thomas Vincent wrote, “never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave.” 32 

It was only natural that historical experience and knowledge of prolonged plague    administration of London in dealing the disease and devastation had influenced      formulation of their policy substantially for preventive action when the epidemic    broke out in Bombay and travelled to Poona, ultimately engulfing India in its fatal  embrace too soon.

The plague report on Poona house searches merits attention.

The attitude of the city towards the search parties was, on the whole, friendly, though people who had in their houses usually tried to conceal them. The Brahmin community was the only one whose behaviour towards the troops was generally unfriendly. In the Brahmin quarters the troops met with good deal of obstruction, which, however, stopped short of forcible resistance. 33

Composition of search parties is noticeable. Each search party “was accompanied by a native gentleman. The ladies who accompanied the search parties were, with the exception of three mission ladies who volunteered their services, paid employees of the Committee. 34

According to the Plague Commissioner, Muhammadan hospital was of immense      value owing to the confidence it has enjoyed with practically the whole of the        Muhammadan community. “The majority of the patients admitted belonged to the   poorer classes of Muhammadans.” In a striking note he stated that “a large          proportion of the patients were brought in by their relations of their own accord."35 This helped in confidence building in patients as against exasperating the Hindu   patients when they were taken to hospital by search parties in the teeth of malice propagated by their leaders and intellectual class.

 Many grievances were aired alleging wanton destruction of properties.      Plague administration in Poona had focused on this issue specifically. Official       position was that the medical officers were supplied with cash advances for the      purpose of enabling them to pay compensation on the spot for articles destroyed.   Fumigation parties were forbidden to destroy any property whatever. Limewashing parties were instructed to burn all rubbish found in the houses which they          limewashed, but were forbidden to destroy property of any value to the inmates      except under the orders of a medical officer. In order to guard against any undue destruction of property as rubbish, officers commanding limewashing divisions were ordered to visit, as far as possible, all houses which were limewashed for deciding  what was to be destroyed, and when property of any value to the owners was destroyed, to note the approximate cost of replacing what was destroyed, in order that compensation could afterwards be paid. “In practice nothing is destroyed except in the presence of a medical or military officer, and when property of any value is reported by an officer to have been destroyed, compensation is paid if the owner is a poor man.” 36

 According to The Statesman’s Year Book 1923, plague deaths in the sub-continent by 1920 were more than one crore. 37 Actual plague deaths were much larger than official estimates. The officials lamented that concealment of deaths was innate in Indian psyche. To some Tilak was “Father of Indian Freedom Struggle.” Did any of those whose near and dear ones plague had snatched away find consolation in his criticism against plague operations? Nobody from their high pulpit uttered a word of condolence, expressed grief or extended sympathy for the   families of the victims though plague carried off millions of our countrymen. It is an enigma that the critics of plague operations and the murderers of the Plague Commissioner in Poona captured the centrestage of history of freedom movement.

In 1921 India of 18,05,332 square miles area had 6,85,665 villages, with 6,51,98,389 occupied houses and total population 31,89,43,480. 38 This implied that at least one out of 32 Indians died of plague by 1920. Every village of the subcontinent had lost on average 14.5 (15 rounded up) persons. In other words, 5.5 (rounded up 6) persons per square mile were carried off by plague.

Part-II Appraisal of the plague catastrophe in India

There is little doubt that this attitude of Tilak played with fire when he portrayed    the plague as more merciful! Dance of plague touched and raged throughout the   length and breadth of India. A cryptic presentation of the catastrophe wrought by  Tilak’s ‘merciful’ plague may drive home the horror the subcontinent suffered and the prices paid over three decades.

