Featruing Tarangini Sriraman, Historian at Azim Premji University



GV: Hello. You’re listening to Chatroom on Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Gayathri

MR: and I’m Mary Rose. This is a bonus episode that delves deeper into some of the topics in Episode 1 — Pandemics & borders. You can listen to that on our website, scrollsandleaves.com

GV: So, today, we’re talking to Tarangini Sriraman

Tarangini:  I teach both history and politics at Azim Premji University in Bangalore 

MR: She’ll be talking about Bombay — 

GV: not Mumbai ..

MR: Right.. Bombay Presidency… a major trading port of the British Empire at the end of the 19th century. Those were bad times… 

Tarangi: the famine happened in Bombay presidency and around four and a half lakh people died in the Bombay Presidency and Deccan Plateau

MR: Famine was followed by bubonic plague, which arrived on rats carried by ships from Hong Kong… Tarangini will tell us what Bombay was like back then, and how plague ran through the city. And we’ll hear about this old law, called the Epidemic Diseases Act that was put in place back in 1897… and the amazing thing is it’s still around, the Indian government enacted during this pandemic

Tarangini: the Epidemic Disease Act has been invoked, after the outbreak of COVID in India. And it’s in the name of this Act and by the powers vested by this act to the government, that you have a very many stringent and sweeping powers of surveillance that state governments have armed themselves with

GV: Tarangini’s research has focused on the history of identification documents in colonial and postcolonial India. She’s looked at the legal and cultural impacts of identification documents at various points in history — from the time of the plague in the late 19th century —

MR: which we’re talking about today…

GV: right… to rationing during the second world war… and most recently, the impact of Aadhar on poor urban folks. Her book, “In Pursuit of Proof: A History of Identification Documents in India” uses ethnography to trace how IDs are made, circulated, and imagined by governments, administrations and by people in contemporary India and Delhi in particular.  We spoke to her back in May (TK), and the interview has been edited and condensed. 


MR: To set the scene for you, in May, India was under lockdown. Prime Minister Modi had implored Indians to stay home. Trains weren’t running. Migrant laborers were walking home. People were placed in quarantine centers.

Let’s hear from Tarangini — thanks for being with us. 

Tarangini: No, I’ve been looking forward to this quite a bit. So thank you.

MR:  in terms of, you said you studied identification — what were some of the earliest forms of identification used in India?

Tarangini: If you were to look at some of the early forms of identification, so of course, there were censuses that came to be undertaken even in pre colonial India. And so the Mughals, the Marathas, the Rajputs, all came up with their own censuses. Post colonization, you have the caste census, for instance, emerging in 1901. But even before that, disease saw its fair share of identification documents and identification measures, right. That’s something that I have been very invested in studying and so some of the earliest identified measures then would involve coming up with all these documents related to plague, where they are talking about plague passports, exemption certificates related to plague, detention certificates or plague inoculation certificates, and the like 

MR: That’s interesting, Tarangini… So — just as a bit of background for our listeners — plague arrived in Bombay in 1896 onboard ships that docked at port. Bombay had a population of 800,000 back then…it arrived in August, and by March, 20,000 people had died… and hundreds of thousands left the city, and carried the disease into India… and before this, there was a famine, right? Tell us about it?

Tarangini: The famine happened in Bombay presidency and Around four and a half lakh people died in the Bombay Presidency and Deccan Plateau. And this happened in 1899 to 1900. Right. So it was seen to have some of the highest mortality rates compared to other famines. That is,

GV: is that 4.5 lakh is it?

Tarangini: yeah, yeah.

 GV: 450,000 people?

Tarangini: More than that a little more than that. Yeah. So

GV: Is that — How many — and that’s just in Bombay? 450,000 people

Tarangini: that’s right in the Bombay presidency.

GV: ok… that seems like an incredibly huge number to me.. Esp assuming population …back then… was much lower right compared to what it is today…

Tarangini: Yeah. I should say that, by the way, the famine happened in 1899-1900. But there had also been famine like conditions before that. So, so you can imagine that Bombay as a city was very vulnerable to death and disease, and famine had rendered it so. And by the time the plague actually breaks out, by the time there’s a plague outbreak in Bombay, you can actually see a certain raging wave of disease across the various parts of Bombay presidency, but particularly in the hinterland, but also cities fared very badly as well.

