Consolations from the trauma-ridden past of India
A sketch by Melton Prior of House-to-House inspection in Bombay during the plague, 1898 (Photo: Alamy)
THE PANDEMIC, THE lockdown, the policy-driven dislocation of economic activity, the sense we deal with a force much larger than our national perspectives, a familiarity with a new lexicon—flattening the curve, self-quarantine, social distancing, etcetera—summarise at least in some part the present conjuncture. Both the imagery and the heightened uncertainty that has accompanied its spread from continent to continent have to do with the fact that it is the first global pandemic in the age of social media. In a literal sense, as country after country puts out an infection count and a fatality toll, this is truly a global moment. But this global moment has been invoked even as analysts spell out the body blow it has dealt to globalisation as we know it. This contradictory impulse is striking. There is an obvious and clear global narrative surrounding every aspect of the virus. The vaccine that will finally subdue it will be hailed and celebrated in every capital and already the race to discover it first is possibly a not unnatural motivating factor for every scientist and research lab in the field. At the same time, it is also evident that one consequence of the pandemic will be to further erode the already faltering impulse towards globalisation.
An enforced lockdown permits also the luxury of reflection on transnational events of the past. But first, the obvious question: How does the present conjuncture rank with other situations that we, in India, have faced in recent history? The question begins with a proviso since it cannot be determined with any precision what stage of this crisis we are in or how long this pandemic will rage. Is our trajectory going to be that of Italy, Spain or the US, which will give one set of figures in terms of morbidity if demographic magnitudes are extrapolated? Or will we follow more successful cases of flattening the curve? But that larger question apart, it is an interesting exercise to look back at our own national experience of crisis and largescale tragedies.
Does the Covid-19 pandemic present an entirely new situation? It engulfs the whole country and also brings India onto a common global narrative platform. Looking back, some similar elements, although far from identical, in transnational situations can be identified. For instance, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the global financial meltdown of 2008. Neither, of course, comes close to having the comprehensive impact globally that the coronavirus has had so far and we may well still be in the early days of measuring that impact. As grave crises go, are we better served than many of our neighbours? We have, for instance, not faced anything of the order of the famines that followed the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, with a death toll in tens of millions. Or in terms of political trauma akin to the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992, revolution and war in Iran from 1979, the wholescale destruction of Iraq since 2004, amongst other examples. Our own crises have been constitutional and political rather than those of state legitimacy and survival. There are chinks in the armour of this national narrative of slow, evolutionary change: a whole string of natural disasters—tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, epidemics and ongoing civil and political conflicts, such as those in the Naxal belt or in Jammu and Kashmir. There are equally compelling critiques from the point of distributive justice and the most elementary access to public goods and services. The persistence of tuberculosis is alluded to in this context with some justification. It is a contagion with a well-established cure and regimen for treatment and yet is responsible for some 400,000 deaths every year. There are other examples and each would point to the blindspots so deeply embedded in how we look upon ourselves.
Yet, our demographic size and continental spread has insulated us from any of these acquiring the character of a hegemonic national narrative. The post-Independence milestones of national crisis—1962, 1965, 1971, 1975, 1984, 1992 and others—have certainly shaped our thinking and our imagination, although it may be plausibly argued that a comprehensive national lockdown to counter a little-known virus with no known cure has created a conjuncture that is unprecedented.
If we were to look further back—say, the half century before Independence in 1947—India’s history presents a more trauma-ridden picture. This is largely on account of four seminal events: the plague epidemic from 1897, the influenza or Spanish Flu in 1919, the famine in Bengal in 1943 and, finally, Partition in 1947. The plague from the closing years of the 19th century led to some 10 million deaths over the next quarter century. The impact in the first phase post-1897 was devastating. The great influenza epidemic in 1919 led to some 15-20 million fatalities by even conservative estimates. During the Bengal famine in 1943, some two to three million died due to malnutrition and starvation. Partition violence took a toll of at least a million, with human displacement of ten times that number.
The global and national contexts of each of these great tragedies also merit a pause. The plague in 1897 arrived in western India from China, more specifically from Hong Kong. Possibly the great fear was that it would take root in India and become a base for spreading to Europe through the British Isles. This factor explains to some extent at least the response of the colonial state in terms of containment measures. The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, invoked to deal with the SARS-CoV-2 virus too, was framed then and became the legitimising cover for highhandedness and draconian measures to stop the spread of infection. These attracted a great deal of attention and provided in many ways a fill-up to the emergent nationalist consciousness.
The massive morbidity on account of the influenza epidemic made India stand out in what was a global pandemic with total mortality of about 50 million. India was, however, a destination of this rather than a transit point—the disease arrived from Europe along with Indian soldiers returning from World War I.
