Gandhi ji’s writings during Pandemic of 1918

Biksham Gujja

Biksham Gujja

New Delhi: The recent Newsweek quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci“can’t deny the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic could reach the level of Spanish Flu, which killed millions of people around the global between 1918 and 1920”. This was on 15th July 2020.Fauci further said as quoted in Newsweek “If you look at the magnitude of the 1918 Pandemic where anywhere from 50 to 100 million people globally died, that was mother of all pandemics and truly historic. I hope we don’t even approach that with (COVID-19) but it does have the makings of, the possibility of approaching that in seriousness”.For the first time, comparisons are being made by experts with 1918 pandemic known as Spanish influenza.  It is important to know of that between 18- 35 million deaths are from India. More than 6% of India’s population died due to influenza largely due to gross neglect of then colonial administration, British empire. One third of all the global deaths occurred in India. Then China with much larger population than India, reported 9.3 million deaths. Globally estimated ranged from 35 million to 100 million deaths, most of them deaths occurred in less than 24 weeks.

Hopefully repeating 1918 level of death and destruction will not happen 2020, but we need to prepare to face the situation. COVID-19 is not over yet by any means. It appears we are just getting into it.

COVID-19 situation

COVID-19 situation is cause for major concern for everyone in India. But we are not aware of history and nowhereclose to deal with such level of pandemic. Already it appears no one, however rich and famous one may be, seem to be out of reach for this virus. Mr.AmitabBachchan and some of his family members tested positive,fortunately are recovering from mild symptoms. But many people are not that lucky and death toll is mounting every day. India reported so far (24thJuly 2020), reported more thanthirteen lakh cases and death toll exceeded 31,000. Many say the actual numbers are lot more than these reports. By our Independence Day 15th August 2020, unfortunately India might have close to 20 lakh infections and close to 50,000 deaths, if this trend continues. Experts are suggesting many measures, but every day situation is deteriorating creating panic and confusion among the population. In addition to deaths and infections, COVID-19 has created an unprecedented economic, social and cultural disruption. Situation is so uncertain that no one knows, if we reached peak or this is just a beginning. Already regional papers are reporting some disturbing trends such as sons not taking dead bodies of the parents, close relatives not showing concern for people who joined in hospitals etc. These are early indication of the breakdown of social values and care to family members. Pandemics such as this, slowly de-humanize the individuals and society and at one stage each individual goal will be to service at any cost.

At this crucial time, as much as possible civil society, media, Governments and every institution not only work together with single goal of reducing the pain and suffering but also to keep the moral of general public. India’s greatest advantage is family, social values. We need to keep them most during this crisis. One side Government and civil society is dealing with whatever way they can in facing this pandemic and its increasing attack. This article focuses on Gandhi ji’s writing during 1918 Pandemic. This will also give us some strength and perspective on our history in troubled times. Gandhi ji himself suffered with influenza and witnessed loss of life in his own family. Several of his friends have lost their lives. His letters during that time clearly indicated his though process. Situation is significantly changed now, but still looking back a century ago and understanding the situation in Gandhi ji’s own words might give some strength in dealing with the current crisis. That is the hope of this article.

Very few of us know that Gandhi ji got Spanish influenza in 1918. His own daughter in law and her young son died to influenzas. Gandhi himself wrote to his son Harilal from hospital that his heart is at peace and so “I do not find going at all difficult”. Gandhi ji was 49 then and resigned to the fate that is the impact of influenza on his thinking process. PrajaBandhu magazine wrote “Mr Gandhi’s life does not belong to him – it belongs to India” in order to pressure doctors to do all in order to provide care and support to Gandhi ji. That is the public view of his life and role of his struggle during our independence movement.

Battle with influenza

While battling for independence and the colonial administration’s various oppressive laws, Gandhi ji wrote several letters during his personal battle with influenza. He wrote nearly 130 letters which are part of his collected works volume 17. He was aware of influenza and heard about deaths some of them he knew personally.