GV– That’s interesting… Bombay back then was very different from the Bombay as we know it. So, when you say, it spread through Bombay and the hinterland, what was the hinterland like? Who was living in Bombay, was the town segregated into Black Town and White town? Was that the terms being used — and if they were, the native sections, how were the streets even laid out, did they have sanitation — were people living close together in urban slums? I know these are modern terms but how did Bombay look like in those days?

Tarangini: Yes. 

Tarangini: Yeah. Thanks for those a lot of questions packed into that. So I’m going to try and answer them bit by bit. So If you look at how Bombay the city evolved, how it grew, how it expanded. So, I am going to actually rely on what one historian of Bombay has said –Sandeep Hazari Singh tells us about how the growth of Bombay as a city pretty much reflected the character of the Empire as well as the global economy of the time. Right. So what that meant was that Bombay as a city saw a flourishing port culture, a very vibrant port culture. And it was also home to two booming trades. And this was trade in two commodities — that is opium and raw cotton, right? And so, if you look at the global economy, then opium as a commodity was being dispatched, in swades in great bulk to China, while raw cotton was being sent in consignments to Britain, right, which was using that to make finished goods right, finished Calico textiles. And so Bombay was such catering to global trade in these commodities. 

Over time you also saw mills coming up in the city. So as a result he also had several mill workers who were spread across the city.

So that’s so you you can actually then picture a city, which, on the one hand, saw migration by a lot of small brokers, traders, right merchants, in fact even shipbuilders, right? All of them moving to Bombay in the 18th and the 19th centuries, and added to that was also the migration of several workers who came to be employed in Bombay’s mills. 

So to answer your question about white town and black town, yes, there were terms like that being used. And these were terms that were used quite rampantly in all the presidencies, presidency towns, especially so if you were to look, talking about Bombay or Madras or Calcutta, these terms were being employed to refer to the quarters where the Europeans stayed and that was White Town while the residential quarters of an Indian’s was a Black town. So

of course, the White town also contained all sorts of home to the cantonment and it was a colonial enclave, right? And then it and then it was encircled by this fort wall. And beyond the fort walls, lay the black town.

GV: So there was an actual physical border between the white town and the black town? 

Tarangini: Yes, yes.

GV: And what did that border mark? I mean, so just like Visually speaking… would that border mark the end of sanitary services, and the beginning of filth…?

Tarangini: Oh, ah, yeah, interesting wording of the question of that question.

GV: well, borrowing from all of those historical documents by the Brits that say Indians are filthy! Filth in air quotes…

Taragini: Well, yes. In one sense, yes. The colonial enclave had to be guarded from all disease, from rebellion, from raids, right, all of that. But, and for those reasons, it had to be guarded from soldiers soldiers contracting diseases, whether it’s epidemics like smallpox or cholera, or yellow fever or tuberculosis or plague… and also venereal diseases like syphilis.

It was important to ensure that there was not too much of coming and going of Indians into the White Town except of course, to ensure that there’s enough menial services that are made available. So so that’s the White town for you. So the black town…

GV: That sounds like a modern gated community in India

Tarangini:  it does, it does. It definitely does. Yeah. Yeah. And I am Yeah, hard placed to think of what the My Gate app looks like, in the 19th century. Yeah. But yeah, so that Aside, the Black Town came to be marked by all kinds of residential as well as commercial activity. 

MR: Interesting — so how did the Black town fare during the plague in Bombay?

Tarangini: Now, it so happened that there was these houses or they were these forms of housing that landlords had set up for mill workers right in the black town. And these houses were more or less one room tenements. 

Now, you see with the plague, you had a certain chaos of housing as well right? Because people had to be evicted from their houses and especially the poor came to be evicted in a big way, right, from from various centers of the city and it was only possible to evict the poor and slum residents wantonly, right? You couldn’t do the same thing to middle class residents. And once you evict them, you would have to air out the buildings, you would kind of disinfect the buildings, you’d you’d lime wash them. So this this whole thing resulted in a huge housing chaos. And sometimes slums were demolished and not just, you know, disinfected. 

