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When the 1897 bubonic plague ravaged India

A historian with a personal connection to plague duty writes on the parallels between the 19th century bubonic plague and covid-19

A plague hospital in Bombay in the late 19th century. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.
A plague hospital in Bombay in the late 19th century. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

On 23 September 1896, the first “official"case of the bubonic plague in India was reported by an Indian physician named A.G. Viegas from a house near Masjid Bridge in Mandvi district, Bombay Presidency. The patient was suffering from high fever and large tumours. Other symptoms included swollen lymph glands and eventual gangrene in the extremities, such as toes, fingers, lips and nose. Without treatment, the patient would succumb within days.

Originating in Yunnan, China, the plague—caused by the bite of infected fleas in rodents, or contact with the carcass of an infected rodent in humans—travelled across the country to Hong Kong, from where it arrived in British India and the rest of the world, through trading ships. From thereon, the mahamari (epidemic) spread rapidly to the port cities of Calcutta and Karachi, and further to Pune, the United Provinces, Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Hyderabad, Mysore, Madras, Agra, Oudh and Burma. Historian Myron Echenberg writes in Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact Of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901, “Between (the) plague’s arrival in 1896 and 1921, an estimated 12 million Indians lost their lives, compared with 3 million in the rest of the world combined."

At the onset, the British authorities took little action to stop the spread, keeping ports functional so as not to disturb their global trade networks. They ascribed the outbreak to habits and local customs, blaming the living spaces of Indians for being filthy and unsanitary, entirely overlooking environmental factors such as the trade ships from China that also carried flea-infested rodents. These could get into places like granaries, particularly in rural areas, where many people shared space or resources.

However, as the situation spiralled out of control, they hastily drafted the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, which had “the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease" and is still enforced throughout the country. In light of covid-19, social distancing may have quickly become the phrase of 2020 but even in the late 19th century, the intention was the same, with The British Medical Journal stressing that “until overcrowding is dealt with, all other methods of preventing the spread of plague are abortive".

The Punjab region—suffering recurrently from outbreaks of malaria, smallpox and cholera—was one of the worst affected, with the plague erupting violently across 26 districts. The first case occurred in Khatkar Kalan village on 17 October 1897, and until 1899, the plague remained confined to the Jullundur and Hoshiarpur districts. It is here, in these early affected areas, that my great-great grandfather, Lala Bidhi Chand, served his “Plague Duty" as a deputy inspector with the Imperial Indian Police.

Based on his police records—certificates from 1874 as a Sergeant 2nd grade to 1904, with promotions in rank, as a full deputy inspector—one can roughly calculate his birth back to the mid-19th century. The son of Atma Ram, a Pathan of Qadirabad, district Gujarat, Punjab (in present-day Pakistan), Bidhi Chand was fluent in Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi. Though we know little about the occupation of generations prior, we can assume they were comfortable enough to provide him an English-medium education, which was naturally beneficial to his appointment to the police service.

His documents show him serving across the Punjab, in the districts of Sargodha, Mandi Bahauddin, Gujranwala, Jhelum and Rawalpindi. He was appointed to census duty in 1891 and, more relevantly, to plague duty in 1898. According to the commendation certificate for Bidhi Chand’s work from 2 March-13 July 1898, “The duty was of an exceedingly trying and delicate nature, and involved considerable hardship, exposure and personal risk."

But what did it really entail? In Social History Of Epidemics In The Colonial Punjab, Prof. Sasha Tandon explains that to combat the disease at a local level, a framework was set in place, with infected areas being divided into divisions comprising 100 villages each, supervised by a deputy commissioner, assistant deputy commissioner, division officer, civil surgeon and medical officer. Bidhi Chand would have likely been part of this body. To assist the operation further, there were also tahsildars, kanungos, patwaris, hospital assistants, compounders, nurses, midwives and volunteers.

The plague was a largely rural phenomenon, and acting on the early assumption that human contact was the cause of the epidemic, infected villages were wholly or partially evacuated and cordoned off. In due time, passes were introduced for those who wanted to cross cordoned areas, in an eerie resemblance to the “curfew passes" being issued at present. To disinfect the evacuated homes, Prof. Tandon describes how the “chamars, coolies and water-carriers were ordered to thoroughly soak the walls, flooring and ceiling with the phenyl solution. A hole of about 24 sq. ft was made in the roofs to allow the sunlight. The next day, the house was white washed." At the height of the epidemic, homes would often be demolished completely.

