Tag Archives: India
1918 flu pandemic killed 12 million Indians, and British overlords’ indifference strengthened the anti-colonial movement
In India, during the 1918 influenza pandemic, a staggering 12 to 13 million people died, the vast majority between the months of September and December. According to an eyewitness, “There was none to remove the dead bodies and the jackals made a feast.”
At the time of the pandemic, India had been under British colonial rule for over 150 years. The fortunes of the British colonizers had always been vastly different from those of the Indian people, and nowhere was the split more stark than during the influenza pandemic, as I discovered while researching my Ph.D. on the subject.
The resulting devastation would eventually lead to huge changes in India – and the British Empire.
From Kansas to Mumbai
During the early months of 1918, the virus incubated throughout the American Midwest, eventually making its way east, where it traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with soldiers deploying for WWI.
Introduced into the trenches on Europe’s Western Front, the virus tore through the already weakened troops. As the war approached its conclusion, the virus followed both commercial shipping routes and military transports to infect almost every corner of the globe. It arrived in Mumbai in late May.
When the first wave of the pandemic arrived, it was not particularly deadly. The only notice British officials took of it was its effect on some workers. A report noted, “As the season for cutting grass began … people were so weak as to be unable to do a full day’s work.”
By September, the story began to change. Mumbai was still the center of infection, likely due to its position as a commercial and civic hub. On Sept. 19, an English-language newspaper reported 293 influenza deaths had occurred there, but assured its readers “The worst is now reached.”
Instead, the virus tore through the subcontinent, following trade and postal routes. Catastrophe and death overwhelmed cities and rural villages alike. Indian newspapers reported that crematoria were receiving between 150 to 200 bodies per day. According to one observer, “The burning ghats and burial grounds were literally swamped with corpses; whilst an even greater number awaited removal.”
But influenza did not strike everyone equally. Most British people in India lived in spacious houses with gardens and yards, compared to the lower classes of city-dwelling Indians, who lived in densely populated areas. Many British also employed household staff to care for them – in times of health and sickness – so they were only lightly touched by the pandemic and were largely unconcerned by the chaos sweeping through the country.
In his official correspondence in early December, the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces did not even mention influenza, instead noting “Everything is very dry; but I managed to get two hundred couple of snipe so far this season.”
While the pandemic was of little consequence to many British residents of India, the perception was wildly different among the Indian people, who spoke of universal devastation. A letter published in a periodical lamented, “India perhaps never saw such hard times before. There is wailing on all sides. … There is neither village nor town throughout the length and breadth of the country which has not paid a heavy toll.”
Elsewhere, the Sanitary Commissioner of the Punjab noted, “the streets and lanes of cities were littered with dead and dying people … nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned.”
In the end, areas in the north and west of India saw death rates between 4.5% and 6% of their total populations, while the south and east – where the virus arrived slightly later, as it was waning – generally lost between 1.5% and 3%.
Geography wasn’t the only dividing factor, however. In Mumbai, almost seven-and-a-half times as many lower-caste Indians died as compared to their British counterparts – 61.6 per thousand versus 8.3 per thousand.
Among Indians in Mumbai, socioeconomic disparities in addition to race accounted for these differing mortality rates.
The Health Officer for Calcutta remarked on the stark difference in death rates between British and lower-class Indians: “The excessive mortality in Kidderpore appears to be due mainly to the large coolie population, ignorant and poverty-stricken, living under most insanitary conditions in damp, dark, dirty huts. They are a difficult class to deal with.”
Death tolls across India generally hit their peak in October, with a slow tapering into November and December. A high ranking British official wrote in December, “A good winter rain will put everything right and … things will gradually rectify themselves.”
Normalcy, however, did not quite return to India. The spring of 1919 would see the British atrocities at Amritsar and shortly thereafter the launch of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Influenza became one more example of British injustice that spurred Indian people on in their fight for independence. A periodical published by the human rights activist Mahatma Gandhi stated, “In no other civilized country could a government have left things so much undone as did the Government of India did during the prevalence of such a terrible and catastrophic epidemic.”
The long, slow death of the British Empire had begun.
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Tampering with history: how India’s ruling party is erasing the Muslim heritage of the nation’s cities
For centuries many millions of Hindus have gathered at the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Sarswati in northern India for the festival of Kumbh Mela. Their pilgrimage, which ends with a sacred bath in the Ganges, takes them through the historic city of Allahabad.
Allahabad is no longer on the map of India. In October 2018, officials of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed its name to Prayagraj. Allahabad was founded by the Mughals, Muslim rulers from Central Asia who governed India from the 16th to the 19th centuries. This name change emphasises the primacy of the Hindu gathering over the city’s Mughal heritage.
This renaming is part of a growing trend in the lead-up to India’s current general election, which is expected to return the BJP government. To appeal to its voter base of Hindu nationalists, the BJP is attempting to erase India’s Mughal legacy both from the landscape and from the history books.