But then over time, and especially with the plague setting in, you had the Bombay Improvement Trust, right, which was like this colonial agency that was formed or to improve housing for the poor.

 And the Bombay Improvement Trust simply did not come up with enough houses, enough housing, to resettle the people who had been evicted. And so, you know, the housing chaos continued. So even in the 1920s you had extreme pressure on land and you had this frenzied construction where, you know, more floors are being added. The landlords — the extremely reckless and brazen landlords — were back in business. Right. So that’s one way in which to understand the Black Town and, and so yes, you had all these attempts to sanitize, but they also kind of collapsed because of the housing crisis that Bombay encountered

GV: And medical interventions — could you tell us what were put in place? 

Tarangini: So when you’re talking about medical intervention, so the Epidemic Disease Act was passed in the year 1897. And Sir John Woodburn, who is this member of the viceroy’s Legislative Council was the person who moved the bill to ensure that the British authorities would have a very effective and powerful act with teeth Right, to fight the plague. And and that’s how it went down, right. 

The Act also gave the central authorities that is to say the government authorities, powers to put in place all kinds of special measures, right, whatever they thought was suitable and was warranted, all these authorities were now in a good place to inspect incoming and outgoing ships and other vessels and also set up play observation sheds and inspection stations at really stations. And apart from this, also, your dispatch officials dispatch doctors to go into the homes of suspected plague patients and inspect their bodies examine their bodies, evict people, if necessary, disinfect buildings, right? And also insist on things like medical certificates. And I mean to say by medical certificates, death certificates, right? So you weren’t also allowed to cremate your dead or bury your dead unless you could produce a death certificate. And of course, a lot of trouble brewed over this and we can talk about that if you’re interested.

MR: so you mentioned railway travel — when they checked people on trains, who did they check, and who did they decide not to check?

Tarangini: So go Good question. So you had very disparate and very discriminatory, I would say, sorts of measures wherein you had third class passengers at times prevented from traveling altogether. Especially if you’re talking about fairs, you know, the tickets for third class travel to fairs were canceled altogether. 

So in fact, you saw authorities taking this call, right, where they felt that maybe it would be too imprudent and maybe it would be too risky to call off a fair altogether, because God knows what kind of rebellion that will instigate in the face of those kinds of dilemmas. You saw, authorities actually just cancel third class tickets, but at other times you had third class passengers being examined on the platform itself… while second class and first class passengers had it more easy. So, they would be examined in the compartments itself. Right. So, you had that kind of disparity of medical inspection that was put in place.

GV: In this case surveillance was used as a tool to ensure borders were tightly controlled?

Tarangini: Yeah yeah absolutely absolutely

GV: Is that what is happening today with Covid19 as well?

Tarangini: yeah So interestingly yeah so the this whole border tightening business was something that you saw being manifest in both similar and dissimilar ways both in the 19th century and at a time like this. So if you look at it — the Epidemic Disease Act when it was introduced. You had it being used to tighten borders at ports and railway stations. So for instance, bills of health would have to be signed by port officers, clearing passengers and crew from bubonic plague before embarkation, and steamers and ships that therefore could not travel right or cannot sail. And you also had all kinds of zones that were being created. So it’s not just borders that are being created, you know, between countries or between nations, it is also like several kinds of cordon sanitaire or certain zones, right? Certain sanitary zones that have been created within the city itself, for instance, right. And, and so you had detention camps that were being set up just outside railway stations. So that’s one way in which to think of how borders were being created, as well as tightened. This also resulted in the expansion of the powers of the state also, right. 

Because, you know, in certain regions, like, for instance, in Pune, where Rand was the president of the Plague Committee, he sent the army in to the houses of people to detect anyone who was hiding, right because he had come to hear that plague patients are being concealed. So he, he would just go go in, or he would, he would send the army in to pull out these people. Right and this along with the arbitrary and the indiscriminate examination of people’s bodies, women’s bodies and you can imagine the kind of upper caste sensation, sensation that it created among the upper class.