In 1921, India with 18,05,332 square miles in area, contained 6,85,665 villages with 6,51,98,389 occupied houses. Census returned total 31,89,43,480 population. 39 This implied that at least one out of 32 Indians died of plague by 1920. Every village of the subcontinent had lost on average 14.5 (15 rounded up) persons. In other words, plague was responsible for death of 32 of 1000 Indians by 1920. In other words, 5.5 (rounded up 6) persons per square mile were carried off by plague. How merciful was plague to those villagers who fell to its ravages? Are India’s intellectual class averse to study, analyze and evaluate the grim reality involving their lives, reason and accountability of loss of millions of human lives? In his speech on the Budget 1908 in the Imperial Legislative Council, Gopal Krishna Gokhale stated that plague rages

these ravages have meant not only a frightful loss of life, with vast mental anxiety and suffering, but also heavy losses of resources to the poorer classes, whose daily life, wherever the plague rages, is disorganized from 4 to 6 months every year.” 40

 None blamed administrative deficiency, incompetence or negligence of the colonial masters for the misfortune plague brought in its train for India, urban or    rural. Was it easy to overlook, lot less forgive, the heinous crime of murderers, their        patrons and leaders of one of the members of the steel-frame of the Imperial         bureaucracy? Memories of the grave tragedy in the prime youth the ICS officer and an officer of the British army were standing factors to sap confidence, commitment, energy and dedication of his colleagues at every step and stage of plague            administration, and thwarted its critical delivery system, which might have         contributed to unabated plague mortality in consequence. Wasn’t it undeniable that adulations flowing for Tilak from nationalist leaders eroded their moral high ground and uprightness for asking any questions, lot less blaming the alien rulers for       colossal loss of lives?

No low castes welcomed in Poona Hindu Plague Hospital!

Rules of Poona Hindu Plague Hospital mandated that the hospital was “opened to all Hindus except members of the low castes.” 41 This rule did not irk, lot less shock and torment the conscience or sensibilities of leaders, historians, authors or opinion makers. Official report had noted that the hospital was “managed by a committee of Brahmins.” 42 Tilak was the leading light for establishment of the Hindu hospital. So, the founders were nonchalant in denying admission of the lower castes in the catastrophe facing the country. Who could have been a more inveterate enemy of the underclass in the circumstances?

Surprisingly nobody felt ashamed, nay, outraged against obnoxious caste-based discrimination institutionalized though millions of them were in need of treatment. Dr. Ambedkar’s observation in the Constituent Assembly some five decades’ later attested the intrinsic truth in letter and spirit, “How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? They are anti-national because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste.” 43 Did the Hindu hospital founders feel guilty for practising discrimination?

The essence of this observation can be had from Ambedkar’s comment on caste and its baneful effects. His critical study and dissection of the anatomy and pathology of caste led him to its fundamental character, which he recorded in admirable rankness and correctness which implies that a Brahmin leader’s public is his caste, Kayasth leader’s public is his caste men and so on. The Hindu Plague Hospital was meant basically to cater requirements of the caste of the founders, none else. They were accountable for none in emergency. Caste bound conscience indeed!

Trained in hostility against the low castes

Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s attitudinal hostility is reflected most nakedly in his discriminatory proclivity towards lower castes over their education. He opposed nonchalantly admission of students belonging to Mahar and Mang castes to the schools where “the upper-class children studied.” 44 He argued that the demand for the admission of Mahars to the schools was not voiced by the Mahars themselves. 45 M. M. Kunte, headmaster of New English School, Poona, on the other hand, sailing in the same boat, ridiculed those who advocated education for untouchables. In his evidence, Kunte told the Hunter Commission in 1882 that movement for education of untouchables was launched by “emotional British officers and impractical native reformers.”

Tilak’s tirade carried an indelible stamp of his originality when he said, these reformers, an insignificant minority who encouraged the Mahar boys to seek admission into government schools in their zeal for the doctrine of the equality of mankind was “causing inconvenience to the caste Hindus.” 46 Positioning himself inordinately he invoked Queen Elizabeth’s declaration with regard to abstention from “all interference with religious belief” Tilak blamed indiscreet officers, who were guilty of forcing “the association of Mahar (and Dhades) on Brahmin boys.” 47

 Last one to cite befits Tilak only when he wrote, “Teaching the "Kunbi children, reading, writing and rudiments of history, geography and mathematics" was likely to do "more harm than good to them". 48 The moot question would be: Did the lower castes, whose children were sought to be denied or opposed the benefit of education by Tilak, consider himself ever as their well-wisher at all or in any way?