India and the Mughals
The Mughals had a more than 300-year presence on the subcontinent and exerted a significant influence on Indian art, architecture, language and cuisine.
Allahabad’s Mughal history begins with the Emperor Akbar (1542-1605). Akbar was struck by the natural setting and serenity of Prayag and commissioned the old settlements on either side of the Ganges and their adjoining villages to erect a new city. He named it Illahabas, adding the Hindustani word basa (home or abode) to ilahi, the Arabic word for “divine”.
Akbar secured the city with an imposing fort overlooking the sacred waterway and put an end to the long-established practice of ritual suicide by penitent Hindus. They would typically jump into a well or into the torrents of the river from a giant and auspicious banyan tree. The tree was now placed inside the fort in a chamber that became known as the Patalpuri Temple, where Hindu pilgrims continued to offer their devotions.
During the reign of Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, best known for building the Taj Mahal, the city became popularly known as Allahabad.
The rise of Hindu nationalism
The campaign to rename Allahabad was led by the Hindu priest and activist Yogi Adityanath, who rose to fame as the founder of a militant Hindu youth-wing group. Adityanath is now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous northern state.
As one of the most outspoken members of the ruling party, he has repeatedly indulged in vitriol against religious minorities, especially Muslims. According to Adityanath, the identity, history and traditions of India must be salvaged from the taint of alien, Muslim invaders.
The rechristening of Allahabad reflects a strident demand of Hindu militants at the helm of Indian politics to reclaim towns, streets, airports and railway stations which are seen as reminders of India’s “Muslim” past. These calls have grown louder and more insistent during Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister and leader of the BJP.
Another notable case is the recent renaming of the British-era railway junction of Mughalsarai. The word sarai denotes a rest house or inn. Mughalsarai, less than 20km from the sacred Indian city of Varanasi, is one of the busiest railway yards in the country. It is located along the historic Grand Trunk Road, one of the oldest roads in Asia, which connects Northern India to Central Asia.
The Indian government’s nod to the proposal to rename the station came, again, from Adityanath who wanted to claim it in the name of Deendayal Upadhyaya (1916 –1968). Upadhyaya, a leader of the Jan Sangh Party, was an early ideologue of Rashtrya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP.
The move led to an uproar in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. Opponents of this proposal argued that Upadhyaya was not a “freedom fighter” or a truly national figure. Other critics see this move to commemorate an early proponent of right-wing Hindu nationalism as the BJP’s attempt to elevate its leaders to national prominence.
In the popular imagination, the early leaders of the Congress Party (the BJP’s main opposition) are still seen as the key architects of India’s freedom struggle. The memory of Congress leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru is honoured throughout India in the form of public monuments and landmarks. The BJP’s move to elevate Upadhyaya is an attempt to insert one of the founders of its political creed into the public memory of India’s independence struggle.
From decolonisation to erasure
What we are witnessing is not simply a facile attempt by a majoritarian government to strip facets of the popular memory of the northern Indian plains and its shared, historical landscape. It is also the extension of a patriotic animus once directed at the historic markers of the British colonial era that found recompense and solace in changing place names such as Bombay to Mumbai and Madras to Chennai.
The new dispensation targeting places like Allahabad and Mughalserai sends clear signals to multitudes of the Indian nation that, much like the British, the Mughals who shaped more than 300 years of Indian history were also outsiders and should not feature in the story of India’s one true national heritage.
This week, India celebrates 70 years of independence. The tricolour flag, perhaps the most tangible and potent symbol of freedom from colonial servitude, is on particularly full display.
Few weeks ago, a rally was organised in Delhi under a 2,200-foot-long tricolour. At Attari, on the border of India and Pakistan, the tallest Indian flag in the country was recently mounted atop a 360-foot-high pole. Last year, Purnia, a town in northern State of Bihar, had a 7.1-kilometre-long tricolour. Size, it turns out, does matter.
Flag-waving also occupies a wide range of terrains, from banal street corners and sports matches to movie screens, in a display of both fervour and pride. The song “Maula Mere Le Le Meri Jaan” from the Hindi movie Chak De India (2007) is one such moment:
“Teeja tera rang thaa main to teeja tere dhang se main to”, it intones, reflecting on the flag’s green shade: “I was your third colour, the one as fashioned by you”.
Such spectacles generally come wrapped in the visual vocabulary of majoritarian politics, wherein the voices and concerns of the largest community dominate. Loyalty to the flag is never sui generis; its citizens must be inculcated to display and demonstrate patriotism in this specific way.
The vivid shades of the Indian tricolour actually have a secret subaltern history, a genealogy that has been largely forgotten. As India celebrates its independence from Britain, it’s a story worth remembering.
