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

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The Political Aftermath of the Plague Epidemic of 1896 in Western India

Nationalist Rhetoric and the Politics of Panic

The unfolding of the plague crisis of 1896 in the Bombay Presidency played an instrumental role in shaping a new vocabulary of nationalism and regional politics in western India. The plague epidemic led to further consolidation of the upper caste-led conservative politics in western India. It was in the aftermath of the deadly plague crisis that the political discourse of cultural revivalism dominated by the Brahmins gathered incredible momentum, resulting in the consolidation of Hindu nationalist voices in western India.

The decades between 1890 and 1930 had been enormously painful for the Indian subcontinent. Since 1896, the havoc created by the bubonic plague not only generated a health crisis of immense proportion but also led to a serious political crisis for the colonial state. Around 10 million deaths occurred in India due to the plague epidemic from the period between 1896 and 1930 (Arnold 1993: 164). Among the different regions affected by the epidemic crisis in India, it was the Bombay Presidency that was one of the hardest hit provinces. It led to a colossal destruction of lives. The chaos witnessed by two prominent cities of the province, Bombay and Poona pertinently symbolised the gravity of the crisis. From the inception of the bubonic plague in 1896 to the commencement of the World War I in 1914, the number of deaths recorded in Bombay city alone, during this period, was around two million (Klein 1988: 734). On the contrary, the city of Poona recorded more than 50,000 deaths in the same period. Contemporary Marathi-speaking journalists compared this huge crisis and enormous loss of the lives with the “reign of terror” (Mahratta, 25 April 1897). Along with the rising mortality in both cities, large-scale displacement of the population also led to the reframing and reworking of provincial politics. This article would be precisely dealing with this aspect of the plague aftermath.

In this article, first, I argue that the unfolding of the plague crisis in the Bombay Presidency played an important role in shaping the new vocabulary of politics in western India. This vocabulary was not just confined to the plague measures adopted by the colonial rule, nor was it only about the concomitant response of the nationalists to the plague crisis. It rather went beyond the realm of epide­mic and healthcare and led to the creation of new forms of political hege­mony in western India. Scholars and historians have worked on different aspects of the history of medicine and public healthcare system in colonial India. Insofar as the scholarship concerning the history of plague epidemic is concerned, scholars have mostly focused solely on the health-related aspects of colonial response to the plague crisis. Few of them have tried to look beyond the calamity in order to grasp the significance of the crisis (Arnold 1993; Chandavarkar 1998; Kidambi 2004; Pati and Harrison 2009). The caste question and its link to the larger vocabulary of politics have not been fully addressed. I argue that the plague epidemic led to further consolidation of the upper caste-led conservative politics in western India. It was in the aftermath of a deadly plague crisis that the political discourse of cultural revivalism dominated by the Brahmins gathered incredible momentum. In this period, it largely revolved around the political arti­culation and activism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a prominent leader of Congress from the region. The intellectual and political ecosystem created by the epidemic clearly led to the strengthening of Hindu nationalist politics in western India.

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Updated On : 30th Apr, 2022
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