Tilak applied same yardstick against admission of low caste during plague in Poona for Hindu Hospital about two decades down the line. Is this the reason why India’s enlightened class shied away from documenting the truth about plague havoc and its implications? Quite demonstrably Tilak or his fellow men did not attitudinally come out of the social frame they were comfortable with. He was anchored firmly to his own caste.

According to Dr. Ambedkar,

An educated man without character and humility was more dangerous than a beast. If his education was detrimental to the welfare of the poor, the educated man was a curse to the society. Character is more important than education. 49

No illustration or elucidation is necessary, does it?

**** ****

The Punjab Kesari, as Lala Lajpat Rai is fondly addressed by all and sundry, had emphasised “better sanitation” as a means of prevention and/or eradication of the plague. He did not elaborate what to him was “better sanitation.” A cursory look at his Report, however, leaves none in doubt that that Rand accorded highest priority to sanitation in plague administration of Poona. Anybody would be surprised how the Punjab Kesari, known for his extreme position in nation’s politics, was so uncharacteristically tame, if not gagged, in his views over plague?

Why over ten million plague deaths escaped public attention and interest?

An estimated 13,00,000 to 30,00,000 [someone even put it at 4 million] lives perished in the Bengal famine of 1943. In the holocaust between 1939 and 1945, “some 6,000,000 Jews had perished---4,000,000 in extermination camps and the remaining 2,000,000 through shooting by the Nazi Operations Units and other causes, such as disease, etc.” 50

India’s plague deaths, indicated already, were over 10,000,000, larger than the combined strength of deaths of 10,000,000 in Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Holocaust. The Nazi regime in Germany and British bureaucracy in general and Prime Minister Churchill in particular were tainted in deepest dye by historians, intellectuals and authors and leaders. Why have Indian intellectual, academic or political classes, though known for exhibiting concerns in soulful language for human rights violations anywhere under the sun, are conspicuous over a century by inexplicable silence of ten million plague deaths during the same colonial rule in India?

The question that might agitate every sensitive person is: did India’s acknowledged intelligentsia or spokespersons of the masses forfeit their right to blame the British for deaths in epidemic of plague when Indians murdered the highest plague commissioner in the line of his duty? Or did India misjudge her friend in a crisis engulfing the whole nation and applaud and place someone on high pedestal despite his unfortunate role in blessing and patronizing the assassins?

 Some suffered from misconception that house searches, which was a necessity in an emergency marked by plague epidemic, violated their privacy. So, the oversized superstitious and orthodox elements assassinated the chief of the force that guided operations against plague. By placing superstition and orthodoxy above India’s interest, the country paid the predictable terrible price which was unescapable in the given situation. They failed to separate the wheat from the chaff. The intelligentsia did not dare, sadly, to point this out of filial consideration to those who were responsible for placing higher price on chaff over wheat.

Plague mortality least amongst Chamars, sweepers and Muhammadans;

 Highest amongst high caste Hindus

— -Chief Medical Officer, Punjab, 1904

Charles Rand had documented that “of 157 patients admitted” in Poona Hindu Plague Hospital, “98 were Brahmins and 59 belonged to other castes." 51 The report is not specific about the number of deaths out of cases admitted in the said hospital. It is clear, of course, that cases of plague afflicting Brahmins were 62.42% in the first year. Tilak was uncertain about ground realities when he editorially commented in his weekly Mahratta, June 27, 1897 that “the Brahmins of Poona were not directly affected by plague operations but the other castes were.” 52 The houses visited by plague were searched in anti-plague operations. The anger against Poona plague administration had its origin in the searches of house of Brahmins. So, the aforementioned claim of Lokmanya seems misplaced.

