ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Gandhi and the Pandemic

Although the death toll of the 1918–19 Spanish flu in India was immense, it received little critical attention at the time by either the British authorities or Indian nationalists, or later by historians of Indian politics. Strangely, this was also the case with Mohandas Gandhi who had a penchant for making health-related statements and working as a carer of the sick. His reaction to the illness and death around him has been characterised as one of disinterest. His letters and utterances at this time give some clues as to why he may have been numb to what was transpiring around him.

We know that the influenza pandemic of 1918–19, commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, caused tens of millions of deaths around the world and possibly close to 20 million in India, the worst hit country (Barry 2004: 365). Oddly, especially as so much has been written about the massacres around the partition of British India in which approximately half a million people died, the impact of the epidemic on the subcontinent has ­received relatively little attention from historians (Arnold 2019). And given that Mohandas Gandhi, by this time known as the Mahatma, was engaging in major political and social activities, it is also strange that he seems to only refer to the epidemic in passing and even, as South Asia scholar David Arnold suggests, with indifference. As we are currently in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, this may warrant some further investigation. Why did Gandhi show such indifference to the disease when, given what we know about him, we would have expected the opposite?

Gandhi and the Influenza Epidemic

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Updated On : 22nd Jun, 2020

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