Subsequently, emphasis was laid on isolation and outdoor quarantine camps. A 1901 report from The Tribune stated that though “people with means could manage somehow, the rural poor, uprooted from their homes and hearths were left exposed to harsh conditions", bearing a striking resemblance to the migrants forced to walk hundreds of kilometres from the cities they work in to their home towns when the covid-19 lockdown was declared. Patients were publicly disinfected in wooden tubs, not dissimilar to the way migrants in Bareilly were sprayed down en route their journey. Symbols were painted outside homes placed in quarantine, another practice that is followed to this day.

Reports in several local papers commented on the issue of class in quarantine camps. In June 1897, Sindh Sudhar asked why natives “who excel the Europeans in dress, cleanliness, etc, be subjected to the same treatment as the low-caste and dirty people"? Eventually, caste-based hospitals were built, many prompted by criticism from the upper castes, particularly Brahmins who were forced to mix with other religious and caste groups in these camps.

Meanwhile, government officials made surprise home visits to look for plague patients and those suspected were taken forcibly to detention camps. Due to such methods of coercion, and an otherwise deep suspicion of hospitals, families often hid the sick or concealed their illness. Eventually, the anger and fear of people was expressed through violent demonstrations and assault of government employees. Plague measures extended even to the dead, with corpses being inspected, much to the distress of the grieving families. Rail travel was closely monitored. Third-class passengers were examined on the platform, second-class in their carriages, and unclean or suspicious items were burnt. There were no restrictions on European passengers, even if they were found to be unwell.

The epidemic caused not only loss of life but left a lasting impact emotionally, materially and economically. Quite often, physical isolation—essential to the situation—was hardly understood by those from rural areas, like now, resulting in forcible relocations and the hurting of religious and cultural sentiments. Women suffered more, for in the patriarchal structure there was general disregard for their health, and a male physician’s touch was prohibited in many families.

Like the detailed lists compiled for the diseased and dead due to covid-19 around the world, the plague, too, was recorded precisely. Dated to the exact year and regions of Jullundur and Hoshiarpur, where Lala Bidhi Chand served his plague duty in 1898, a report from the deputy sanitary commissioner of Punjab, surgeon-captain C.H. James, lists the names, ages and travel histories of each person (and their respective family members) in every village and district who contracted the plague. There are maps of the settlements and houses are labelled. The report is broken down even further by religion, caste and the date on which they were evacuated or the illness was reported. Entire families were swallowed by the disease and at times, clans and villages.

The colonial government sought the aid of the Ukrainian bacteriologist, Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, previously credited for the development of the cholera vaccine. After he tested the anti-plague vaccine on himself and volunteering inmates from the Byculla prison in Bombay, millions had been inoculated around the country by 1902-03. The peak of mortality was passed in 1907, with over 1.3 million deaths in a single year across India. Then it began to diminish but the plague did not completely disappear from the region, with sporadic cases showing up even into the 1920s.

It is a complicated inheritance to be left with questions about an ancestor’s life and work, and I wish I knew more about Lala Bidhi Chand than the information I have foraged and deduced through archival material. Sometimes, when I study his documents, I wonder how Bidhi Chand felt about this part of his work: the administering of harsh and mandatory measures for the cause of public safety. I wonder whether he was ever ambivalent about serving those who had colonized his people; I wonder if he ruminated on identity and nationality. Today, almost no one apart from my father knows enough about Lala Bidhi Chand, or the life he lived. To my knowledge, no member of his family was affected by the plague.

After plague duty, Bidhi Chand went on to serve for six more years, retiring in 1904 with glowing recommendations from his superior officers. According to a sanad, a deed dated to the same year, he received lands on the Jhelum canal for his services to the government. After Partition, the compensation for these lands was given to our family in Kot Kachhwa, district Ambala.

Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian and author of Remnants Of A Separation: A History Of The Partition Through Material Memory.

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