 Plague spared none--- rich or poor, big or small, educated or illiterate. And plague, above all, was caste-blind. Maynard, Ambala Deputy Commissioner, reported to the government of Punjab in Lahore what might be a rare revelation in a critical phase. “Brahmans generally died like flies when plague got among them,” wrote the District Officer. Pinpointing the reasons, he added: “both Brahmans and Banias suffered severely because they spend so much time, nearly naked and shoeless, exposing the large surface of unprotected body.” 53

The Chief Medical Officer of Punjab Government, on the other hand, recorded that “fatality among Muhammadans was very nearly the same as among Chamars and sweepers, all being meat-eating classes.” Presenting an overview, the highest provincial medical authority underlined:

The classes that suffered most from plague—as judged by the fatality of attacks—were high caste Hindus, Brahmins, Rajputs and Khatris being included in the term, among whom the percentage of fatalities of attacks of plague was 72.27 per cent. 54

 To allay any uncertainty or ambiguity, the Chief Medical Officer took pains to explain that Muhammadans suffered lot less than all high caste Hindus taken together. Mortality of the Muhammadans was 66.33 per cent as against 64.11 per cent of the Chamars. 55 Officially stated and acknowledged that the Chamars boasted of the lowest rate of mortality in the ill-fated province unmercifully devasted by plague. The survivors of plague among Chamars were (approximately) 36%, Muslims, 34%, as against Brahmins, Rajputs and Khatris, on average 28%.

Census returned 11,38,023 Brahmins in Punjab; 12,25,267 Chamars; 4,70,081 Khatris and 18,18,331 Rajputs in 1911. 56 Did the authorities in Punjab take a potshot at the time-honoured myth of caste superiority around Aryan ancestry with highest mortality rate among the castes held to be superior vis-à-vis higher survival rates of the Chamar and Muhammadan? The bureaucratic sense of humour of the British targeting caste in an hour of tragedy may appear galling to some. By undertaking headcounts of males and females, suffering from four diseases--- insanity, deaf and mutism, blindness and leprosy by caste---the colonial masters left archives focusing glimpse of India’s delicious social life little of which we can imagine.

According to Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, “Tilak’s patriotism was a blend of political, moral and religious strands.” 57 Over ten million plague deaths touching every village across the subcontinent did not raffle any of the strands of Tilak, did it?

Did the unforeseen tragedy, at all, embarrass the Indian political and/or intellectual opinion even to urge the authorities to intensify operations against plague for suppression of the menace for protecting Indians from ravages of plague? At the drop of a hat, Indians were prone or prompt at hurling accusations of bias against the alien rulers. Plague was a rarest exception in their history for no reason. How come when plague raged through the country with harrowing results, no voices were raised against the authorities for their failures in combating and controlling the dance of death? Indian morality was exposed by championing for chaff, as already indicated.

 This was only natural. If you attack the fireman busy, risking life and security, in dousing fire on your house, do you have the moral uprightness or high ground to pillory him alleging dereliction of duty? If he is accused of negligence frivolously, he will be visible on duty but will perhaps not be performing anything. Besides, Indian leaders’ conscience was embarrassed to accuse the rulers even if they lacked earnestness in suppressing plague. And Indian intelligentsia and political leadership had perforce looked to the other way, lest the masters pointed fingers to Poona murderers to silence such cacophony. Neither the nationalists nor any prominent social leader condoled the death of Plague Commissioner Rand nor they condemned the assassins for their heinous crime. On the contrary, campaigns were launched in India and England favouring “clemency” of Tilak who was convicted for seditious articles. A memorial addressed to the British Queen sponsored, notably among others, by Sir William Hunter, Sir Richard Garth, Dadabhoy Naoroji, R. C. Dutt and Prof. Max Muller, argued that clemency for Tilak would ensure “a beneficial effect on the public mind.” 58 The prominent Indians among them did not remember the millions of plague deaths.