“I felt sad for a moment when I learnt that your family were afflicted with influenza and there was even a death. But such news is pouring in from everywhere so that now the mind is hardly affected

These were the exact words written by Mahatma Gandhi to his own son Mr. Harilal Gandhi on 23rd November 1918. Harilal, lost his wife, Gulab Gandhi,  and a son to influenza. In the same letter he wrote “I am still confined to bed

Twenty days before that, on 2nd Octoberhe wrote to his other son Devdas

“My body has become like an old garment and that is why it is not at all difficult for me to discard it. I do not wish to acquire the burden of a new garment. But I do not think I havequalified myself to be freed of that burden

In the same letter in the beginning itself wrote “My health, instead of improving, is steadily declining. I am not able to take any cereals. Taking only fruit cannot sustain the body and hence it must necessarily succumb” further he stated that“If you keepme alive in your actions, you will be judged not as having loved the body but as having loved the soul. And then, you will have maintained a pure relationship with me

That was the impact of the influenza on Gadhiji, on his body, mind and thought process. In time of this global pandemic, it is some solace and comfort to revisit the struggle of Gandhi ji and his own thought process more than century ago. History, hope will not repeat now, it is important to look back in order to better prepare for our new situation.

The first reference to his illness was mentioned in his own letters was on 12th August 1918. In a letter to FulchandShah,  Gandhi ji mentioned that “Today I am too weak to get up or walk”. Also on same day he wrote to  one Mr. Manasukhilal Mehta that   “I am down with serious illness these days. I am confined to bed. Perhaps this will be my deliverance.” On 20th August he wrote to one Mr.Samarath that “know that the disease is due to a breach of nature’s laws”

From that day, 12th August 1918,  onwards, in most of his letters, there was some mention to his illness and its status.That went on until February 1919. He wrote nearly 130 letters between that period, which are part of his collected works volume 17. Some of the passages from his letters are mentioned below to understand the situation then and also to know his work during that time.

On 11th October 1918, he wrote to Gangabehan Majumdar which started with “I read only today the postcard giving the news that you, Kiki and others have fallen ill. I was, however, glad to read that, by the grace of God, you were all improving” and he informed about his own condition “I am still in bed and will have to remain there for many days; but it can be said that my health is improving”

That letter he concluded “There are ten sick-beds in the Ashram just now, but the only serious case appears to be that of Shankarlal. Even he seems to have taken a turn for the better today”

We do not know how many actually were then in the Ashram and of that ten were sick. That is magnitude of influenza at the Ashram, where Gandhi ji was then living.

Gandhi ji even advised in the same letter for those who thought recovered to be careful

“Even after one feels thatone has recovered from an illness, one should take only liquid and bland food easy to digest, and should continue to rest in bed. Many patients, deceived when the fever comes down on the second or third day, resume their work and start eating as usual. This brings on the attack again, and generally it proves fatal. I would, therefore, requestyou all to remain confined to bed”

Battling influenzy himself, we wrote an obituary to his friend and someone inspired him in South Africa days another SouthAfrican Indian whose death has been just cabled to me”, That was Ahmed Mahomed Kachalia, known as AM Kachalia. In amoving and detailed obituary letter to Bombay Chronicle which was published on 21st October 1918 Gandhi ji recalled heroic struggle and the speech AM Kachalia   reported to have made on 7th July 1907“In thename of Allah, I wish to state that though my head may be severed from the trunk, I shall never obey the Asiatic Registration Act. I consider it unmanly and dishonorable to subscribe to a law which virtually reduces me to slavery.”. AM Kachalia was president of the British Indian association of Transvaal. Gandhi ji’s note was published by several other newspapers which concluded “The loss is irreparable and it would be doubly felt by thecommunity, coming as it does, closely after Mr. Sorabji’s death. May God Almighty give this noble soul the rest and peace which, I am sure, he fully deserves

It is not clear from Gandhi’s obituary that Mr. AM Kachaliadied due to influenza which was global then and also prevalent in South Africa. But, further reaseracg suggested indicated that on 29th August 1918,  about two months before his reported death,  Gandhi wrote in a press note with title of “Indians and Transvaal” in which he mentioned that “Mr. Ahmed Mahomed Kachalia, President of the British Indian Association, Transvaal, cables me to invite the attention of those educated Indians who may desire go to the Transvaal”. Gandhi ji gave his address and mentioned “the applications to reach the President on or before the 30th October, 1918”.

