The epidemic would last for well over two decades and would kill about 10 million Indians between 1896 and 1918, as it ravaged one city after the other. (India, the Horror‑Stricken Empire by George Lambert)
THE FIRST recorded case of bubonic plague in Pune – then Poona – was discovered on October 2, 1896 when two passengers from Mumbai alighted at the railway station. By December that year, the city was showing signs of local transmission and the disease had started to spread rapidly – especially in the densely populated Peth areas. Earlier, after the reports of plague came in from Mumbai in September 1896, the municipal corporation had appointed a medical officer at Pune Railway Station to watch out for persons with Plague symptoms and send them to special sheds erected at Sassoon General Hospital.
The plague wave that had reached Pune was part of the ‘Third Plague Pandemic’ which had started in Yunnan, China in 1855 and entered India through the port city of Mumbai via Hong Kong. The epidemic would last for well over two decades and would kill about 10 million Indians between 1896 and 1918, as it ravaged one city after the other.
However, none among scores of cities that were afflicted by the pestilence would cause as much political uproar as Pune.
‘A DANGEROUS PLAGUE CENTRE’
By the end of February, 1897, Pune had recorded 308 cases of plague with 271 deaths. The dread of the disease which had such a high mortality rate had caused the locals to flee the city. The municipal officials estimated that about 15,000 to 20,000 locals had left the city to escape the pandemic and had settled in villages in the outskirts. As this was happening, locals, as well as Englishmen, were asking for the appointment of a ‘strong officer’ who would improve the sanitary and health situation in the city, failing which, they feared, “the matters will never mend and go down from bad to worse.”
The strongman that the Bombay Presidency Governor William Mansfield Sandhurst decided to appoint was 34-year-old Walter Charles Rand, an Oxford-educated officer of the Indian Civil Service, who was then serving in Satara. Rand was appointed on February 10, 1897 as an Assistant Collector and Chairman, Poona Plague Committee.
“My first duty was to ascertain the extent to which the disease had already spread in Poona,” Rand wrote in the plague report that he drafted in June-July, but died before its submission in August. “After examining the current death register of Poona Municipal Corporation and mortality returns for previous years I discovered that … the morality in the city was growing at an alarming rate since the beginning of January…On the same day I also informed the Collector that Poona had become a very dangerous plague centre,” Rand wrote.
WHY MILITARY HELP WAS TAKEN?
As per Rand, Surgeon Captain WWO Beveridge arrived in Pune to assist in fighting the epidemic in the city with the idea of using military men in the plague operations. “Up to the time of Surgeon Captain Beveridge’s arrival, the use of anything but civil agency for dealing with the epidemic had not been considered. The officer, who had had considerable experience of the Plague in Hong Kong and methods adopted there for stamping it out, formed an opinion that the help of soldiers would be desirable in Poona, especially to search for sufferers from plague, their removal to suitable hospitals, and the disinfection of plague-infected houses,” Rand says in the report.
Following this, Collector RA Lamb sent out a formal request to the government of Bombay Presidency. “The aid of the soldiers is needed because the men are available, they are disciplined, they can be relied upon to be thorough and honest in their inspection, while no native agency is available, or could be relied on if it were,” he said.
At this time the population of Pune – including those residing in municipal limits, cantonments and suburbs – was 1.61 lakh. The plan prepared by Rand attached the greatest importance to house-to-house search for infected patients and suspects. There was intense aversion among the townsfolk for taking out the plague-infected family members to the hospital. The families resorted to “incredible shifts” in order to prevent authorities from detecting a plague patient. Such patients were hidden in lofts, cupboards and gardens or “anywhere where their presence was least likely suspected”. This, the administration argued, would leave no option but to resort to “compulsory methods” to ensure isolation of the infected patients.Five special plague hospitals were erected in various parts of the city, one each for Hindu, Muslim, Parsi communities in addition to a general hospital for all patients and the Sassoon Hospital where Europeans were treated. On the same line, four segregation camps were set up where family members and other contacts of the plague patients were kept under observation.
A Hindu plague hospital (Source: India, the Horror‑Stricken Empire, by George Lambert)
“There was, it is true, no Indian example of the suppression by strong measures, of an epidemic of plague which had established itself in a large town, but the possibility of so suppressing the disease had been demonstrated at Hongkong in 1894. It was certain that if the plague was not to be allowed to run its course, but was to be stamped out of Poona, stringent measures would have to be taken,” Rand observed in the report.
