In India’s Covid Crisis, Echoes of a Colonial Past

Pilgrimages have spread pandemics before and after independence.

The news from India this last month has been chilling. Record Covid-19 cases and deaths make headlines every day. On one day in May the country registered 4,529 deaths—the highest single-day total ever recorded anywhere on earth in a single day. These figures do not capture the pandemic’s fullest impact. There is reason to believe that both the rate of infection and the mortality rate are underreported. Burial grounds are running out of space, crematoria furnaces are melting from overuse, funeral pyres are burning round the clock to keep pace and hundreds of corpses were found floating down the river Ganges. How is it that a country that managed to stem the onslaught of Covid last year with fewer casualties than initially projected, whose premier boasted in January at the World Economic Forum of having “saved humanity from a big disaster” turned into the epicenter of the pandemic in weeks?

A hasty reopening, slow vaccine rollout and the emergence of a more infectious variant have undoubtedly contributed to the surge in cases as has the country’s legacy of pollution as Daniel Block noted in the Monthly recently. Arguably the single most explosive factor in the rapid transmission of the virus was the Kumbh mela, the Hindu pilgrimage that takes place every 12 years at one of four locations Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain, and Haridwar.

This year the pilgrimage took place at Haridwar, a town along the banks of the Ganges in the state of Uttarakhand. The dates for the pilgrimage are astrologically determined and this astral configuration came after 11 years—a function of Jupiter’s revolution around the sun taking 11.86 years, a once in a century occurrence. While the pilgrimage itself began in January the dates for the “shahi sanan,” the especially auspicious days for bathing in the Ganges to wash away one’s sins, fell on April 12, 14, and 27. Between January 14 and April 27 more than 9.1 million people gathered at Haridwar. At least 6 million of that total congregated in April alone. It’s no coincidence that cases of Covid-19 skyrocketed soon after the pilgrimage began. The number of new cases reported on March 1 was around 12,000 and on April 13 it had shot up to 185,000. A record high of 414,188 cases were reported May 6.

This is not the first time that the Kumbh mela turned into a hotbed for an epidemic. Throughout the 19th century several cholera epidemics in India could be traced to this pilgrimage. The earliest record of an outbreak at the Kumbh is from 1817. The 1865 cholera pandemic that came to Europe via Mecca was believed to have originated at Haridwar. At the International Sanitary Conference organized the following year to help address the scourge of ‘King cholera’ as it was often called, pilgrimages at Haridwar were deemed “the most powerful of all the causes that tend to the development and propagation of the epidemics of the disease.” Cholera broke out at all subsequent Kumbhs melas at Haridwar during the 19th century, with the exception of the one in 1891. So strongly were Kumbh Melas implicated that a leading London medical paper and the Surgeon General of the United States misattributed the origins of the global cholera pandemic of 1892 to the pilgrimage.

Colonial administrators were fully aware of the immense toll that epidemic outbreaks at Kumbh melas took on the people of India and beyond. Colonial public health records are replete with officials’ palpable anxieties in the build-up to each pilgrimage. Each time they contemplated the possibility of banning the Kumbh mela; and each time the political imperative to avoid a prospective popular uprising took precedence. Public health was sacrificed in the interest of political expediency. And over the course of British rule in India countless Indians lost their lives to cholera epidemics at pilgrimage sites. One may say, those were colonial times—a different era when the lives of colonial subjects did not figure beyond a point in political decisions.

As an historian of medicine, listening to the statements made by Modi’s government prior to the Kumbh mela this year I could feel a portending sense of the familiar and terrible. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing ruling party relies on the support of Hindu nationalists. In an attempt to pander to the voter base Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, said, “I invite all devotees across the world to come to Haridwar and take a holy dip in the Ganga during Mahakumbh. Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, buoyed by the plummeting cases at the end of last year, riding the wave of his image of invincibility and eager to maintain his populist appeal also endorsed the holding of the Kumbh mela. Despite calls from health experts to call it off, the government of India refused. Even in non-pandemic times, a pilgrimage where millions descend on a small town to bathe and dwell in close proximity poses challenges. This year the gathering was manna for the coronavirus, allowing it to spread faster than it could even on the crowded streets of Mumbai or on trains to Goa. Yet clearly even in an India that is no longer under colonial rule, political interests rode roughshod over public health.

Epidemics are known for laying bare the hidden fault lines of societies. For many of us it may not come as much of a surprise that British colonial officers chose to let the Kumbh mela go ahead even at great cost to public health because it was politically convenient and sidestepped the possibility of having a rebellion on their hands. After three-quarters of a century of political independence, we see the democratically elected government of India, a country that prides itself on technological and financial progress, make a similarly crass political calculus, choosing to curry favor with Hindu nationalists at the expense of lives. Whether subjects or citizens, the public health of Indian people has too often been sacrificed for political gain.

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Amna Khalid

Anna Khalid is an associate professor in history at Carleton College and the former John Stuart MIll Faculty Fellow at Heterodox Academy.