The influenza epidemic in India started in May-June 1918 and reached its peak between September and December. It gradually petered out in early 1919. It caused close to 20 million deaths in India which was about 40 times more than the number of people who died in the massacre during the partition of British India in 194647. Although the death toll was immense, it received little attention from either the British authorities or Indian nationalists. Was this also the case with Gandhi who had a penchant for working as a care giver to the sick? This article based on the letters and utterances of Gandhi, attempts to lay bare the truth regarding Gandhi’s reaction to illness and death around him at that time.
Gandhi was well aware of the epidemic. His eldest son lost his wife and a child to influenza. In his 23 November 1918, letter Gandhi wrote to his son, “I felt sad for a moment when I learnt that your family were afflicted with influenza and there was even a death.
But such news is pouring in from everywhere so that now the mind is hardly affected”. Early in 1919, he wrote to his good friend, Reverend C.F. Andrews: “My dear Charlie, So you have been suffering from influenza.
To me the marvel is that you can keep so well in spite of incessant wanderings. But I suppose God protects those whom He wants to use as His instruments, especially when they let Him do the guiding without any opposition. I, therefore, entertain no anxiety on your behalf.” Gandhi wrote many such letters to various persons in those days.
Gandhi’s well known history of serving the afflicted in various disease outbreaks, for example, his efforts during the outbreak of bubonic plague in South Africa in early 1904 and his messages on how to meet the danger of an eruption of the plague in Ahmedabad in July 1917 notwithstanding, he seemed to only refer to the epidemic in passing and even with indifference. But then, why did Gandhi show such indifference to the disease?
The main reasons attributed by scholars and historians for Gandhi not considering the outbreak as his primary concern are as follows: First, his own debilitating illness in mid-August 1918 due to a severe attack of dysentery followed by a nervous breakdown that lasted for several months and was clearly lifethreatening at its worst. Before his illness, he was engaged in campaigns assisting the indigo growers in Champaran, the mill workers in Ahmedabad and the peasants struggling with payments of the land tax in Khade. Second, his engagement in taking up with the seemingly un-Gandhian task of conducting a recruitment drive to encourage Indians to enlist in the British army for the world war.
Some scholars have attempted to make more of Gandhi’s condition, linking it to the epidemic, claiming that in fact he had been laid low by influenza. For example, Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World claimed that Gandhi himself was suffering from Spanish flu, and not dysentery. According to her, members of Sabarmati Ashram were also suffering from influenza. It was for this reason that Gandhi could not do anything to mitigate the suffering of the people afflicted with influenza. Spinney opined that due largely to popular distrust and discontent with the Raj over its inability to control the flu, Gandhi was unhappy, and he became the undisputed leader of the independence movement for his nature of involving himself with masses.
Gandhi’s writings during this period give excruciating details about his condition, from frequent visits to the lavatory to his surgery for piles that required morphine. Meanwhile the disease raged throughout India, countless people died and apart from his graphic descriptions of dysentery and piles, he could offer only the briefest sympathy to those who died. From the review of literature on the subject, it would appear that his seeming indifference to the deadly epidemic raging around him was at least in part a result of not only his shattered physical condition but also because he was suffering from an emotional and spiritual existential crisis, a nervous breakdown that drained him in a way that he could not respond as may have been expected of him.
His recruitment attempts engaged him in a morally questionable enterprise by trying to enlist peasants for the British war effort. This happened in places where not that long before he had the status of a popular hero for successfully challenging the authorities over tax issues affecting the local peasantry. Now they were shunning him and his recruitment drive, despite strenuous efforts on his part, came to practically nothing.
Gandhian scholar Judith Brown observed that Gandhi’s struggle with his conscience, with those near to him, and those who had flocked to him, combined with physical exhaustion to precipitate a radical collapse in his health from the second half of 1918, virtually removed him from public life during the time of the influenza pandemic. It appeared that Gandhi left the pandemic unmentioned in his public discourse at the time as well as in his Autobiography a decade later. Yet Gandhi, who was dealing with his own illness, was not alone among India’s foremost political leaders in this respect. Jawaharlal Nehru began his political career in 1916. When Nehru recalled that crucial period after the war ended, he failed to note the 1918 pandemic in either his autobiography Toward Freedom or later in Discovery of India.
What conclusion can we draw from the above facts? Where does this leave us? Regardless of Spinney’s assertions that it was not dysentery but influenza, his exhaustion followed by nervous breakdown, surgery for piles that took Gandhi’s mind off matters that would usually have been of fundamental importance to him, members of Sabarmati Ashram lying low due to illness and the death of his close relatives, it cannot be denied that Gandhi, more or less ignored the epidemic that was raging around him as Nehru, the British authorities in India, and historians of the Raj had done. Real reasons for their doing so cannot perhaps be ascertained now when the country is in the grip of another pandemic.