It is clear that Kachalia died suddenly and mostly likely related to influenza. By October 1918, the influenza struck South Africa so hard “Death has stalked from its vantage ground in these crowded rooms and seized our youngest and strongest in their immaculate surroundings” reported in a book on influenza. Blacks, colored people were the worst hit. It is likely that AM Kachalia, who inspired Gandhi ji in south Africa died of influenza.

In a letter to Shri SrinivasaSastri, Gandhi ji wrote “Though being on sick-bed, I cannot restrain myself from adding my own humble tribute to your own and other friends to Dr. Deva’s memory”.

A details were mentioned on services of Dr. Deva in that letter which include “He took medicines to their homes. He attended to their sanitation. He bent his own body to clean the village wells, to fix up the village road”

Dr. Hari Shrikrishna Deva, died October 8, 1918 was Durbar surgeon of Sangli, he joined the Servants of India Society in 1914 and worked with Gandhiji in the Champaran campaign. It is not clear, if Dr. Deva died of influenzas or not clear but it appears most likely.

Political work

While struggling to recover, Gandhi ji did not stop his political work either. He sent detailed telegram to Viceroy on 29th October on India finacing the Britains war. Then The world war I was going on and Britain is extracting money from everywhere  its colonies to fund the war. Gandhi ji in his telegram said “ INDIA IS NOT ABLE TO ASSUME ANY FURTHER PECUNIARY BURDENS. IT IS THE CONFIRMED OPINION OF THE SABHA THAT THE DEEP AND EVER-DEEPENING POVERTY OF INDIA IS NOT FULLY REALIZED BY THE OFFICIALS. THE SABHA HAS THEREFORE UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED THAT THE FINANCIAL RESOLUTION PASSED AT THE IMPERIAL COUNCIL MEETING ON 10TH SEPTEMBER, IF CARRIED INTOEFFECT, IS SURE TO TELL HEAVILY UPON INDIA IN THE OPINION OF THE SABHA, THE BEST METHOD OF RECEIVING FURTHER FINANCIAL AID FROM INDIA IS TO DEPEND PURELY UPON NONSTATUTORY VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS. THE SABHA THEREFORE HOPES THAT ITS APPEAL NOT TO ENFORCE THE SAID RESOLUTION WILL RECEIVE FAVOURABLE RESPONSE OF THE GOVERNMENT”

Gandhi ji sent this telegram on behalf of Gujarat Sabha to then Viceroy. One side he is battling his own illness but he is protesting on the larger issue of exploitation of colonial administration and its unjustified act of extracting money to fund the war, when India was facing this pandemic killing millions of people.

Also on same day he wrote to  one Mr. Manasukhilal Mehta that   “I am down with serious illness these days. I am confined to bed. Perhaps this will be my deliverance.” On 20th August he wrote to one Mr.Samarath that “know that the disease is due to a breach of nature’s laws”

On 25th August 1918 Gandhi ji started his letter to Bala Gangadhar Tilak “I have your letter. I am grateful to you for your sympathy. How can you not be concerned about my health? God be thanked I amnow well. Of course I shall not be able to leave my bed for a few days. There was great pain. It has only now subsided.

This continued until at least 9th January 1919. He wrote to Pranjivan Mehta “My health, like the moon, has its phases; it waxes and it wanes” on 10th January he wrote to MaganlalGandi“I simply cannot bear to look at Ba’s face. The expression is often like that on the face of a meek cow and gives one the feeling, as a cow occasionally does, that in her own dumb manner she was saying something. I see, too, that there is selfishness in this suffering of hers; even so, her gentleness overpowers me

The next day, 10th January 1919,  he writes to one C.F. Andrews “So you have been suffering from influenza”. This is first time Gandhi uses exact name, influenza in his letters.

