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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 38, New Delhi, Sept 4, 2021

Gandhi, Godot and Pandemic Plague: Interrogating Two Accusations | Muzaffar Assadi

Saturday 11 September 2021


by Muzaffar Assadi

Two accusations have been levelled against Gandhi while detailing the pandemic plague during the last century: that Gandhi had less concern about taking up the case of pandemic plague in India than in South Africa. Secondly, the plague was not the major reason that made him a nationalist leader.

Gandhi went to South Africa in the year 1893. The plague spread to the Indian colony in South Africa in 1904. As part of apartheid policy, Indians were settled in an exclusive colony near the gold mine, few kilometers away from Johannesburg. Gandhi viewed that the proximity to gold mine was one of the reasons why plague spread to the Indian colony. In total 84 Indians succumbed to plague. Gandhi’s intervention came largely due to a person called Mandanjit, who was on a visit to the colony to enlist membership to an Indian magazine, Indian Opinion. His intervention made Gandhi write letters to the Municipal Council to take suitable measures to contain the spread of the plague. It was obvious that Gandhi had two clear-cut visions: the first was to discreetly oppose the apartheid policy and the other was to contain the widespread plague. This concern, as he says in his autobiography, was embedded in religious values. Both these activities went side by side. Gandhi’s intervention finally resulted in permission to treat the patients in a dirty godown, however, without any assurance of further medical help from the Municipal Council. Thanks to the local contribution, the godown, later on, became a hospital for treating patients. The Indian colony was subsequently taken over by the government. Indians were shifted to a new colony, which was as bad as the earlier colony. It was, as Gandhi argued, like a military camp, without basic facilities.

Gandhi had a critique of the western medical system, doctors, and hospitals. Although this critique is visible during this pandemic period, however, the sharp critique is apparent in his text, Hind Swaraj. In this text, Gandhi (1909) calls hospitals as “institutions for propagating sins” and medical professionals for “holding us or for political gains". Incidentally, railways represented colonial expansionism and “have spread the bubonic plague. They are the carriers of plague germs".

Paradoxically Gandhi did not oppose the administering of western medicine and drugs to patients under doctors’ care. Dr. Gefry was the doctor who joined Gandhi and his timely help and intervention prevented widespread pandemic plague. This plague also witnessed the beginning of a new dialogue between western medicine and naturopathy, Western civilization and Indian civilization, Western modernity and Indian tradition. Be they hospitals, patients, drugs, brandy or wet soil, Gandhi symbolized this great dialogue.

The start of this dialogue was when Gandhi refused to prescribe brandy, an alcohol, as a medicine to save oneself from plague including to patients under his care. His answer was, as he said in his autobiography, “I did not believe that it will cure the disease". It is strange but true that, despite living amid plague affected patients, Gandhi remained immune to the plague.

Gandhi recommended the application of wet soil on the forehead and chest of patients. Quite curiously, twenty patients who were undergoing treatment of western medicine soon died. Except one, two of his patients survived. Gandhi was completely taken aback. How did they survive? Gandhi asks this question in his Autobiography. “This strengthened my belief in naturopathy. My doubt about brandy as a cure is further strengthened”. Gandhi again continues the practice of experimenting with wet soil in due course. In 1942 he came out with a book, A Key to Health, which reflected his deep concern for naturopathy, food habits, etc.

Gandhi advanced 21 suggestions for the pandemic in South Africa which appeared in an article form in Indian Opinion on January 16, 1905. Many of them have relevance even today. This includes the following: hospitalization should not be taken to mean torture by the government concerned; any sign of asthma or the disease be immediately reported to authorities concerned; stay back at home without fear; consume light food; avoid grand dinner; and live in hygienic conditions; etc.

However, while analyzing the first accusation of the least concern, it is beyond any doubt that Gandhi had the same concern. It was rumoured that even Gandhi was afflicted by the plague. Whatever may be the rumours, Gandhi was personally involved in the awareness programme. At first, in 1896, when Bombay Province was afflicted by the plague, Gandhi offered his services to help the government. In Rajkot, Gujarat he was involved in the awareness programme on sanitation He would visit different houses including the haveli of his brethren, upper castes, and Dalits. After visiting all these houses, he made an interesting observation that "Dalit houses are far better than upper-caste houses". He had his first shock when Dalits politely informed him that they do not have pucca latrines. In the second instance of 1935 when the pandemic spread to Borsad in Gujarat, Gandhi, along with Mahadev Desai, visited and stayed back to meet people and spread awareness about sanitation. Here he joined hands with none other than Vallababhai Patel, the hero of Bardoli Satyagraha.

What benefit did Gandhi derive out of his involvement in the pandemic plague? His involvement in South Asia brought him laurels, popularity, and what he says, "made him see Indians closely, “and “increased his business”. On the contrary, did pandemic help him become the nationalist leader in India? Incidentally, Gandhi’s arrival in India coincided with the growing discontent with the colonial power over handling the pandemic. His arrival created a "political storm" and was seen as God’s gift. This reminds one of the play written by Samuel Becket, ‘Waiting for Godot’ wherein the actors were waiting for an abstract entity. For Indians, Gandhi appeared as a factual Godot, whose second innings is now being awaited.

(The writer is Professor of Political Science at University of Mysore, Manasagangotri, Mysore 570006. He can be reached at: muzaffar.assadi[at] The original article was earlier published in Prajavani, in kannada)

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