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Conspiracy Theories, Evading Quarantine: The Bombay Plague Bore Witness to It All – The Wire

The coronavirus pandemic has lead to global chaos as the world battles a formidable enemy.

In a recent article, Arundhati Roy argued that the pandemic provided us with a break from the past and enables the possibility for us to imagine an entirely new world. However, it is in times like these, that one needs to be more cognisant of one’s history.

The Bombay plague of 1896 took place during the British colonial rule in India. A part of the third pandemic of the global plague, it was called the Asian pandemic, which began in Hong Kong in 1894. There are contesting theories about its arrival in Bombay – some say that British trade ships from Hong Kong brought it to the presidency, whereas the British government popularised the idea that the plague was endemic to India and that the foothills of the Himalayas had always been the epicentre of the disease. The plague killed lakhs of people in Hong Kong in 1894 and it destroyed one-third of the population of Bombay between 1896-1910.

When the plague broke out, the presidency was already drowning in a cocktail of epidemics. Smallpox, malaria and cholera were ravaging the country, affecting both the populace as well as the British employees in the subcontinent. But unlike the other diseases, the rapid spread of plague put immense pressure on the British empire to close all trade operations from India. In order to control the transmission of plague and to project favourable numbers on the mortality charts, the colonial government extended the services of western medicine to the population.

The locals, who were used to their own medical systems, were suspicious of western medical practices like vaccinations. Additionally, the British measures were not sympathetic towards the caste hierarchy that marked the society. Some of the governmental measures included forcible hospitalisations, segregation of the sick, mandatory vaccination, medical examinations of all passengers, unannounced house inspections by the police and even examination of the corpses by the medical officers to control the spread of the plague. Further, these measures limited the freedom to indulge in religious activities, be it the conduction of Hindu festivals or undertaking the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage.

Also read: Taking a Page out of India’s Medical History of Courage, Sacrifice and Suffering

These forcible methods were not without consequences. What followed was a series of protests, riots, mob attacks and demonstrations by the people against both western medicine and British plague measures. The protests culminated in the assassination of a British officer, the Plague Commissioner W. C. Rand and his companion Ayerst by the Chapekar brothers in Pune in 1897, following which the colonial government changed its approach to the plague measures.

Just like present times, there was a palpable tension between the medical system, politics of administration and the social system of India. But unlike the current scenario, their fight against the governmental plague measures was anchored in a general disdain towards all things British.

Over a century has passed since the outbreak of the plague in Bombay. The mass hysteria and panic that we see today in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic was on full display in Bombay in 1896 – especially attempts to run away or escape government measures like quarantine or segregation camps and disregard ‘lockdown’ restrictions. Migration was as much a reality in Bombay as it is today.

People migrated in huge numbers from the city to the villages, mostly out of fear of the measure put in place by the government to control the plague than the actual disease. It was not just the poor who scrambled to escape the city, even foreigners in India wanted to escape the confinement that awaited them. The government records on the Bombay plague housed in the Maharashtra State Archives underscore the case of a Greek family that clandestinely escaped from plague-stricken India amidst all the travel regulations that were in place.

Today, we see lakhs of people migrating to their homes and villages in India. While the migrant workers are fleeing the city overcome by the fear of being abandoned and left to die of hunger, Muslims and the people from the north-east are going back home to escape the stigma of being the ‘transmitters’ of the virus. We saw Indians who were overseas being flown back home in special flights sent by the government, and the foreign nationals in India who were ostracised and labelled potential carriers were rescued by their respective governments. Migration, just like the plague years, is not just a tendency of the poor and the ignorant; every individual, be it the rich or the poor, a native or a foreigner, when overcome by the fear of death, expresses a strong desire to be closer home.

Also read: Epidemic Diseases Act, India’s 123-Year-Old Law to Help Fight the Pandemic

The plague years were also ripe with rumours of all kinds. David Arnold has opined that these rumours were a means for people to make sense of their chaotic plague-hit world. They believed that the hospitals were slaughterhouses and that the British were extracting a medicinal oil from the heads of the natives being hospitalised.

While some believed that the plague was a conspiracy by the British to kill a majority of the population so as to effectively control the country, others believed it to be the manifestation of the wrath of goddess Kali.

Even today WhatsApp forwards blaming China for inventing the coronavirus as a bio-weapon to destroy nations around the world, framing various communities as ‘super-spreaders’ of the virus as well as those endorsing many miracle-workers as having a cure for the virus have been doing the rounds since the start of the epidemic. How do we see these rumours as part of our semantic universe when we have fact-checking platforms like Google at our fingertips?

Additionally, religion and faith healing have always found a market in India, especially in the wake of a crisis like the plague or the coronavirus.

The so-called ‘superstitious’ people (as portrayed by the English newspapers of the time) of Bombay sought various remedies to cure the plague, most of which were administered by quacks who prescribed anything from limestone to neem leaves to alcohol as a cure. Similarly, today we have the ‘well-informed’ netizens of the country following in the footsteps of their forefathers in seeking remedies for the coronavirus in magic potions, mattresses, cattle-urine, and even in the healing power of sound and light energy!

These fears of the people, an urgency to decode the aetiology of the disease, a mad scramble to find a suitable cure, and overall uncertainty about when all of this will strike an end is a typical response to an epidemic, as we see from the many stories of the Bombay plague. Such times and the panic associated with them cause humans to function devoid of their reason and logic. We become aware of our elemental selves – of being helpless and at the mercy of our antagonist, be it as inconspicuous as a virus.

Also read: What Epidemics from the Colonial Era Can Teach Us About Society’s Response

Such crises occurred and will continue to occur but it is our obligation to be informed about our own past and prepare in whatever way we can for the coming pandemic. We were, as Dorothy Crawford argues, always at the mercy of microbes all through our evolutionary period. Human beings and microbes have constantly fine-tuned their long-term relationship, causing both the parties to evolve as they have.

It is therefore not an overstatement to say that microbes have in fact shaped us and our histories. Just like the plague once shaped our subcontinent, this pandemic will also do its bit. Let us lie low for a while and watch patiently how COVID-19 is waiting to change us once again, for the better, hopefully. Trust history, this will pass!

Rinu Koshy is a PhD Scholar at IIT Bombay in the department of humanities.