The containment policy adopted by Rand and his team was to actively search the localities in the city with the help of the soldiers accompanied by natives for plague-infected patients (or their dead bodies) and take them to the hospitals (or cremate the bodies under medical supervision). The houses where patients were found were cleaned, fumigated, dug up (to destroy rats) and lime washed.The work of search parties was carried out between March 13 and May 19 1897. About 20 search parties (later increased to 60) each consisting three British soldiers and one native gentleman were formed for his purpose. A division of 10 search parties had one medical officer and a lady searcher to inspect women in purdah.
“In order that plague patients might not be removed before the arrival of the troops, no intimation as to what area that was to be searched was given to the public. The streets in which the search took place were patrolled by Cavalry. The only important complaint about the first day’s work was that doors forced open by the troops were not reclosed. This difficulty was overcome on subsequent occasions by attaching to each search division a few Native troops with hammers and staples to fasten up doors after the searchers,” reads the report.
As per Rand’s report, the attitude of the residents was “friendly” to the search parties except that of the Brahmin community which was unfriendly and tried to obstruct the searches. The medical officers were supplied with cash advances and had instructions to pay compensation for any articles belonging to plague patients that may have been destroyed in the process.
“It was found at the beginning of the operations that rather too many articles were at times destroyed as rubbish. Orders were accordingly issued on March 26 to Officers commanding limewashing divisions to visit, if possible, all houses to be limewashed and to decide what should be destroyed in each. It was also laid down that when a property of any value to the owners was destroyed by limewashing party, the Officer commanding the division should note the approximate cost of replacing what had been destroyed in order that compensation might afterwards be paid. In practice nothing was destroyed after the first fortnight of the operations except in the presence of an officer,” reads the report.
The searches, the Committee claimed, bore results. Between March 13 and May 19 1897, it searched 2,18,214 houses and found 338 plague cases and 64 corpses. The report says each house was searched 11 times during the course of the operation.
All entry and exit points to the city were manned by British soldiers to ensure that no one from the infected area enters Pune or plague suspects flee the city or smuggle out the dead bodies to escape testing by the authorities.
As per the British, there were very few complaints against the conduct of the soldiers – both British and Indian – and whenever any complaint was made action was taken against the violators. In a letter written to Rand on May 20 1897, Major A Deb V Paget, who was commanding the operations, lists six cases of violation of discipline by soldiers which were found to be true and involved stealing of cash, pocketing goods and receiving money from the locals.
This curve shows mortality in Pune City, plotted with deaths in five-day intervals on the Y-axis between December 20 to May 30. As per Surgeon Captain WWO Beveridge, who made the curve, the map shows a steady rise until the first week of March and then a marked fall which could be accounted for by measures taken by the plague committee. (Source- Poona Plague committee report)
The committee also claimed that these “energetic measures” carried out by military officers with “praiseworthy zeal” led to the decline of the disease by the end of May 1897 after a peak in March.
HOW INDIANS SAW THESE OPERATIONS?
Local experience of these search operations and forceful segregation of plague patients and suspects, however, was not as benign. The complaints sent to senior officials – including Rand – and news reports in the local publications suggest that residents looked at these operations as a reign of terror.
As per the petitions, summarised by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar in his essay ‘Plague Panic and Epidemic Politics in India: 1896-1914’ published in the book Epidemics and Ideas, there was wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the property during searches. The segregation and lime washing parties would dig up the floor, put gallons of disinfectant in the nook and crannies of the houses. They at times broke open the doors and left them ajar, took away “perfectly healthy” persons and, in some cases, even neighbours and passers-by were packed to segregation camps.
“…There were complaints that ‘all the females are compelled to come out of their houses and stand before the public gaze in the open street and be there subjected to inspection by soldiers. Soldiers were said to behave ‘disgracefully with native ladies’ and the tenor of the official response was that they had ‘merely joked with a Marathi woman’ suggest that sexual harassment probably did occur. Shripat Gopal Kulkarni, an octogenarian, complained that ten or twelve soldiers had burst into his house, forced him to undress, ‘felt…the whole of my body and then made me sit and rise and sitting around me went on clapping their hands and dancing,” writes Chandavarkar.
It was at this backdrop that Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote in Mahratta, his English newspaper: “Plague is more merciful to us than its human prototypes now reigning the city. The tyranny of the Plague Committee and its chosen instruments is yet too brutal to allow respectable people to breathe at ease.”No doubt that the regulations and measures as they were imposed in Pune were the most stringent among all the cities afflicted by the pandemic. In fact, Antony MacDonnel, Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, had observed in a July 1897 communique that “If the plague regulations had been enforced in any city of these provinces in the way in which …they were…enforced in Poona, there would have been bloodshed here.”