In detailed letter to Ramdas Gandhi on 16th January 1919,   he started with “After some days I am again trying to write you. I am still unable to write,but l feel like writing to you and so am writing this” and further added  “My health seems to be improving. I have started taking goat’s milk.  That seems to be doing me much good. I must be daily drinking about four and a half seers of it. Besides drinking milk, I eat some dry fruits and rice twice every day. If I can digest the quantity of milk I am taking, my weight is likely to increase very fast.”

By February 1919, it appears Gandhi ji is getting better, in his letters more content about political strategies and particularly about the Rowlett Bills and reforms. He was articulating his views on various issues. In a letter on 16th February to one Mr. Narahari Parikh, Gandhi ji, was indirectly without mentioning the  name seem to be commenting on Tagore and his article on “The Centre of Indian Culture” that “My impression is that the poet does little to put his own ideal into practice”. In the same letter, Gandhi ji seem to have started short travel as well, he mentioned “I will be there on Sunday and leave the same day”. On the same day, 16th February 1919, Gandhi ji wrote to Mr. O.S.Ghate about certain political activities involving Colonial rule expresses his inability to be firm on his physical presence due to health reasons “I said also that in the event of an unfavorable reply, the fight must commence. I [was] then under the belief that my health would in a way permit of my undertaking that activity. Unfortunately, it has become like pendulum swinging to and fro and just at the present moment there is again a set-back and the doctors tell me that I dare not undertake any exertion for three months. I am, however, trying to speed recovery and I still hope that by the time I receive the reply from Delhi I shall be ready for work.”

By middle of February, the situation in India seem to have got worse about the death and destruction caused by influenza and the mis-management of colonial administration. In his 16th February letter Gandhi ji explicit about not only his health but the overall situation in the country “It is heart-rending three domestic losses they have suffered. There is hardly a family left in India that has not lost some dear ones. One’s feelings almost become blunt when the same news comes from anywhere with merciless regularity

In the middle of all this he was attending to issues such as release of Brothers Ali by writing to the personal secretary of Viceroy, advising his son Devdas on improving his hand writing. In another letter he was commenting on Indian banking efficiency then and lending and receiving to someone. He was also dealing with almost revolt in his own Ashram about Maganlal, his trusted aide in running the Ashram. In long letter, he was almost warning the Ashram inmates either to accept Maganlal or leave the place. The kind of details he writes in his letters and his attention to very possible small thing and big thing with same sincerity, same stubbornness and same attention is something very striking.

Gandhi ji, while he himself sick and bed ridden was busy in writing letters on various subjects. His thinking was quite remarkable even at that difficult times. In each letter, his keen interest and attention to detail is quite remarkable. For example one long letter which was written toDevadasGandhi,  on 23rd February 1919 has following which indicate the so many dimensions of Gandhi.

Gandhi admonishes his son

Gandhi admonishes his son for bad handwriting “Harilal used to write a very bad hand; he saw to it that it improved. Three of the brothers, at last, have acquired a beautiful handwriting. But your hand goes from bad to worse”. And further advises “Bad handwriting is a serious defect. A good hand is an accomplishment. By writing a bad hand, we place a heavy burden on our friends and elders and harm our work. You know well enough that I cannot easily read a letter written in a muddled hand. I would urge you, therefore, to improve your handwriting.” From handwriting he goes on to inform about this diet “I keep well. I take four pounds of un-boiled milk during the day, spread over four meals. Two goats are being maintained. I have had practically nothing except milk for seven days”. He has dig at his doctor Dr. Kelkar using nick name gave as Dr. Ice, “Today Dr. Icerecommended seven raisins with every meal” and suggests a another nickname “ dudhabhai”. He goes on to say about the crisis in his ashram with joke “If you have read Shamalbhatt’s1 description of Ravana’s war council, Mahadevbhai will not have to recount Monday’s history”. Then adorably terms his granddaughter “Manuhas been stealing fat from all and sundry in the Ashram, except from me, so that she looks like the largest water melon in the Ashram. When there is an occasion for installing Ganapati, an elephant’s trunk should be secured and stuck on her face”. He comments on Kasturi Ba’s “snapy temper” in dealing with grandchildren. Then goes into more serious issue of language and national integration “It is my firm belief that every Indian ought to know well his mother tongue and Hindi-Urdu, which is without doubt the only common medium of expression between lacs of Indians belonging to different Provinces”. Gandhi’s quotes a English equivalent of Tamil proverb which appeared in book by G.U. Pope, a missionary in South Africa, and asks his son to find out “The Tamil saying occurs on the first page of Pope’sbook. Find its equivalent in Telugu and give that too”. Ends the letter with little poem on his grandson“RasiklalHarilal Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,

