Mrunmayee Satam, Amity Institute of Liberal Arts, Amity University, India
Chinmay Tumbe, author of India Moving: A History of Migration, once articulated in an interview that – ‘while the city offers economic security to the poor migrant, their social security lies in their villages, where they have assured food and accommodation’. It has been said that the economic sector is the first to receive a setback during an outbreak of any disease. It is no surprise, therefore, that historians of the social history of health and healthcare have highlighted that epidemics and pandemics trigger the process of reverse migration — a phenomenon wherein people will travel in the opposite direction of what they would typically follow. This means that when there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding their daily wages, migrant populations residing in cities prefer to travel back to their home towns in the countryside in search of social security.
Though the loss of control sensed by people due to fear, anxiety and uncertainty is to be expected, it adds to the urge to travel back home triggering a process wherein these migrating populations often become seen as ‘carriers of disease’. In the case of India, migrants’ caste identity gets amplified as the practice of ‘untouchability’ associated with the lower ranks of the social hierarchy continues to be a major determinant in the series of measures adopted by the state for epidemic management. Drawing parallels between past and the present, this article highlights caste discrimination faced by migrants particularly in quarantine camps during the bubonic plague of 1896 and the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The bubonic plague arrived in Bombay in September 1896 and gradually spread to most parts of the subcontinent. Bombay, being a major port and also well connected through the railways, proved to be an ideal gateway for the plague bacteria (Kidambi, 2004). The colonial state adopted a series of intrusive measures to tackle the plague epidemic in the city. Following the fear and panic created at the time, people began to leave Bombay for their native towns. Natasha Sarkar’s doctoral dissertation titled, ‘Fleas, Faith and Politics: Anatomy of an Indian Epidemic, 1890-1925’, mentions that the wealthy business class was the first to leave Bombay, with some returning to their native towns and others fleeing to the hills. However, not far behind the business community was the floating population which fled the city (Sarkar, 2011).
The floating population largely included the dockers and mill workers who lived in overcrowded localities and were the worst affected during the epidemic. Describing the process of reverse migration, Sarkar states that, ‘The exodus left Bombay by both rail and steamer, some taking with them sick companions, others carrying the incubating disease on their person, to break out on arrival at their homes’ (Sarkar, 2011). Even at the height of the epidemic, both the colonial government and the Bombay Municipality made several attempts to confine the working class to the city to ensure that the infection would not spread to rural areas. Above the wellbeing of rural communities, however, the primary concern in doing so was to shield the city from economic collapse (Sarkar, 2011).
In September 1896, Ahmedabad was the first place to be infected, and by December Poona and Karachi were infected by the disease after it was carried by the migrants arriving from Bombay. Punjab was infected in October 1897, followed by Bengal and the Madras Presidency in 1898 (Sarkar, 2011). As the plague began to spread to other provinces and presidencies, quarantine was imposed across the subcontinent, with detention or segregation camps set up for quarantine purposes.
Throughout these events, there were visible evident biases in how the quarantine policy was implemented by colonial states across the Indian subcontinent. The biases played out at two levels. First, Europeans and elites, as opposed to the common masses, were exempt from quarantine. The regional newspapers across the subcontinent were extremely vocal in their criticism of the exemption policy and questioned whether Europeans were immune to plague (Sarkar, 2011). The second level of bias played out as pre-existing social hierarchies within Indian society permeated explicitly in quarantine camps.
The caste system in India divides people into unequal social groups where the lowest rank of the society gets categorised as ‘untouchables’ and are today known as Dalits. The idea of ‘purity and pollution’ associated with the practice of untouchability was visible in the arrangements made in segregating camps. While writing on the bubonic plague, Ramanna (2012) notes that while checking temperatures, ‘Each caste had its own set of thermometers and the temperature had to be taken by one of their own caste’. Furthermore, in Punjab, camps were segregated along caste, community, and religious lines. The arrivals were even provided with the material for preparing their own meals, or were appointed cooks from the same caste and community to do the cooking (Sarkar, 2011).