So, in a more contemporary scenario, how is it that the sovereignty of nations, how is it that the powers of states multiply right? And this lockdown has entered so much in terms of restriction of movement, and the distinction that’s drawn between essential and non-essential items, pretty much like cutting off supply of sort of various things, including very necessary rations for migrants, right. And, and even though there are like, again, all these righteous claims that are being made about how rations are being made available for the poor and the migrants, so and the imposition of epidemic disease and the National Disaster Management Act, there’s actually been an explosion of the powers of the state right. So border management has very neatly segwayed into unlimited powers of the state. 

GV: So, it sounds like there are some similarities between our past and our present in India?

Tarangini: Right, right. Yeah, yeah, definitely a lot of similarities, I think. The Epidemic Disease Act has been invoked after the reported outbreak of COVID, in COVID-19, in India. And it’s in the name of this Act and by the powers vested by this act too by the government, that you have a very many stringent and sweeping powers of surveillance that state governments have armed themselves with, right? And so if you were to look at the Maharashtra government, then it has gone ahead and stamped the left arm of, of people who have been quarantined. such that, you know, if these people were to step out, if they were to travel and trains and and apparently somebody in Maharashtra traveling on a train, who was quarantine who had his arm stamped was caught and and yeah, so I’m guessing the fines or arrests or and also plentiful measures of shame would have followed.

MR – Fascinating how history repeats to an extent. .. So going back to the past and the story of the plague in Bombay — caste …Obv in Indian society, it pervades everything, You can also think of caste as a barrier itself to certain people getting certain things. How did caste play out in Bombay during plague times? Especially I read about how European Army men entered homes to examine women for plague…. Were these women of a certain caste?

Tarangini: Right, right. Yeah. So yeah, so this brings me also to the writing of Nasarwanji Choksi, if you wanted to know his full name, who is this Farsi doctor from whose writing I came to hear a lot about, if I came to know about, sorry, a lot about the kind of caste panics that the plague had generated because  because there’s no other way of describing it right. And so, in both through the writings of reporters for the Maratha, which is this newspaper from that Tilak came up with, as well as through the writings of Choksi, I got a certain sense a rich archival sense of how caste interacted with the plague, and how what today we call social distancing, how certain embedded, certain deeply imprinted notions of caste, was so prevalent among the upper caste society but also within certain other sections like the mill workers, right. So, to give you a flavor of what I mean by all this, on the one hand, you had, as I mentioned, several Bhadralok families, Bhadralok being a term that refers to Urbane, often educated, middle class residents, and usually the term is used for people residing in Bengal Presidency. Um, so, whether you’re talking about the outrage that was caused by the medical examination of Bhadralok women, upper caste women

Or if you are you talking about women who are in purdah and gosha — That is to say both Muslim and Hindu women who were veiled, right? The outrage and the sensation that was created by European men as well as Indian men — they could be doctors, but they were still men and men of a different caste touching these women was — so the outrage was just off the charts right with regard to all this. But apart from this there was also outrage related to certain other things, as it again mentioned. So the insistence on the production of death certificates meant that people would not be able to observe certain funeral rites the way they should, on time and in auspicious hour, and so this also then entailed that people hide their sick ones. Either abandon them or conceal them. And this is one way in which they thought they could get around some of the excessive, stringent plague measures as they perceived it.

MR: Can you tell us a little bit about the man who you got all this from — Choksi? 