Had a goat in his keeping; The goat would not be milked And Gandhi would not stop his weeping

The very next day, 24th February 1919, he writes a very serious pledge opposing the Indian Criminal Law (Amendment Bill), no.1, 1919 with a firm resolve that “we solemnly affirm that, in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws and such other laws as a Committee”. This was co-singed by Vallabhai Patel and Anasuya Sarabhai. And sends a long telegram to Viceroy asking him to withdraw the bill, which he terms as draconian and “repressive and retrograde and are subversive of the elementary rights of citizenship, leaving individual liberty at the mercy of the executive”

The letter to DinshawWachha (1844-1936) then prominent Parsi and politician and former president of Indian National Congress in 1901 and then serving member of Viceroy’s Council, Gandhi ji wrote on 25th February “ How shall I thank you for your unfailing solicitude for my health? I am better now. The heart is still weak, though. Perhaps this struggle will act as a tonic and my health will come round by itself”. After this letter, it appears he plunged into his activities and by March 5th, he is busy with so many things and not having much time to write to his family members.

Gandhi ji was travelling by beginning of March. On 4th March 1919, he was in Delhi met Viceroy and wrote to his son Devidas a brief letter in which he mentioned about his meeting, which was cordial but “He is very much in love with the strength of his body and with armed might, is even proud of them a great deal” and ends with “However, he recognizes moral force and, voluntarily or involuntarily, perhaps even against his will, yields to it. It is this moral force we are employing and, if it is genuinely moral, we shall win”.

Some of the books by international writers on Spanish influenza also referred to Gandhi’s illness in 1918. For example, a recently published book “Pandemic 1918” by Catharine Arnold published in 2018 mentioned the following.[2]

“Another famous leader almost perished at the hands of the Spanish Lady on 2 October 1918. Following the death of his daughter-in-law and her young son from influenza, the forty-nine-year-old Mahatma Gandhi began to show symptoms of the disease. Spanish flu also raged in the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, where Gandhi had retreated for meditation and prayer” and continued “Gandhi had been admitted to hospital in Bombay awaiting an operation for boils and suffering from dysentery, he was refusing all treatment. Unlike the majority of patients, Gandhi had resigned himself to his imminent death.

Chronicling the times and quoting several references then, the book also included the following passage

Gandhi survived, but India had been stricken by a ‘national calamity’ according to the Sanitary Commissioner for Government of India.15 Typically of Spanish flu, the disease was fatal among the ten to forty age group, and more women died than men. In total, around 17 million people died of Spanish flu between June and December 1918. Bombay suffered terribly

The death and destruction of the Spanish influenza and the total neglect of then colonial Government has been narrated in the following passage.

colonial administration was criticized for its apathy, allowing ‘sixty lakhs of people to die of influenza like rats without succor’. In Calcutta, the scenes were equally grim. The Associated Press reported that the Hooghly River was ‘choked with bodies’, and ‘streets and lanes of India’s cities are littered with the dead. Hospitals are so choked, it is impossible to remove the dead to make room for the dying. Burning ghats and burial grounds are literally piled with corpses

Then “Indian government claimed that the sailors had caught Spanish flu in Bombay due to what it called the ‘insanitary condition’ of Indians”where asnews papers criticized Government hiding the facts “The Bombay Chronicle argued that Bombay and indeed the whole of India had paid ‘dearly’ for this neglect, while The Times of India was outraged by the perceived failure of the Health Department, despite the lakhs (thousands) of rupees spent on it. Rumours also circulated that outbreaks of Spanish flu on military vessels had been suppressed

Many other books and reports have extensively documented the Pandemic of 1918. Many of them with lot of research has documented that India suffered the most compare to any other country.