A symbol with a forgotten history
We begin this brief history with an official document called Specification for the National Flag of India (Cotton Khadi), in which the Bureau of Indian Standards prescribes that the Indian national flag shall be a tricolour consisting of three rectangular (sub)panels of equal widths.
The specified colours are “India saffron”, “white” and “India green”. At the centre is a design of the Ashoka Chakra, the “wheel of peaceful change” associated with a legendary ancient emperor Ashoka from the third century BCE. The wheel is in navy blue, the document says, before going into great technical detail on other aspects of the national flag.
Two obvious questions arise here. Firstly, why do we call it a three-colour flag? Why has blue been erased from our cognitive frame when we think about the colour scheme of India’s national flag?
And, second, this document does not tell us anything about meanings, social significance and popular perceptions pertaining to these four shades. We must go back in time to understand their origins.
Blue, the colour of revolt and dalit politics
In the popular memory of colonial period, blue is the colour of resistance. Commonly associated with indigo, the shade owes its political imagery from the “Indigo revolt” (Nil vidroha), a peasant uprising against the white Indigo planters in 1859-60 in Bengal.
Later, in 1917, the country witnessed another massive peasant mobilisation of indigo growers, this time in the northern state of Bihar. This event was transformative even for Mahatma Gandhi, who shifted his political attention from urban centres to rural landscapes of suffering and exploitation under the colonial regime.
It would be a fitting tribute to Gandhi and those rebellious peasants that the charka, or wheel, in the centre of the flag is in navy blue. But the wheel is bereft of Mahatma’s spindle.
“India as a nation can live and die only for the spinning wheel”, he often claimed, and this symbol occupied a central position in the model of Swaraj, or self governance, laid out in his book Indian Home Rule.
In 1931, the Indian National Congress adopted it to don India’s pre-Independence flag as an emblem of the anti-colonial movement.
But in July 1947, just before independence, the charkha was replaced with the Ashokan wheel (chakra) in the design of India’s national flag. This irked Gandhi, who said he would “refuse to salute the flag” if it did not contain the charka.
There’s also the eerie silence about navy blue, which compels us to confront the deep political prejudices of Indian politics. That’s because its roots trace back to the dalit, to lower-caste politics. India’s most famous dalit icon, a contemporary of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, is always portrayed wearing a blue coat. Blue is still the colour of dalit politics in modern India, too.
Is it a mere coincidence that the colour of the Ashokan wheel in the Indian national flag, navy blue, remains uncounted when we talk about the “tricolour flag”? Or does this gesture perhaps reveal a deep grudge against dalit politics and subaltern voices?
White for minorities
Another colour that deserves more attention in any story of the flag is white. In the aforementioned official document, while saffron and green are affixed with the word “Indian”, bestowing them a sense of rootedness and specific history, white has been denied similar cultural milieu.
Instead, it is perceived only in the universal vocabulary as representing peace and humanism. Why this erasure of particularities?
White is perhaps the most difficult shade when it comes to telling a tale. From the bridal trousseau of Christian tradition to the Himalayan snow capped Mount Kailasha, where, in poet Kalidasa’s Sanskrit classic Meghadutam, it represents the laugh of Hindu god Shiva, to the ubiquitous caging in the monochromatic uniform of Hindu widowhood, the colour white is a canvas spread wide.
For Gandhi in 1921, while the flag’s red and green symbolised Hindu and Muslim communities, respectively, white was to represent all the minority communities put together. In his scheme, they were to be protected by the other two.
Red and saffron
Soon, however, his own party, the Indian national Congress, officially distanced itself from this direct connection between colour and community. This was particularly important in the aftermath of violence between Muslims and Hindus communities that had gripped the country in the 1920s.
Secular leaders (including the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) championed saffron as a colour of valour, an ancient colour, and underplayed its popular association with right wing Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and to the 17th-century Maratha warrior king Shivajji.
Yet to this day, the colour remains well associated with Hinduism and with Hindutva, an ideology that promotes an essentialist vision of Hinduism. We have forgotten that saffron also came to India through minority religious traditions, including Buddhism, and via other ascetic religious movements, like ancient Shramanic traditions.
It is rather ironic that in today’s aggressive nationalism, India has completely forgotten the minority histories of these colours.
Bypassing the green
The amnesia acquires a sinister property considering that the outgoing vice president, Hamid Ansari, recently voiced his anxiety pertaining to the vulnerability of minority communities in contemporary India.
In the song from the film Chak De India, this anxiety is palpable. Premised upon the popular equation of green with Islam, the lyrics refer to green as the third colour, using the past tense – “I was your third colour” – lamenting the Muslim’s community’s growing marginalisation in contemporary India.
This erasure from the present, green’s exile into the past, calls for deep introspection.
Sadan Jha is the author of Reverence, Resistance and Politics of Seeing the Indian National Flag (Cambridge University Press, 2016)