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Opinion | What the Mongol invasion and coronavirus have in common

The Mongol invasion of Europe produced fake news and widespread denial—somewhat like the current pandemic

'Defence Of Kozelsk' on left is a 16th century miniature depicting a Mongol attack on Russia; and another painting from the period portraying the capture of a Russian city by the Mongols. Photographs from Wikimedia Commons
'Defence Of Kozelsk' on left is a 16th century miniature depicting a Mongol attack on Russia; and another painting from the period portraying the capture of a Russian city by the Mongols. Photographs from Wikimedia Commons

In my column last week, I mentioned the Mongol conquests of China and Russia which connected those two nations for the first time in history. The Mongol armies were a bit like a plague, a germ that came from nowhere and left nations devastated. The worst pandemic in history, the Black Death of the 14th century, killed somewhere in the region of 100 million people. A comparable number perished in the 13th century as a consequence of Mongol raids.

The adversaries of the Mongols were usually in denial, the way many political leaders have been in the face of the novel coronavirus. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the assault on Europe in 1241, an offensive planned by the Mongol general Subutai, perhaps the greatest military strategist in history. Europe had plenty of notice before it was beset by the army of nomads from the east but spent much of it celebrating news of Mongol victories. That is because the triumphs were achieved over Muslim kings at a time when Christendom was engaged in Crusades for control of the Holy Land.

Europeans convinced themselves that this new scourge of Muslims was a Christian king named Prester John. The legend of Prester John had its origin in the conversion of some Indians on the Malabar coast in Christianity’s early days, supposedly by St Thomas of Syria. After Roman Catholicism lost touch with eastern churches, the memory of this community was transformed into the idea of a rich Christian land ruled by a great priest-king. In actual fact, the Mongol empire’s founder Chingis Khan and his sons worshipped the sky-god Tengri.

In the mid-1230s, the imam of the Nizari Ismaili sect, commonly called Aga Khanis in India today, wrote a letter to the kings of England and France that was both a warning and a plea for partnership. Europe knew him as the Old Man of the Mountain and called his followers Assassins, from Hashishin, in the belief that they ingested hashish before carrying out murderous assignments. The letter made it clear that the Mongols were not Christians, that they would soon threaten Europe, and that they slaughtered civilians on a scale the world had never seen. Peter de Roches, bishop of Winchester, responded dismissively: “Let us leave these dogs to devour one another. And we, when we proceed against the enemies of Christ who remain, will slay them, and cleanse the earth."

The Mongols assailed Europe on five fronts, converging into two. On 9 April 1241, one faction defeated a Polish army supported by knights of the Teutonic order. Two days later, on receiving news of that victory, a larger force attacked the army of Bela IV of Hungary. By the end of the Battle of Mohi, as it is known, the Mongols had killed 200,000 of Europe’s best soldiers. No serious threat remained to their goal of conquering all lands till the great sea, or the Atlantic ocean.

Before the Mongols could storm Vienna, however, news arrived that the Great Khan Ögedei, son and successor of Chingis Khan, had died. In keeping with tradition, the soldiers struck camp and headed back to their homeland to choose a new leader. One of the great what-ifs of history is the question of how different the world would look had Ögedei Khan not happened to die when he did.

The Mongol invasion of Europe produced fake news, unwarranted celebration and widespread denial, and the same has been the case during the current pandemic. The worst of these errors is denial. Early bouts of it in India took the form of “it is just a flu", “we have successfully kept it out through screening at airports" and “we will beat it in 21 days". The current trend is to pretend things are going better than they actually are.

Take the aviation ministry wanting to create “bilateral travel bubbles" with countries like France and Germany because “These are all destinations where demand for travel has not diminished". Good luck convincing places that have crushed the infection curve at great cost to let in passengers from a country where headlines announcing a new high in cases have become routine.

Take Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying: “Earlier this year, some people had predicted that the impact of the virus in India would be very severe. Due to lockdown, many initiatives taken by the Government and a people-driven fight, India is much better placed than many other nations." Only those in denial would describe India’s condition with respect to covid-19 as anything but severe, grave and desperate, as the country is set to surpass Russia to land at third place in the ranking of nations with the most detected infections.

Take the constant assurances that India, or various epicentres like Delhi, are not in the community transmission stage of the pandemic. The most recent came from Union home minister Amit Shah, who said he had consulted Dr V.K. Paul of the government policy think tank NITI Aayog, Dr Balram Bhargava of the Indian Council of Medical Research and Dr Randeep Guleria of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Why is the government sticking to an obviously mistaken assessment of a technical issue that few citizens care about?

By now, most of us have either caught the bug ourselves or heard of friends who have done so. Those infected rarely have a clue how it happened, nor do authorities make much effort to find out. This is textbook community transmission. By denying the obvious, the government makes it hard for us to believe any of its claims and dents our trust in the experts charged with tackling the crisis.

Take, finally, commentators pointing to low per capita rates of infection and death. Yes, they are still modest, even after factoring in authorities’ reluctance to test and to assign covid-19 as a cause of death. But if the infection number could climb rapidly to 500, 5,000, 50,000 and 500,000, what stops it from going to five million and 50 million? The virus has done the hard work of spreading through a draconian lockdown and a blazing summer. Its path now seems as clear as that of the Mongols after the Battle of Mohi.

Of course, we can hope for a cure or vaccine but to assume one or both of these will be forthcoming is itself a form of denial. We should never depend on Ögedei Khan dying.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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