The Bengal famine also occurred in the midst of war and was the consequence of colonial policy that consciously subordinated subsistence levels of foodgrain required to the war effort. This was a failure of distribution because of a policy approach that had different priorities and a large element of inbuilt callousness. Its global context is nevertheless World War II, in which the total casualty count, both combatants and civilians, including victims of genocide, was of the order of 75 million.
The half century before Independence presents a more trauma-ridden picture on account of four seminal events: the plague epidemic from 1897, the influenza or Spanish Flu in 1919, the famine in Bengal in 1943 and, finally, Partition
Partition violence seems a uniquely South Asian phenomenon, with vast ethnic cleansing accompanying the partition of Bengal and Punjab—people who had lived together for centuries now turning on each other and changing the course of a shared history. Post-World War II Europe saw something similar with the expulsion, from 1946 onwards, of some 10 million ethnic Germans from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and into a significantly shrunk Germany in physical terms. The death toll from this mass expulsion—at least one million—compares with that of Partition and so does the magnitude of human displacement, at about 10 million.
These four are seminal events of the half century before 1947—and to find equivalences in the period since Independence would be difficult, if not impossible. This difference provides the clearest possible division of the two halves of the 20th century as far as India is concerned. One may wonder whether it is this great divide that has provided India with so much stability and the implicit faith that most Indians have in their state even, if not always in the government of the day.
AT THE TIME of a global pandemic, it is natural that we focus on the biological rather than the political dislocation. In India, the toll of the plague or the Spanish Flu epidemic outweighed the toll from any other event or cluster of events. In a fundamental sense, to recall the words of French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, greatly celebrated in the 1970s and the 1980s, it is in ‘biological phenomena much more than in the class struggle, that we must look for the motive force of mass history’. This meant investigating ‘History That Stands Still’, the title of one of his celebrated essays, on the slow glacial change associated with longer rhythms of history rather than the drama of political clash or military manoeuvre or social conflict.
Between the 14th and the 17th centuries—the period that Ladurie studied—what stood out was, in his words, a ‘global unification in terms of disease’. Examples that illustrate this process are striking: ‘within what are the present frontiers of France, the population fell from 17 or 18 million inhabitants in 1330 to under 10 million (and perhaps much less) by 1440’. Another historian has spoken of this period as providing a ‘Hiroshima model’ of French history. Much of the European continent between the mid-14th and the mid-15th centuries went through a period of depopulation similar to that of France, with population declines from a third to a half.
The most catastrophic results of this disease-driven global unification were, however, not in Europe, notwithstanding the attention the Black Death receives, but in another continent, across the Atlantic. The effect of the ‘microbial unification’ of the 14th and 15th centuries was transplanted to the American continent in the 16th. Woodrow Borah, an accomplished American historian, was to describe it in his 1951 book New Spain’s Century of Depression. His research showed that central Mexico’s population at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, in the second decade of the 16th century, was about 25 million. Within a century, the figure had come down to a million. The vast bulk of the indigenous population fell victim to the massive disruption that accompanied Spanish colonialism but, principally, to the disease the Europeans brought with them and against which there were no existing immunities. The population recovered thereafter over the 17th and early 18th centuries with ‘herd immunity’, a term we have been hearing a great deal of recently. But the 16th century catastrophe remained a demographic holocaust to influence the future course of Mexican history. This meant that Mexico was transformed from a colony, using the indigenous people as a labour pool, into a settler colony. Borah says: ‘Had the aborigine population of Central Mexico borne the Conquest with little demographic loss, there would have been scant room for their conquerors except as administrators and receivers of tribute. Mexico today would be an Indian area from which in the process of achieving independence from Spain, a white upper stratum holding itself apart, like the British in India, could easily have been expelled.’
The post-Independence milestones of national crisis have certainly shaped our thinking, although it may be argued that a national lockdown to counter a virus with no known cure is unprecedented
Borah was, incidentally, severely criticised from opposite directions for his hypothesis. On the one hand, the critique was that he was creating a ‘Black Legend’ that Spain was the worst colonial power. On the other hand, the criticism was that a ‘White Legend’ had been created—that the Spanish image was improved since it was disease rather than Spanish cruelty or actions that was responsible. His response, too, is worth recalling: “I go where the data takes me.”
The picture elsewhere in Latin America was no different. In Peru, at the time of the Spanish conquest, the Inca Empire had a population of some 8-10 million. By the 1560s, four decades later, this had shrunk to two-and-a-half million, and three decades later to a million-and-a-half. In the Caribbean, we have an extreme case of wholescale extinction by disease. In Santo Domingo, the pre-Colombian population virtually disappeared.
In giving these examples, Ladurie’s point was to show how, with expanding trade, travel and movement of armies across vast spaces, a ‘community of disease’ grew beyond the narrower confines it was hitherto in. Catastrophic results followed when the threatened populations were ‘in a state of least resistance’. In Ladurie’s reading of a ‘History That Stands Still’, a large part of the population of Europe and America was wiped out by ‘the flames of a microbial holocaust’ and this has influenced ‘all the rhythms of world history upto the present’.
