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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Swine Flu and Indian Strategy to Combat the Menace

Thursday 2 July 2009, by A K Biswas


The World Health Organisation has issued a warning that swine flu has assumed the threat of a pandemic disease, which is likely to visit scores of countries across the continents. The Government of India has invoked provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 to fight the impending catastrophe. Interestingly, the colonial authorities had enacted the law following the outbreak of plague that travelled from Munchuria to Bombay in 1896. It danced through the vast subcontinent with unfettered ferocity claiming millions of lives. The objective of Act, briefly, is “better prevention of spread of dangerous epidemic diseases”. Applicable over the whole of India, the Act empowered the state to take various measures. Under Section 2 (1) of the Act, when the government is satisfied that the state or any part thereof is visited by or threatened with outbreak of a dangerous epidemic disease, if the government thinks that the ordinary provisions of law in force at the time are insufficient for the purpose, it may take or require or empower any person to take such measures and, by public notice, prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons to prevent the outbreak of such disease or spread of the disease. It further empowers the government to make regulations for inspection of persons travelling by railways or otherwise and segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise of persons suspected by inspecting officers of being infected with any such disease. Rules were framed under the Epidemic Diseases Act to enforce the provisions of the law.

What an Irony!

The Act invoked by the authorities to fight the swine flu H1N1 has a chequered history not without tragedies. It furnished a fertile ground for conspiracies against implementation by the alien rulers leading to the assassination of the Chief Executive Officer of Plague Operations in Poona. The movement in western India attained some patriotic fervour as it was espoused by men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bal Krishna Gokhale. The government of the Bombay Presidency appointed a young ICS officer and Assistant Magistrate, Walter Charles Rand, as the Plague Commissioner in Poona to take measures for prevention, suppression and control of the raging plague. The disease, soon after its outbreak in Bombay, travelled to Poona through passengers who travelled by trains to and fro Bombay. The young, imaginative and energetic Rand went with thoroughness and competence for the job on his hand. The Army was deployed for house searches, segregations and hospitalisation of men and women suspected of plague attacks, fumigation of houses, godowns and shops to drive away rats that were the main source. Searches of train passengers were started on war-footing. Soon wild rumours of humiliation of Hindu women including their searches by stripping naked in full public view by Tommies on the plea of lack of light inside houses, desecration of kitchens and places of worships in Hindu homes engulfed the western Indian city, inflaming the anger of the public. Damodar Chaupaker, Balkrishna Chaupekar, Vasudev Chaupekar and Mahadeva Ranade hatched a conspiracy to eliminate Rand for his insensitivity to native orthodoxy in the face of the plague. On June 22, 1897 bombs were hurled on the carriage of the Plague Commissioner and Lieutenant Ayerst, an Army officer also on plague duty. They were returning at dead of night from the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in Government House to mark the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the British throne. The Army officer died on the spot while the young ICS, grievously injured, succumbed to his injuries on July 3, 1897. This was a strange historic event: the benefactors who were to fight plague were done away with by assassins.

Damodar, Bal Krishna, Vasudev and Ranade, who absconded, were arrested, prosecuted and and hanged. Bal Krishna and Vasudev had murdered Ganesh Dravid and his brother Ramchandra Dravid on suspicion of leaking information to the police about the murderers of Rand and Ayerst.1 Khanderao Sathe, a school student, too was sentenced to ten years rigorous imprisonment.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak hailed the actions of Damodar Chaupekar and his compatriots as patriotic in his journal Kesri for which he was prosecuted for sedition. Sentenced to eighteen months of rigorous imprisonment, Tilak was confined in Mandalay.

At this time Bal Krishna Gokhale, who was in England, launched a powerful media campaign against the atrocities committed on the civilian population during the anti-plague operations in Poona. His correspondents, Nattu brothers, had fed him with information lacking probity. On return to India, Gokhale discovered his follies and offered apologies for his campaign in the UK against the administration for plague control and suppression. The campaign in Poona suggested that to a Hindu kitchen was what a church was to a Christian. The allegation was that the kitchen was polluted by the entry of British soldiers, who had spat on the cooked food in Hindu homes.

