Why didn’t Gandhi pay much attention to Spanish Flu?

There is little doubt that Spanish Flu for all its severity has missed most history books. The Flu occurred during the momentous period of WWI and added to the ongoing tragedy in world history in terms of lost lives and tarnished families. Yet, it barely features in historical discussions.

Thomas Weber of La Trobe University and Dennis Dalton of Barnard College add to this discussion in this interesting EPW paper. They look at Mahatma Gandhi’s letters during the period to figure what was he thinking and writing during the pandemic. Despite his own family getting infected, Gandhi paid very little attention to pandemic:

When David Arnold urged historians in his 2018 paper to study the 1918 flu pandemic, he could not have known that only two years later his admonition would prove so relevant to the COVID-19 catastrophe. Suddenly the media features lessons to be learned from this “forgotten” scourge of 1918 (Kolata 2020). Is there anything that can be learned from Gandhi’s less than expected ­involvement with the Spanish flu either about him personally or about his position of leadership in the nationalist movement?

As we have shown, 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 he recalled that crucial period ­after the war ended, he failed to note the 1918 pandemic in either his autobiography Toward Freedom (1958) or later in Discovery of India (1967).5 The omission in the latter is particularly curious. Nehru did present this moment in graphic detail by relating first the ­economic and psychological deprivation that India endured as a result of British imperialism. He pointedly includes the suffering among all strata of society, “the quagmire and defeatism” directly caused by colonialism. Then, this enigmatic comment:

And this process had eaten its way deep into the body and soul of India, poisoning every aspect of our corporate life, like that fell disease which consumes the tissues of the lungs and kills slowly but inevitably. Sometimes we thought that some swifter and more obvious process, resembling cholera or the bubonic plague, would have been better; but that was a passing thought… And then Gandhi came. (1967: 379)

A puzzling paradox—not only does Nehru miss reinforcing his case against the raj by referencing here the 1918 pandemic, but he implicitly wishes that the flu epidemic had happened without ­remembering that it did. The amnesia is total. And another irony worth noting is that like Nehru, Gandhi never associated the 1918 pandemic with the cost
of ­colonialism.

Where does this leave us? Regardless of Spinney’s assertions, it was not influenza but dysentery, exhaustion, what has been termed a “nervous breakdown,” and surgery for piles that took Gandhi’s mind off matters that would usually have been of fundamental importance to him, especially given that it had laid ashram members low and even lead to the death of close relatives. He 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, but perhaps with more reason for doing so.


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