In course of a debate organized by Oxford University Students Union, sometime back, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament had articulated nationalist demand for payment of reparations on account of the loot and plunder colonial rulers subjected India after the Battle of Plassey. 59 Who do the hapless Indians ask for reparations for more than 10 million lives lost to plague? Certainly, British bureaucracy could not be hauled over th coals for plague deaths, though a demand for reparations of one million deaths would be highly justified.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is universally condemned for death of 3 million Bengalis in famine of 1943. There is unanimity of opinions that Churchill had starved them to death by diverting ships laden with wheat bound for Calcutta ports to Europe. And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life all he could do was write in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’ 60

This was indeed Churchill’s bad manners. In the teeth of ten million lives lost, how the murder of two important officers engaged in operations against plague to safeguard the Indians could be “a landmark in our freedom struggle?” 61

But how was it a civilized manner to bring down the kingpin of anti-plague operations which was responsible for unprecedented deluge in loss of human lives? The murders without doubts had derailed the anti-plague campaigns which facilitated spread of the diseases across the subcontinent like wildfire. Sadly, information on this is not available how much the tragedy thwarted the energetic efforts in suppression and prevention of plague.

A Press Information Bureau bulletin on April 22, 2020 underlined “the zero tolerance to any form of violence against healthcare service personnel and damage to property” in India’s official approach for fighting the frightful coronavirus confronting the nation. 62 This, it is expected, will go a long way in boosting the moral “the medical fraternity” in fighting the widespread danger with total commitment. That admirable forethoughts in creating the architecture for safety and security measures for the personnel to fight for the people in the emergency have gone into the policy formulation are abundantly clear.

What is right now could not be wrong in 1896-97. Murder of plague commissioner was a crime in 1897. It will be a heinous crime similarly, if any medical personnel engaged in fighting coronavirus is to subjected to physical harm. Churchill has been held accountable for starvation death of three million people in Bengal famine 1943. How and why are Indians academic fraternity silent if not oblivious of more than ten million plague deaths, for which nobody has been held accountable? Whose political empire was built over the graves of over one crore population? We have no answer. Probes to find an answer may end up opening a pandoras box with many uncomfortable truths. It is plain the colonial bureaucracy could not be held responsible for plague deaths of ten million Indians. And that’s why truth is shrouded in mystery only to safeguard someone’s glowing image assiduously built by the countrymen.

A former Vice-Chancellor, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, the writer Dr. A. K. Biswas is a social anthropologist and analyst.