On the contrary, we can point out instances of noble humanism evidenced in Bengal. When plague struck in Calcutta (1898), an advocate, son of a zamindar, fled with his family to his village home in Barisal district, deep inside Eastern Bengal to escape the dread. As ill luck would have it, he and his family members were all wiped away by plague within a few days of arrival in the remote village. The villages and the district were engulfed by the horror in no time. People fled in utter fear of life, leaving the sick and dead people at home unattended. Villages were deserted and there was none even to perform the cremation of the dead bodies. At this critical juncture, Beatson Bell, the District Magistrate of Barisal, and H. Savage, the Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong attended the sick and performed the last rites of the dead to give decent cremation of the deceased souls. In course of debates in the Legislative Council in 1898, Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea pleaded with the government for suitably rewarding these noble gestures of the selfless field officers.

Social Inequality in Grave Crisis: Price for Patriotism

In the anti-plague operations a notable feature was setting up of hospitals by private charity. Thus Plague Hospitals by the Hindus, Muslims and Parsis came into being, besides government hospitals in Poona. Tilak was a moving spirit behind establishment of the Poona Hindu Hospital. The Plague Hospital, however, was saddled with festering orthodoxy in rules of admission. In his first report Charles Rand mentions: “The (Hindu Plague) Hospital was opened to all except members of low castes. [.........] Of 159 patients admitted, 98 were Brahmins and 59 belonged to other castes.”2 (Italicised by this author) The Hindu cannot live without his caste. Tamil Nadu after Tsunami, post-earthquake Gujarat and Bihar after the Kosi deluge [Gavin Rabinowitz in Associated Press, September 2, 2008] only substantiate the contention that practising caste-based discrimination in disaster management is as old as the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean.

The plague engulfed India like wildfire and carried off some four to five crores of Indians from Khyber Pass to Burma and Guwahati to Karachi and Aden. What a colossal loss of human lives!

True, the disease did not have medicines for cure till then. While researching on the havoc wrought by plague a century ago in Bihar in particular and in India in general, I had an uncanny feeling that amidst the flurry of official activities aimed at suppression of the black death,3 the British bureaucracy was passive and allowed Indians to fall victims to the disease. It mercilessly ploughed through Punjab, Bihar, Bombay, United Provinces (UP), Central Provinces and Berar (MP) etc. in the main with unparalleled ferocity. At the cost of two British officers about 40-50 million Indians over three decades were allowed to die, a revenge which invited nobody’s attention.4 No home perhaps remained untouched by the spiralling tragedy. But even the tallest or sanest of Indians of the day had no face to raise an accusing finger at the British. With a long line of patriots like the Chaupekar brothers, Mahadeva Ranade, Tilak, Gokhale, Khanderao Sathe, Nattu brothers etc. in the backdrop, it was a monumental folly to criticise inaction of the Imperial Government for loss of lives on an unprecedented scale. Neither the nation had mourned the death of tens of millions of plague victims lest it would bring oblique aspersion on those “patriots”. Magnificent statues of some have been installed on the very spot where Rand and Ayerst were bombed. What a delicious paradox and a prize for patriotism!!!

The invocation the same Act after 112 years proves its bonafides as a legislation.


1. The government offered a reward for a sum of Rs 20,000 for apprehension of the assassins of Rand and Ayerst. The Dravid brothers were suspected to have acted out of greed for the cash rewards. But they got Rs 10,000 only, which earned the ridicule of Kesri.

2. R. Nathan, ICS, The Plague in India, 1896, 1897, Simla, 1898, p. 234.

3. Bacterium yersinia pestis caused the victim of plague to turn black and hence death by plague is also called black death.

4. Authorities had times without number asserted that these data were not fully accurate for reasons of vast size of the population and geographical expanse involved.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Bihar, Muzaffarpur. He can be contacted by email at atul.biswas(at)

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