Plague and COVID-19: An insight into the role of caste and religion during pandemics in India

The caste and lifestyle of various caste groups heavily influence the physical and mental health of the people and is a pan-India phenomena

Plague and COVID-19: An insight into the role of caste and religion during pandemics in India
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Anil Chamadia

In India, we have ample amount of studies done to establish the fact that the average age of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women is lower in comparison to the average age of citizens belonging to other social groups. According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the average mortality rate among Dalit women is much higher than women of non-Dalit communities. The average life expectancy of Dalit women is 14.6 years lower than the average life expectancy of other women in India. Dalit women on average live up to the age of 39.5 years, whereas women of upper castes on average live up to the age of 54.1 years.

Economist Vani Kant Barooah, through a research study, concluded that the average age of Adivasis has gone down to 43 years, which was 45 years in 2004. If placed in decreasing order, the average life expectancy among Adivasis is closely followed by Dalits and then Muslims, which is lower in comparison to the average life expectancy of other groups in India.

It is therefore believed that there is no other word in any language that has as many implied meanings, other than its original, as the word caste. Similar is the case with the segregation based on this notion, which cannot be found anywhere in the world other than India. The word caste, apart from denoting its original meaning, also paints a picture of the condition and background of a person belonging to a certain caste group.

However, it is very interesting to note that although the average age of a Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim is much lower normally, it is noted that the situation is completely reversed during an epidemic or pandemic. Even though the rate of medical attention received by Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are expectedly low, the mortality is also lower among these groups.

In reality, in India, the system of health facility and resistant capacity is very similar to the country’s social structure. While the healthcare system is formulated by the political, social and economic systems, the resistance capacity among Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are evolved due to their lifestyles.

Due to the social structure in India, Dalits have been ordained to carry out tasks involving a high amount of physical labour; Adivasis continue to reside very far away from the city lives, in jungles, and Muslims have to consume meat due to poor financial conditions.

It is noteworthy that during a pandemic, when the existing healthcare system fails to be enough to combat the disease, our immunity plays an important role and proves to be helpful in keeping a large part of society safe.

A very interesting analysis of the conditions of caste groups when plague had hit India 120 years ago, killing 10 million peoples during the 25 years after 1896, has come to light.

According to a compilation by R. Nathan, IAS, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, the Hindu Plague Hospital in Pune was administered by Brahmins and was open to all Hindus expect those who belonged to the lower caste.

British officer Charles Rand, in his report, very clearly mentioned that Hindu Plague Hospital was only open for Brahmins and other upper castes while all other castes were not allowed to get admitted or treated. He wrote that among the 157 patients admitted, 98 were Brahmins while 59 belonged to other upper castes. During the first year of opening up of the hospital, Brahmins constituted 62.2% of the total number of patients.

Another interesting point that came into focus through this analysis is that for those for whom the healthcare system is developed, their lifestyle and the socio-cultural background starts acting as a barricade in accessing these facilities. In India, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was observed that those affected by it tend to hide themselves inside their homes.

At the time when plague had spread in India, a system of making medical care available at home was put in place in the city of Pune. In general, the people in Pune supported the plague committee.

Charles Rand writes, ‘the people, in general, were amicable but they tried to hide their illness. The only group that was against the committee were Brahmins. Their attitude towards the soldiers was malevolent. The plague commission had to face a high amount of opposition in the Brahmin bastis (locality).

According to the plague commissioner, the hospitals designated for the Muslims were operating rather peacefully. The reason for this was the undisputed faith, towards the hospitals, among the Muslims. ‘Those admitted in these hospitals were poor. Moreover, the majority of the patients were brought to hospitals by their family members. While on one hand, these patients in the hospitals received great care and trust, among the Hindu patients, it was as if they were being brought forcefully to the hospital.’

On 22 June 1897, a deadly attack took place in which Charles Rand’s partner Lt. Oyster died on the spot and 10 days later on 3 July, Charles Rand also succumbed to his injuries. On 19 February 1897, a young Deputy District Officer Walter Charles Rand took the additional charge of plague control. In a small period of 2 months (19 Feb to April), Charles Rand was able to turn Pune into a plague free area.

Rand discovered that Pune had turned into a hotbed for plague. Pune was the local center of the political activities of nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak. On 25 April 1897, Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote an editorial in Maratha that was titled ‘A prayer before Lord Sandhurst’, which said that the appointment of Charles Rand as plague commissioner was unfortunate.

Prof. Pramila V. Rao has extensively written on the background of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s resentment towards Charles Rand. In 1894, Charles Rand was posted as an officer in Satara. The role of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in giving political colour to the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration was a highly talked about subject. While being posted in Satara, Charles Rand had put a ban on the playing of political songs by the nationalists during the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration. Moreover, he was also instrumental in punishing 11 Brahmins who had flouted the instructions.

The person accused of Charles Rand’s murder, Damodar Chapekar, and his two brothers Balakrishna and Vasudev and Mahadev Vinayak Ranade had been a follower of Hindutva Ideology. They were pronounced guilty and were punished with death by hanging. The Indian Postal Service on 8th July 2018 issued a postal stamp on the 120th death anniversary of Damodar Hari Chapekar.

It is also a fact that the biggest organisation that is a proponent of Hindutva ideology, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), mostly headed by a caste Brahmin, was born in Maharashtra 125 years ago, and India since 2014, under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi, has been under the governance of a party whose political inclination is towards the Hindutva ideology.

But the caste and lifestyle of various caste groups heavily influence the physical and mental health of the people and is a pan-India phenomena.

Apart from Pune, plague had also spread in other parts of the country.

Researcher Dr. A.K. Vishwas, recently retired from Indian Administrative Service, through an official report, delineated that plague does not discriminate between caste, class, social status and race. But, while submitting a report to the government in Lahore (now in Pakistan), on the death rate due to plague, Menard, the Deputy Commissioner of Ambala, mentioned, ‘If plague spreads among the Brahmins they will start dying like flies. Brahmins and baniyas are not able to survive, the reason for which is that they spend the majority of their time bare-chested and bare-foot. This leads to them being easily susceptible to catch the illness.’

On the other hand, the Chief Medical Officer of the Punjab government noted that the mortality rate among Muslims, ‘Chamars’ and ‘Bhangis’ (both castes belong to the Dalit community) were not exceptionally high, the reason for which was that consumption of meat in high amount. If we go by the statistics, the mortality rate among the upper caste Hindus like Brahmins, Rajputs and Khatris were the highest. The rate of mortality among these was a staggering 72.2%.

This made it clear that among the various castes, ‘Chamars’ had the strongest resistance capacity. Among those who were cured, the ‘Chamars’ constituted 36% and Muslims 34%, while only 28% of Brahmins got cured.

There are a lot of articles being written about the role of caste and religion during the recent COVID 19 pandemic in India. But it will take time in turning it into documented files like it was done during the times of the plague.

But it is unfortunate that after the announcement of the lockdown by the Prime Minister on 24th March 2020, the impact of the propaganda that paints COVID-19 virus as a Muslim one by mainstream Indian media and troll armies on social media has been clearly visible and deep-rooted.

(The author has been active in journalism since 1980s. With vast experience in various newspapers, magazines and TV channels, he has been a Professor in Mass Communication. He edits monthly research journals Jan Media (Hindi) and Mass Media (English) published from Delhi since 2012)

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