1 Dr. Robert Bruce Low, Progress & Diffusion of Plague, Cholera and Yellow Fever throughout the World, 1914-1917, Ministry of Health, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1920, p. 8.
2 bid.
3 Bengal Under the Lieutenant Governors of Bengal, Vol. 2, by Charles Edward Buckland, ICS, S. K. Lahiri & Co., Calcutta, 1901, p. 988.
4 Bengal Legislative Debates, 1898, pp. 340.
5 Ibid., p. 341.
6 Bengal Legislative Debates, 1898, pp. .340-341.
7 The Plague in India, 1896, 1897, Vol. II, Appendix VI, Government of India, Home Department, Simla, 1898, p. 303.
8 Ibid., pp. 301 & 303.
9 Ibid., pp. 301 & 303.
11 B. R. Nanda, B. R. Nanda, Gokhale, The Indian Moderates & The Raj, Delhi, Oxford University Press, London, 1977, p. 110.
12 Ibid., p. 167.
13 N. G. Jog, Lokmanya Tilak, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, p. 62.
14 B. R. Nanda, Gokhale, Oxford University Press, London, 1977, p.104.
15 Reports on Public Health and Medical Subjects. No. 3. Progress & Diffusion of Plague, Cholera and Yellow Fever throughout the World, 1914-1917 by Dr. Robert Bruce Low, Ministry of Health, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1920, pp. 17-18, 27-28, 29-33, 37, 41, 58, 60, 61, 62-63, 65-66, 67-68, 69-71, 72. Central India Agency comprised of Indore, Gwalior, Bhopal, Bundelkhand, Baghelkhand, Malwa, etc.
16 Census of India, 1911, Volume V, Part I, Report, para. 168, p. 72.
17 Census of India, 1911, Vol. XIV, Part I Report Punjab, p. 41.
18 Ibid., p. 229.
19 Thomas Wright Jackson, M. D., Plague, Press of J. B. Lippincott Company, 1916, p. 24.
20 Dhananjay Keer, Lokmanya Tilak, Father of the Indian freedom struggle, 1959, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, September 1959, 118.
21 Census of India, 1911, Vol. V, Bengal, Bihar & Orissa and Sikkim, Part I Report by L. S. S. O’Malley, ICS, p. 73.
22 Ibid., pp. 73-74.
23 Census of India, 1911, Vol. V, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Sikkim, by L. S. S. O’Malley, ICS, Report I Part, p. 422.
24 Dhananjay Keer, Lokmanya Tilak, Father of Indian Freedom Struggle, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, September 1959, p. 120.
25 B. R. Nanda, Gokhale, The Indian Moderates & The Raj, Delhi, Oxford University Press, London, 1977, p.104.
26 T. R. Deogirikar, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 4th edition, 1992, pp. 67-68.
27 Ibid., 68.
28 Dhananjay Keer, Lokmany Tilak, Popular Publication, Bombay, first published in 1959, p. 132.
29 Keer, Lokmany Tilak, op. cit., pp. 118-119.
30 Report on Poona Plague, 1896, 1897, by late Mr. W, C, Rand, Appendix VI, Government of India, Home Department, Simla, 1898, p. 30.
31 The Plague in India, 1896,1897, Vol. II, op. cit., pp. 201-202.
32 History of Plague in Europe and England, by Evan Andrews.
33 Report on Poona by the late W. C. Rand, Appendix VI, compiled by R. Nathan, ICS, p. 314.
34 Ibid., p. 312.
35 Ibid, p. 207.
36 The Plague in India, 1896, 1897, p. 213.
37 The Statesman’s Year Book, 1923, Macmillan and Limited, London, 1923, p. 136.
38 Census of India, 1921, Vol. I, India, Part II-Tables, by J. T. Marten, ICS, Calcutta, 1923, pp. 2-3.
39 Census of India, 1921, Vol. I, India, Part II-Tables, by J. T. Marten, ICS, Calcutta, 1923, pp. 2-3.
40 Speeches of the Honourable G. K. Gokhale, Non-official Member of the Viceroy’s Legislative Council, G. A. Natesan & Co., Madras, (year not printed), p. 218f.
41 The Plague in India, 1896, 1897, compiled by R. Nathan, ICS, Chap. VIII., Government of India, Home Department, 1898, Simla, p. 207.
42 Ibid.
43 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Debates in Constituent Assembly, November 25, 1949.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid.
46 Mahratta, March 26, 1882, p. 5.
47 Mahratta, Sep 20 1885, p. 1.
48 Mahratta, May 15 1881, p. 3. Our system of Education- A defect and a cure.
49 Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission by Dhananjay Keer, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, May 1954, p. 305.
50 Time in Israel: Holocaust Facts: Where Does the Figure of 6 Million Victims Come From? January 26, 2020.
51 Walter Charles Rand, Report on Poona quoted by R. Nathan, ICS, The Plague in India, 1896, 1897, Simla, 1898, p. 234.
53 Report on Plague in the Punjab from October 1, 1901 to September 30, 1902 being the fifth season of plague in the Province, Lahore, 1904, p. 30.
54 Ibid., p. 14.
55 Ibid., pp. 14-15.
56 Census of India, 1901, Vol. I-A, India, Part II Table by H. H. Risley, ICS, Calcutta, 1903, pp. 319-343.
57 Foreword to Lokmanya Tilak, A Biography by K. Bhagat & G. P. Pradhan, Jaico Publishing House, 2008.
58 N. G. Jog, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, 2015, p. 70.
59 A. K. Biswas, An Open letter to Dr Shashi Tharoor, Mainstream, VOL LIII No 40, New Delhi, September 26, 2015.
60 Maya Oppenheim@mayaoppenheim “Winston Churchill has as much blood on his hands as the worst genocidal dictators, claims Indian politician,” The Independent, London, Friday 8 September 2017.
61 B. K. Ahluwalia & Shashi Ahluwalia, Architect of Swaraj, Intellectual Publishing House, September, 1982, New Delhi, p. 8.
62 Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare22-April-2020 22:14 IST, Promulgation of an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 in the light of the pandemic situation of COVID-19

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