Blood was indeed shed in Pune too. On June 22, 1897, Chapekar brothers – Damodar (27), Balkrisha (24) and Vasudev (17 or 18) – shot Rand and Lieutenant Charles Ayerst (mistaking him for Rand before he was located in the preceding carriage) while they were returning from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration at Government House in Ganeshkhind (now Pune University). While Ayerst died immediately, Rand succumbed to the injuries on July 3.
The Chapekar brothers – Damodar (27), Balkrisha (24) and Vasudev (17 or 18)
Damodar Chapekar, who is said to have planned and led the assassination, made it clear in his confession (which was later retracted by him) that the search operations carried out by British soldiers were behind his decision to kill Rand.
“In the search of houses a great zulum (atrocity) was practised by the soldiers and they entered the temples and brought out women from their houses, broke idols and burnt pothis (holy books). We determined to revenge these actions but it was no use to kill common people and it was necessary to kill the chief man. Therefore we determined to kill Mr Rand who was the chief,” Damodar was recorded to have said on October 8, 1897 in front of a magistrate following his arrest.
While Chapekar brothers or their accomplices did not mention of it, the British also surmised that the attack may have been inspired by the “peculiarly violent writing of the Poona newspapers regarding the plague administration” that shortly preceded the murders, almost openly advocating the duty of forcible resistance to the authority. The reference here was to Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s editorials in Kesari as well as writings and reporting in other newspapers such as Sudharak and Poona Vaibhav among others.
The government – startled, embarrassed by the murders – booked Tilak of sedition under Section 124 of Indian Penal code for exciting feelings of disaffection among the public through his writings in Kesari. It was also alleged that by glorifying and justifying Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan in the 17th century, he directly supported violence and resultantly caused murders of the two British officers barely a week after the publication of the articles. A few months later, the court found Tilak guilty and sent him to 18 months of imprisonment.
ACCUSATION OF SEXUAL VIOLATIONS
The alleged atrocities committed by British soldiers during plague control operations also caused an uproar in United Kingdom when Congress leader from Maharashtra Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was visiting England to appear before Welby Commission gave an interview to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) on July 2, 1897 (published on July 3) in which he levelled serious accusations against the British soldiers. These “rumours” were the talk of the town in India but were raised outside the country with such prominence for the first time.
Apart from detailing how soldiers “ignorant of the language and contemptuous to customs” offended in scores of ways, he also made allegations of “violation of two women, one of whom is said to have committed suicide rather than to survive her shame” attributing the information to his contacts back home in Pune. This caused an uproar in the British parliament as well back home in India. The Bombay Presidency government called it a “malevolent invention” and challenged Gokhale to prove them or share with the government the names of the persons who had shared this information with him.
After his return to India, Gokhale tried his best to gather evidence from the persons who had written to him about the atrocities against the women – especially the two cases of rape – but nobody was willing to come forward, especially in the light of the severe crackdown in Pune post Rand’s assassination including sedition case against Tilak. A detailed account of this episode has been given by Stanley Wolpert in his book Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and reform in the making of modern India.
Unable to substantiate these claims, Gokhale published an “unqualified apology” to British soldiers which was published by The Manchester Guardian and The Times of India on August 4.
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As per, Chandavarkar the rumours of these violations – which may or may not be confirmed – should be seen as an indication of the nightmarish experience of the local population of their private places being “invaded and violated” by uninformed foreign agents.
“Stories about the behaviour of the soldiers may have borne a considerable measure of truth but they also reflected the nightmarish invasion and violation of privacy – even god-rooms and kitchens – by the most frightening, powerful, uniformed foreign agent of public authority. Sexual harassment by the soldiers and their ‘disgraceful behaviour towards the native ladies’ almost certainly occurred – and, indeed, physical examination, ‘the exploration of the native’s body’ in the street or at railway checkpoints may themselves be regarded precisely as that – but reports of them also served as a metaphor for the violent eruption of the state into the privacy of people’s lives,” Chandavarkar writes.
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After the initial frenzy had abated, and following Rand’s murder, the Plague Committee slackened its operations although plague continued to flourish. The killing spree in the city went on for several years. By May 1904, it infected 45,665 and killed 37,178.