Stinging Orthodoxy that Cost Lives of Millions of Indians


In the face of adversities wrought by natural calamities, earthquakes, epidemics or widespread disturbances, people stand in unity and solidarity to face unforeseen challenges or misfortunes and try to overcome them. This has been proved time and again all over the world. A rare species of animals, the Hindus found only on Indian soil within the boundaries of this ancient country claiming great and ancient civilization, do not conform to this universal wisdom. Here we present a rare illustration from the pages of India’s history when people have deemed prudent to forget, for reasons not very difficult to decipher.

In late 1896 the bubonic plague, also called Black Death – because man dying of the disease turned black and hence the name – hit Bombay. The dread had travelled from Manchuria to India’s financial capital. The disease soon invaded Poona with unprecedented virulence. It claimed human lives indiscriminately. The situation turned very grave. So the Government enacted Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 to meet the challenges. The objective of the new legislation, briefly, was “better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases.” Panicked people, bereft of previous knowledge or experience, started deserting Bombay and Poona helter-skelter in all directions across India. The fleeing people carried with them plague virus to their destinations to infect people wherever they reached. Plague danced with unfettered ferocity claiming millions of lives. Throughout India, right up to Peshawar on the north, Burma on the east, plague even reached the gates of Aden.

The Government appointed Walter Charles Rand, a young ICS assistant Magistrate as Plague Commissioner of Poona for suppression and control of the plague. He took up his assignment in March 1897 and enthusiastically went about his job of treatment, control and suppression of the epidemic. Different communities were encouraged and aided by the government to establish Plague Hospitals in Poona to create additional infrastructure and facilities for emergency Medicare of plague victims. Thus came into existence the Parsi Plague Hospital, the Mohammedan Plague Hospital and the Hindu Plague Hospital in the city. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, active in public service in the Deccan famines, became the moving spirit behind the establishment of the Hindu Plague Hospital. This hospital was, however, marked by the festering orthodoxy in the rules of admission. In his first report, Plague Commissioner Charles Rand recorded that “The (Hindu Plague) Hospital was opened to all except members of low castes. [………]” [1] If men who have been idolized in public perception could have such caste fixation and blinding prejudice against low caste, the country is accursed and doomed for eternity. Of course, for a Hindu, Dr Ambedkar had bemoaned, caste is his public. We do not know the beneficiaries of Tilak’s catholicity in his services in famine relief aforementioned. If admission rules in the Poona Hindu Plague Hospital were any guide or indicator, we must not befool ourselves who benefited and who faced discrimination from the great and legendary patriot. The victims of Tsunami in Tamil Nadu, earthquakes in Gujarat, Kosi floods in Bihar, to note a few illustrious instances, leave us in no doubts, that the low castes faced tremendous discrimination in relief and rehabilitation where people like Tilak devote themselves in public services.

Who were the most of the victims of the plague in Poona?

The first and the only official report on the plague, authored by Rand, however, unwittingly portrayed and presented a rare social picture by noting the caste of plague victims in Poona. “Of 159 patients admitted, 98 were Brahmans and 59 belonged to other castes.” [2] Over 61.5% of plague victims in Poona, strange though it may sound, we now officially know, belonged to the priestly caste.

Between 1896 and 1930, plague devastated vast tracts of India and claimed some 40-50 million lives in India. Black Death spared none, big or small, high or low, rich or poor. Authorities, however, candidly regretted their inability to record credible figures of plague victims. But the field administration in Punjab presented a highly intriguing picture on plague here.

In Punjab, the plague favoured the Chamar and Muslim

The Punjab district administration threw up a surprise the country perhaps did not expect to hear. The Deputy Commissioner of Ambala, H. J. Maynard submitted the status report on the plague ravages: “Brahmans generally died like flies when plague got among them.” The Brahman, however, did not die alone. He had his compatriot in the grave tragedy. The said district officer elaborated the point curtly, “both Brahmans and Banias suffered severely because they spend so much time, nearly naked and shoeless, exposing the large surface of the unprotected body.” [3] The Chief Medical Officer of Punjab documented some facts about the plague which might mock at the supremacy of status caste system foisted on some. According to him, “fatality among Mohammedans was very nearly the same among Chamars and sweepers, all being meat-eating classes.” Presenting an overview, the highest provincial medical authority added what could throw new light on India’s caste system, “The classes that suffered most from the plague—as judged by the fatality of attacks—were high caste Hindus—Brahmans, Rajputs and Khatris being included in the term, among whom the percentage of fatalities of attacks of plague was 72.27 per cent.” [4] Muhammadans suffered a lot less than all Hindus taken together.  Mortality of Muslim “was 66.33 per cent as against the Chamars whose 64.11 per cent fell victim to the plague attacks.” [5]  The great Chamar caste had not invited the favourable attention of the British authorities. They were favoured by the plague. The British only documented the undeniable truth.

The Indians with the poor sense of humour, British exhibited that the Chamar, like it or not, was a great caste, a fact that can scarcely be denied. Data on four diseases – blindness, insanity, deafness and mutism and leprosy – were collected and published caste-wise by authorities between 1891 and 1921. Report card on the health of many of the so-called despised and low castes could extremely embarrass the hierarchically upper castes bulldozing the fiction of caste propagated by Vedas to Geeta and epics and scriptures. Data on crime by caste collected and documented by them were neither flattering to the vanity and pride of many of them.

We get back to Poona before we conclude.