Tarangini: This is a man who, you know, was born in the 1860s. And he joined Grant Medical College, established in Bombay, and this is this is the first apparently this first institution really. And having graduated from this place, he went on to serve in various committees, but in particularly in one medical committee of the Indian Factory Commission, and he was appointed the Secretary to this place. And so he also inquires into the medical condition of mill workers. So from there, he moves on to also working in various hospitals. But he also treats smallpox patients, and he also apparently worked for smallpox vaccination. And so having served across certain committees having worked for vaccinations, having served in certain hospitals, he has a very nuanced sense of the demographic within which disease spreads… and, and also certain notions of how patients when they are admitted to these hospitals battle with caste, how they attempt to negotiate caste, right. So, Choksi actually also then is able to give us a very wide insights into plague itself …I also read Choksi’s report on the bubonic plague. And now, this is a very interesting primary source as I tell my students or an archival source, and it’s called Report on Bubonic Plague. And he writes this report, and it’s based on observations of 939 cases, right. And he’s tested 939 cases of plague and he writes his report based on observations of all those cases. And so it’s when he’s working at this hospital that he gets the deepest sorts of insights into how caste works. And so he talks about how the medical regime was one that prompted upper caste especially to act out, and to throw out suffering relatives or abandon them because they were so scared of caste defilement. And he seems to suggest, in this report, that this is unprecedented …that the fevered pitch at which Indians were attempting to conceal people or you know, or thwart any kind of caste defilement, he seems to suggest that it is unprecedented compared to other diseases, which also tells you a little bit about how he thought that plague measures were particularly excessive.

GV: Earlier, when you were talking about border management and unlimited powers of the state — so it sounds like definitely at this time, the state was exerting a lot of power and Indians did not trust the state and were trying to hide the disease. To what extent do you think the British managed to expand their state powers – and  did the power last? or…Just you know, trying to think of our present situation with Covid19 and the state exerting so much power — I’m just wondering what might be the end result of all this? Will the power sort of ..stay with the state or is there sor to f, will the public respond and ensure there’s a curbing of power?

Tarangini: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great question again. So, yes, while it was manifold growth in the powers of the state. There were many ways in which the heels of these officials were also being cooled in a way, because they were being slowed down considerably as well. And so, so yeah, I mean, I see where you’re going with that question because you in a way want to know, whether certain certain forms of surveillance, certain devices of surveillance, whether they remain apparatuses remain. But at the same time, you also if I’m not mistaken, you’re also asking me a question about the popular responses… and how certain kinds of popular trends do they also succeed in slowing down plague measures, slowing down such surveillance, right?

 So let me first speak a little bit about these some popular incidents right.

You also have mill workers who protested and there’s this one time where mill workers were extremely unhappy that a woman mill worker was taken away willy nilly to the Arthur Road Hospital and there was a riot-like situation. So, there was also this incident of  —  well, this was again an upper caste man, who became notorious for being the Indian who successfully assassinated Rand, right, who as I mentioned earlier, was the president of the Puna plague committee. So owing to incidents like this, and also owing to the very colorful panoply of ways in which people head and conceal the dead, right? Owing to all of this, you actually had a system of medical surveillance, which relied less on quarantines and less on detentions and more on creating all kinds of exceptions. 

And, and so you had all kinds of passes that were being created, you had the plague passports and you had permits all of this being given and so people holding these passports a plague passport, for instance, was introduced in Madras Presidency, right. And it was a document that was issued to people who are traveling from plague infected railway stations. And if you had this then you had your temperature taken, and so you were pretty much cleared of plague, but that did not exempt you from 10 days of reporting to medical authorities, right? 

And so the plague passport kind of like cleared you for travel on the condition that you reported to certain authorities and had your health checkup done.

So, so you saw a certain sort of diluting of, of surveillance. But also, perhaps a better way of putting it would be to see how colonial authorities had kind of created a certain wedge between surveillance on the one hand, and quarantines and detentions on the other hand, right? Because they thought surveillance was a better tool compared to quarantines and detentions. 

So that’s how they looked at it back then. And that’s how the medical surveillance thing panned out over time. So as as for whether certain powers remained, I would say yes, because there was no dearth of diseases, even after plague, right? So you had other diseases like cholera? Like, let’s see, the Spanish flu, which hit India in a very big way afterwards, right, all of which use you saw ravage India, after this after the plague had died down … like, for instance, the Spanish Flu flu had picked up in India around the time of the end of the Second World War. And so instruments like the Epidemic Disease Act, would stand the colonial government in good stead. In that sense, yeah.


MR– You were listening to Tarangini Sriraman on Bombay as Plague City on Chatroom. 

GV: Visit scrollsandleaves.com/chatroom2 for the transcript. And we’re just getting started so we’d greatly appreciate your help if you could tell others about our podcast. Stay tuned next week for Ep 2, Healing Plants. 



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