While caste biases were evident, there were also certain exceptions to the rule. Railway medical inspections were commonly used to identify and segregate the cases at an early stage. At Solapur railway station, a Mahar woman (Mahars are part of the Dalit community) was entrusted with inspecting female passengers — a responsibility that otherwise would not have been assigned to a Dalit. Another example is from Sind, where Brahmins and Chamars (also part of the Dalit community) were housed together in quarantine camps (Ramanna, 2012).
More than a century later, the country is being confronted with the same reality they faced during the bubonic plague in 1896. Reverse migration has played an important role in the spread of COVID-19 in the interior parts of the country. Particularly throughout March and April 2020, India witnessed a major exodus of people leaving urban cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, all heading towards their native towns and villages. Due to the severe lockdown imposed across the country, the migrant labour population was left with no choice but to walk long distances in order to reach home.
Considering that more than 45% of the working force in India are daily wagers, government agencies should have been better prepared to address the issue of reverse migration following the outbreak of COVID-19. Furthermore, bearing in mind that the caste system has been strongly entrenched in Indian society for centuries, most daily labourers are from the Dalit community. In addition to the financial difficulties, Dalit migrants heading back home face a great amount of social stigma in quarantine camps as well as in their own villages. For example, in the Guna district of Madhya Pradesh, a Sahariya tribal family was quarantined in a school toilet over fears of the coronavirus because the family had recently returned from the Rajgarh district where they were employed as daily wagers.
Discrimination against Dalit people during the COVID-19 pandemic has played out in other ways as well. In May 2020, an article published in a national daily news outlet stated that a young man in his early twenties refused to eat food or drink water touched by a Dalit woman cook as he was quarantined in a Nainital village school. In another incident in Uttar Pradesh, two men put up in the isolation centre would leave quarantine to travel to their homes for meals ‘because they had never taken a food cooked by a scheduled caste person’. In the words of Subhashini Ali, ‘India’s untouchability epidemic refuses to stop for coronavirus’. There is little doubt that lockdowns and quarantine measures have only deepened the existing social hierarchies in the Indian society.
To conclude, there is an element of the ‘presence of the past’ in the current public health crisis. Both in the 19th and the 21st centuries, the category of the migrant itself has been used to mark the worker as an ‘outsider’, both in the city as well as in their own village/native town. The act of disinfecting migrants on the road is a perfect example of the past repeating itself. During the plague epidemic of 1896, phenyl and boiling water were used to disinfect the migrants arriving from major cities and towns into the countryside. This was done even when ‘people had nothing or were given nothing to cover themselves’ (Ramanna, 2012). During the current pandemic, a similar strategy was adopted in parts of India where groups of migrants heading home were sprayed with chlorine solution.
While there are many other direct parallels between past and present, we also see some divergences. Unlike the 19th century when quarantine camps and hospitals were set up to cater to specific caste and community (Sarkar, 2011; Ramanna, 2012), there is little doubt that in the 21st century the role of the caste is less visible. This is largely because the forms and methods of caste discrimination have evolved over the centuries. That being said, it cannot be denied that caste is equally potent in the contemporary context given how things have played out with COVID-19. In comparison to upper caste migrant labourers, Dalit migrant workers continue to face additional social discrimination. The coronavirus pandemic has yet again highlighted that, though less visible, caste discrimination continues to exist and has not been dealt with in a proactive manner.
Dr Mrunmayee Satam is a Visiting Faculty at Amity Institute of Liberal Arts, Amity University, Mumbai. She completed her PhD from Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester in 2019. Her PhD thesis is titled, ‘Governing the Body: Public Health and Urban Society in Colonial Bombay City, 1914-1945’. More broadly, she is interested in Urban History, Colonial History and Social History of Health and Healthcare.
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