The young, imaginative and energetic Rand went about his job with dogged thoroughness and competence.  The Army was deployed for house searches, segregation and hospitalisation of men and women suspected of plague attacks, fumigation of houses, godowns and shops to make rat-free. Searches of train passengers were launched on war-footing. Soon wild rumours of the humiliation of Hindu women including their searches by stripping naked in full public view by Tommies on the plea of insufficient light inside houses, desecration of kitchens and places of worship in Hindu homes furiously engulfed Poona, inflaming public passion. The rumours included that the Tommies threw flowers at the women, besides shaking hands with them.  Even it was also alleged that they pissed on cooked food in the kitchen and spat on idols of Hindu deities.

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Gopal Krishna Gokhale was in England while Poona was in deep convulsion. He launched a vigorous media campaign against the atrocities committed on the civilian population during the anti-plague operations back home. His correspondents, Nattu brothers, had fed him with information grossly lacking probity. On return to India, Gokhale discovered his follies and offered apologies for his tirade in the UK against the administration for the plague control and suppression.

The measures, e. g., house to house searches, examination of occupants, evacuation of suspected victims of the plague to hospitals and segregation camps, removal and destruction of personal effects of such persons,  prevention of plague cases from entering or leaving the city, etc. were adopted for prevention of plague [6] Soon certain section started voicing acute grievances against these initiatives. Bal Gangadhar Tilak vociferously denounced Plague Commissioner saying that “Her Majesty the Queen, the Secretary of State and his Council, should not have issued the orders for practising tyranny upon the people of India without any special advantage to be gained.” His abomination was that “the government should not have entrusted the execution of this order to a suspicious, sullen and tyrannical officer like Rand.” [7]  Did Tilak prejudge the elaborate anti-plague measures in public interests under the leadership of Rand? The British ICS had taken up the charge in March as Plague Commissioner.  Within three months in June 1897, he was assassinated.  Only prejudice can drive a section against an officer engaged in challenging duties. The time to assess his worth was too limited to kill him. It was pure prejudice against him. The extraordinary situation warrants unprecedented measures also for results. Tantrums of a milch cow, goes a proverb, has to be tolerated.

A conspiracy for assassination targeting Charles Rand was hatched by some hot-headed youth like Damodar  Chaupaker, Balkrishna Chaupekar, Vasudev Chaupekar, Mahadeva Ranade and Khando Vishnu Sathe alleging his insensitivity to native orthodoxy. On 22 June 1897, the Diamond Jubilee of the coronation of Queen Victoria was celebrated in Poona. In a bomb attack, The Plague Commissioner Rand was critically injured while his companion Lieutenant Ayerst died on the spot. Bal Krishna and Vasudev also murdered Ganesh Dravid and his brother Ramchandra Dravid on suspicion of being police informers for the murder of Rand and Ayerst. The government offered a reward of Rs 20,000 for apprehension of the assassins. 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 popular Marathi journal Kesri Tilak edited. Rand succumbed to his injuries on July 3, 1897. This was a strange historic event: the benefactors who were fighting plague were done away with by assassins. Damodar, Bal Krishna, Vasudev and Ranade, who absconded, were arrested, prosecuted and hanged. A teenage Khanderao Sathe, a school student, 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.

District Magistrate as undertaker! Nobel role of officers in fighting plague in Bengal

Instances of noble humanism evidenced in Bengal can be cited alongside Poona’s crude orthodoxy. 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 [now Bangladesh] to escape the dread. As ill luck would have it, he and his family members along with servants were all wiped out by plague within a few days of their 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 uncared and unattended. Deserted villages had none even to perform the cremation of the dead bodies. At this critical juncture, Beatson Bell, the District Magistrate of Barisal, and H. Savage, 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, who had tabled a question on the issue, pleaded with the government for suitably rewarding these noble gestures of the selfless field officers. The Government, in reply, stated tersely that the two officers were appreciated for their duties performed well.

Bengal too was marked by stinging orthodoxy but in comparison to Poona, Poona overshadowed the eastern province. The results assumed Himalayan proportions. As indicated already, about 40-50 million lives were lost and this can be attributed to the tragic events claiming lives of two dedicated officers Charles Rand, an ICS and Lieutenant Ayerst, an Army Officer. India lost four to five crores of population. We proved Indian lives were cheaper than the British. A wise man does not quarrel with his tools; as bad workman does. The consequences are before us. India never ever attempted to analyze causes and effects and draw up a balance sheet of orthodoxy which claimed millions of innocent lives. The inhibition against an honest appraisal arose because Tilak and his men of sacred breed were involved in the gory tragedy. Those who were to fight the plague ultimately found themselves targeted. So they did their duty. They did not put their heart and soul into their job. They lacked dedication and commitment. By the way, Bengal got off with few thousands the plague deaths. Bombay Presidency had lost lakhs of lives. For the sin of Poona hotheads, the Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh bled heavily, but what for?

References –

[1] R. Nathan, ICS, The Plague in India, 1896, 1897, Simla, 1898, p. 234.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Report on Plague in the Punjab from October 1, 1901 to September 30, 1902 being the fifth season of plague in the Province, Lahore, 1904, p. 30.]

[4] Report on Plague in the Punjab from October 1, 1901 to September 30, 1902 being the fifth season of plague in the Province, Lahore, 1904, p. 14.

[5] Report on Plague in the Punjab from October 1, 1901 to September 30, 1902 being the fifth season of plague in the Province, Lahore, 1904, pp. 14-15.

[6] Chapauker Brothers wikipedia

[7] Ibid.


Author – Dr A. K. Biswas

The writer is a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar.

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