Another book ““Very, Very, Very Dreadful” Albert Marrin[3]stated the following

No country suffered worse than India. An astounding 6.1 percent, or 18.6 million, of its 305.6 million people died of influenza. In other words, India lost twice as many civilians as all soldiers killed during the World War” and further stated

The pandemic rolled across India, unstoppable by human ingenuity or prayers. In Bombay, the largest city, 700 people died in a single day. On India’s east coast, a muddy river flowing through the port city of Calcutta (today’s Kolkata) into the Bay of Bengal was choked with bodies.”

Other ailment rumours

Some think that Gandhi  did not get influenza but suffered with some other ailments during that time. But it is clear from Gandhi ji own writing that the Ashram in which he was also staying at that time was at least ten sick people. maybe he got and later other complications came in due to his refusal to take medicines. It is difficult to know and prove one way or other. But there is also criticism on Gandhi, who wrote and reacted on every issue of his time, did not express enough on Spanish flu of 1918. But it is clear from his letters that Gandhi ji aware of influenzas, many whom he knew got it, many died and he has witnessed the death and destruction around him. Certainly, it appears, whatever might be the reason, surely 1918 Pandemic did not get much attention during that time and even historians did not articulate the scale of that death toll in India. There could be many reasons lack of media reporting, world war, censorship on papers by US and UK, colonialism etc might have contributed to not being highlighted about it then and later in history books.  Very little has been written about the Spanish influenza of 1918 and its impact in general and particularly in India. Interestingly, may be pure co-incidence, only in last few years many books have appeared about the Pandemic of 1918. Now after this COVID-19, lot of that history is being brought to light with whatever information can be found. Surely, looking back, Gandhi ji who himself sick during that time, who is focusing on many fights, did mention, but surely not enough to reflect the scale of death toll at that time around the country. Why? Probably no one will ever know.But what little he wrote, he clearly echoed then prevailing situation as mentioned in his letter  of 16th February 1919 “ There is hardly a family left in India that has not lost somedear ones. One’s feelings almost become blunt when the same news comes from anywhere with merciless regularity”. Now after a century, let us hope we will not be in that situation in February 2021.

What is this all mean to us in 2020 in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic? We need to be aware of our history of last pandemic. Understanding the Gandhi ji’s own personal experience and his responses to those time will certainly give us some strength in dealing with current situation. His reflections during that time will provide us some solace and comfort in these troubled times. His optimism that we shall win will be an immense strength and confidence for current generation in dealing with crisis.

We shall win, those were the words Gandhi ji on March 5th 1919. This is just after his illness and overall death and destruction of the influenza in the country. One estimatevary but Indian death toll of 1918-19 Spanish influenza was between 18 to 30 million. More than 6% of Indian population, mostly in metro cities and along the railway lines died.  Total mismanagement and neglect of colonial administration more people died of Spanish influenza in India than in any other country. But while on bed, he was also focusing on many issues from sending Telegrams to Viceroy to writing manual for Satyagragh. He was also attending to details of the family including his own family tragedy.

We shall certainly get over this 2020 pandemic, we shall win over COVID-19. But now that we are not under colonial administration, we should do everything to face it with minimal death toll, taking all the measures required to protect our citizens and comfort those who unfortunately succumb to it with care and humility. Government need to do all it can to see that history will not repeat. Then it was colonial rule, now we have non to blame, except ourselves, if we fail to deal with it properly.


[1]This article is based on Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volumes 17. Down loaded from http://www.gandhiashramsevagram.org/gandhi-literature/collected-works-of-mahatma-gandhi-volume-1-to-98.php

[2]“Pandemic 1918” by Catharine Arnold, First published in Great Britain by Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2018.  640 pages

[3]Very, Very, Very Dreadful” by Albert Marrin, Published by Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2018, 487 pages

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