Monday, August 3, 2020

Aftermath: Mohandas Gandhi and The Spanish Flu

Annamaria on Monday

Eighteen to twenty million people died in India in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20 - the worst death toll of any country in the world.  (In fact, ten percent of the total of all countries).

Under the yoke of British colonialism, some Indians believed that their oppressors were causing people to perish, by poisoning the wells to rid the subcontinent of unwanted population.  A writer in one newspaper claimed that the deaths came because poison gas from the trenches of France had drifted to India and killed thousands.  (If you think those people of old were a bunch of ignoramuses, think about how the ignoramuses of last April were retweeting the news that Covid-19 was the result of a chemical warfare agent escaping from a lab in Wuhan, China!)

In 1918, the real culprit was, of course, the H1-N1 virus, but the world knew nothing of such a critter in those days.  The bug first came to India with Indian troops returning to Bombay (now Mumbai) from service fighting with the British in Mesopotamia and East Africa.  On 29 May 1918, they disembarked and went home.  A few days later a policeman serving on the waterfront fell ill. Then in another three days, the illness had spread to more policemen, and eventually to many others who worked in the dockyards.  Soon it was laying people low throughout the country.

At this point, Mahatma Gandhi had been traveling by train around India, encouraging his countrymen to join the British in their war.  To his way of thinking at the time, Indians had become soft.  Becoming fighting men would harden them up.  Also, their helping to win the war would encourage the British to take a more beneficent attitude toward their Indian subjects.

Meanwhile, the flu was spreading and beginning to take lives.  Gandhi, too, fell ill.  On 17 August 1918, he wrote a letter that began, "I am on my back."  One might have said the same thing about his country.

And so the Mahatma and his country suffered in the ensuing months.

Bodies began to pile up around India, and when trains entered stations, the people descending were outnumbered by the corpses being carried off.  The colonial overlords could or would do nothing to stop the carnage.  Certain he was facing imminent death, Gandhi wrote many letters telling his wife and his friends and colleagues about how his thinking was changing.

"The more I contemplate this illness, the more deeply I realize what love of man to man must be.  And love of God...Nature is God, and God is love..My suffering is my own fault.  We get what we deserve...What have I done to bring this on....recruiting for the war effort.

"One need not  assume that heroism is to be acquired only by fighting in a war.  One can also do so by keeping out of it...We can cultivate manliness in another way, not to fight for the British but against them with non-violent means...Defy laws that are unfair..."

In those letters one can see Gandhi's thinking change and his commitment to nonviolence solidify.

He survived.  And though deeply wounded, India did too.  By January 1919, he was ready with a powerful message that would bring his countrymen to his way of thinking.  By the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar Massacre, he had convinced thousands to stand up non-violently for their right to independence.

On Sunday, 13 April 1919, Reginald Dyer, an acting Brigadier General in the British Army, ordered his men to fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians.  At least 379 were killed and more than a thousand injured.  More corpses.  But this time, they died for the cause of independence.

It took another twenty-eight years and a great deal more work to reach their goal.  But it came.  On the 15th of August 1947.

We have no way of knowing for certain that the disease Gandhi suffered was the Spanish Flu, but his illness hit him at the exact time that the pandemic was spreading.  His daughter-in-law and her child died because of confirmed cases.

Two things we know for certain: it was during this illness that Gandhi's own thinking changed.  And the suffering from the pandemic and the societal ills of colonialism it laid bare awoke the will of the people to stand up and demand justice and freedom.

Let's contemplate what this lesson means to us.  In the face of our current woes.  And what we might achieve, in the next years, if we all stand up non-violently for justice. 

The memorial to Gandhi in Union Square that I salute
 several times a week.  These are the kinds of statues we
need to erect.


  1. Interesting that you've given two examples where someone's thinking during (probably) the Spanish Flu changed their approaches dramatically, and thereby affected the history of the world...

  2. You know, Michael, what a history nerd I am. When the pandemic began in earnest in March, I realized we were about to live through a period that would bring great change. That's when I started researching and writing here about Aftermath. When I discovered, quite by accident, these shifts in the thinking of two important people who had such an effect on the course of history, I had to contrast them. Wilson--for all his myriad other flaws--had a passion that could have benefitted the world. He lost that to the flu. And Gandhi gained a passion that changed the world for the better through nonviolence. Not only the liberation of India. Other liberations. I think of Martin Luther King. Of Nelson Mandela! What strides inspired by one man's conversion in a pandemic. As compared to the rise Nazism the result of the other reversal. It was too much not want to talk about.

  3. Well, Sis, let us pray that as great a movement comes out of these times of such suffering and woe.