Leaders are accountable for near-collapse of the State, apocalypse must matter-India News , Technomiz
Had the nationalist leadership taken the savage epidemic of 1918-1919 seriously, India might have been one with a political culture that put lives first
“The hospitals were choked so that it was impossible to remove the dead quickly enough to make room for the dying: the streets and lanes of the cities were littered with dead and dying people: the postal and telegraph services were completely disorganised; the train service continued, but at all the principal stations dead and dying were being removed from the trains; the burning ghat [cremation ground] and burial ground were literally swamped with corpses”, recorded Punjab’s sanitary commissioner, as the Great Influenza tore through the province in the winter of 1918.
“Every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned”.
Little but the scale of the apocalypse of 1918-1919 will be unfamiliar to the millions suffering the second phase of the unfolding pandemic in India’s cities and towns. From that tragedy, one lesson stands out, more important than the others; it is to do with memory. Fourteen million Indians died in 1918-1919; more or less, of course, for then, as now, no-one took great care to count. Along with their bodies, their stories also disappeared.
To allow power, once again, to erase from our memories exactly what has happened, and exactly why it happened, will be an act of treason.
Apocalypses, among other things, are levellers. The sound of a loved one gasping for air, the smell of their fevered sweat congealing in the air, are the same in a slum and an air-conditioned high rise. A gentle tide of messages asking for help begins to wash in with the dawn, and murmuring on until bedtime. Top officials have discovered the coronavirus obliterates even the most powerful brotherhoods. Local politicians, armed with the sipharish of Delhi’s great notables, have come to learn that these slips of paper have lost their magical power.
In the city that for centuries has been home to Emperors, the true king is now the profiteer: Access to a black-market oxygen concentrator, a hospital bed, a few strips of medicine, a slot at the crematorium, these things are markers of prestige and power.
There is no mystery to how we got here. In spite of warnings from an all-party Parliamentary committee, issued back in November, India didn’t prepare for a crippling second wave. No emergency-preparedness plan was drawn up. In many states, administrators slept on the watch; eminent economists prophesied the pandemic was behind us; experts ignored the flaws in the data. Leaders, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi downwards, allowed themselves to be seduced by hubris.
Even though these catastrophic misjudgments have been documented by journalists and scholars—and more will be written in months and years to come—there is not the least sign from their perpetrators of an acknowledgment of responsibility. Failure to hold power to account, the experience of 1918-1919 shows, is the true foundations of future tragedies.
There is, as the historian David Arnold has pointed out in a magisterial essay, almost no memory of the millions of Indians who died in the Great Influenza. Images are conspicuous only by absence, Arnold notes; unlike in the West, there are no “photographs of hospital wards crammed with patients or emergency relief centres, pictures of people wearing protective face-masks, piled-up bodies awaiting cremation or burial”. Few official studies exist; media attention was relatively thin.
Like now, the historian Ruby Bala has noted, the coming of the second wave of the 1918-1919 pandemic “did not cause much anxiety in official circles”. The first wave, in August, had been relatively benign; the second wave, officials believed, would not be significantly different. “When it reached Delhi in the beginning of September”, she records, “the Health Officer of Delhi said it was not likely to last very long”. Inside a few months, millions across India were dead.
The easy-reach explanation, as Arnold has pointed out, is the nature of the Indian state: British India was an “unmodern society ruled over by an unmodern state, chaotic in form and conduct, unknowing or uncaring about mass mortality or perhaps, after decades of pestilence and famine, impervious to the suffering of its subjects”.
Yet, the reasons why 1918-1919 has been obliterated from public memory are likely more complex. The freedom movement, like Imperial authorities, had little to say on it. Then rising on the back of growing anti-colonial anger, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi alluded to the epidemic that was sweeping India in several letters; the idea that an epic culling of Indians underway never appeared to have moved him. Newspapers, loud in their condemnation of other colonial atrocities, had relatively little to say about the pandemic.
Indian nationalism was resurgent; its leaders were not about to undermine their gains by collaborating with Empire against illness. There was cause to be defended, higher than the lives of Indians.
For its part, Imperial Britain also had reason not to act. In the 1890s—fearful that bubonic plague would damage industrial production, and trade ties with global ports—the British had clamped down hard on the disease. In August 1987, the Plague Committee began removing entire neighbourhoods from their homes,. Their homes were then disinfected, in military-style operations: “we treated houses practically as if they were on fire”, one official recorded, “discharging into them from steam engines and flushing pumps quantities of water charged with disinfectants”.
Plague-infested villages were also cordoned off or evacuated, and the entire site disinfected. Local residents were given just 48 hours to evacuate their homes and allowed to carry food for two months. Tens of thousands of wage-labourers fled cities. In some towns, houses were searched without warrant; women forced, by some accounts, to disrobe.
In March, 1898, plague inspectors moved into the Muslim weavers’ quarter in Mumbai’s Byculla, lining up suspected patients for examination—at gunpoint. Like had occurred so often, the father of a young girl refused to allow the male doctors to search his child for signs of infection. Europeans across the area came under attack; soldiers, armed with cannon, had to be called out to seal the streets.
The indignities of the plague regime fuelled religious reaction—and the national movement. In 1987, the Chapekar brothers—Damodar, Balakrishna and Vasudev, each armed with a sword and a pistol, assassinated the colonial official Walter Rand. “He had made himself an enemy of our religion,” a confessional statement to the police reads.
Like Prime Minister Modi’s government, and those of many of the states, the colonial authorities learned that harsh sanitary regimes involve economic hardship and social dislocation; it was safer to do less. When the Great Influenza erupted in 1918, the colonial state stood by—having learned that the backlash from intrusive health measures did not serve their cause.
“For all the immensity of lives lost and the enormous suffering it occasioned” Arnold wrote, :India’s influenza epidemic did not seem, even to contemporaries, to convey any particular moral or political lesson, to be instructive to state, science or society”. Instead, the interests of the nationalist movement and colonial ambition colluded to obliterate the memory of the mass deaths. There is no memorial to the victims; Indians graduate school and college without even learning of the horror their ancestors survived.
No health system in the world, more likely than not, could have coped with the burdens the size India has faced. Yet, there can be no doubt that many funeral pyres would never have had to be lit with more administrative focus, and political will. The near-collapse of the State in the face of the pandemic cannot be excused. For this failures, we must demand answers—and our leaders give account.
In his masterwork, The Man Eaters of Kumaon, the great Jim Corbett recorded that the deluge of corpses thrown in the woods, for want of a cremation, led leopards to develop a taste for human flesh.
Forgetting is easier for humans, it seems, than beasts. It is possible to imagine another India, had the nationalist leadership taken the savage epidemic of 1918-1919 more seriously, treating people as ends in themselves, not instruments for a cause. That India might have been one with leaders and institutions understood what disease could unleash, and a political culture which put lives first.
This time, the apocalypse must matter.
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