ONE OF THE DIVIDES between the modern world and the one it replaced is that dealing with disease and epidemics became a matter of transnational cooperation. What started the process was the spread, from the 1830s, of cholera from colonial Asia to metropolitan Europe leading to a series of International Sanitary Conferences from 1851. For Valeska Huber, a historian who studied these conferences, this process marked a further evolution of Ladurie’s concept of the ‘unification of the world through disease’. What the sanitary conferences represented was also the ‘unification of the globe against disease’. If the beginnings of international cooperation in health, leading finally to the World Health Organization (WHO) can be traced to this process, the conferences also reveal much about the world as it was. Huber showed the great bias in them towards Europe—‘the fundamental flaw of internationalism was its Eurocentrism’. Implicit in this was the perspective that Europe had to act in Asia, and in particular in India, identified as the source of the cholera epidemic, to safeguard itself. There is a revealing line from the well-known (in India then) civil servant WW Hunter: ‘The squalid army of Jaggannath with its rags and hair and skin freighted with infection may any year slay thousands of the most talented and beautiful of our age in Vienna, London or Washington.’ In Huber’s account, this also meant that ‘Mecca was the foremost theatre of war where cholera had to be fought.’ A British doctor was to say: ‘Mecca, I hold, is the place of danger for Europe, a perpetual menace to the western world.’
These were not the only fissures, or issues, that came up at these conferences as public health and science interfaced with colonialism and imperialism widely. Existing rivalries are not put aside in the face of a larger threat—they spill onto different arenas. The historian Richard Evans, examining the outbreak of cholera in Hamburg in the 1890s, thus noted: ‘At the same time as the Germans, the French and the British were in a desperate race to annex territory in the name of civilization, they were also involved in a furious competition in the name of science to conquer disease.’
One of the divides between the modern world and the one it replaced is that dealing with epidemics became transnational. What started it was the spread, from the 1830s, of cholera from colonial Asia to Europe
WE DO NOT know the end state of this pandemic. Can it still be a case of successful containment notwithstanding the setbacks, including in some of the most advanced health systems in the world? Or will cases and fatalities grow even more strongly over a period of time and the different crests and troughs of different national experiences, hailed or condemned as each may now be, become minor blips in the face of an expanding and secular global trend? Will biology, or more precisely ecology, and nature triumph over management and science, and stability return not with a policy-driven flattening of the curve but the natural resurgence of herd immunity after a ghastly toll?
For the time being, these must remain as unanswered questions and imponderables. How we answer them in the interim also reveals much about us. Historians often engage with the question of what a pandemic tells us about a society. The outbreak of disease, to quote Richard Evans again, can be one of those events that ‘as Lenin once put in, may perhaps be ultimately insignificant in themselves, but nevertheless, as in a flash of lightening, illuminate a whole historical landscape, throwing even the obscurest features into sharp and dramatic relief.’
It is inevitable, therefore—given our own democracy—that we must continue to be buffeted by the Cassandras of doom and the Prophets of hope. The divisions are clear—between those who are already disillusioned by the lockdown and those who saw no alternative to it. Perhaps in this divide of the trade-off between lives and livelihood, different disciplines and specialisations come into play: the medical specialists and the epidemiologists at one extreme, economists and businesspeople at another. The Government stands in between, needing to make intricate and difficult judgment calls even when describing them as informed decisions. The only point of relevance here is that there is scarcely a single government in a democratic setup which has, or will, come out unscathed from this pandemic and that in itself encapsulates its global nature.
Even if there is no unified global response, and neither is there likely to be, that the pandemic has enveloped and dominated all global narratives for the last six to eight weeks is obvious. What is the nature of the world that will emerge is a question that had engaged much attention. Does this mark the end of globalisation? Will the balance and concerts of powers change? Will we confront a transformed neighbourhood? Or will we reflect on this question some years later as we do now, often with condescension, upon the ‘End of History’ debate of three decades earlier. Perhaps, an element of humility is also called for in the face of this huge fury of nature even as we wonder whether it is revenge or some pre-existing pattern and rhythm of its own that drives it. By so doing, we could even better engage with and adjust to the larger forces that are within and power a ‘history that stands still’.
In writing this article the author has relied on the following works
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, History That Stands Still; A Concept: The Unification of the World by Disease (Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries); The Crisis and the Historian. These essays are in The Mind and Method of the Historian (Chicago, 1981)
Richard Evans, Epidemics And Revolutions, Cholera in Nineteenth Century Europe, Past and Present, No 120 (August, 1988)
Valeska Huber, The Unification of the World by Disease? The International Sanitary Conferences on Cholera 1851-94, The Historical Journal, Vol 49, No 2 (June 2006)
Woodrow Borah, New Spain’s Century of Depression (London, 1951)