AN uncle who walked barefoot in Muharram processions in the village of Mustafabad in Rae Bareli would have been killed by a cut in the foot he had not noticed. He survives today because I had read a basic book on health science in school that described symptoms of tetanus.
As he lay in a darkened room, anxious womenfolk surrounded him. While they read religious verses claimed to be prescribed for his condition, I saw him getting extremely sensitive to being touched. Tetanus, as we had learnt in school, made patients sensitive to light and touch.
I confirmed with him with some difficulty that he had got a cut in the foot with a piece of broken glass during the previous midnight procession. The scripture readers were not aware of this detail. What would they have done had they known anyway?
I rushed to Rae Bareli and returned with an ambulance. Uncle was given a largactil shot, which knocked him out for the 35-kilometre drive to the city hospital. My Christian missionary school in Lucknow offered mandatory Bible classes, which most of us enjoyed, but also gave us secular books of purpose and life skills, science and inquiry, like the book prescribed to handle the life-threatening situation in Mustafabad.
Where does this social history of resistance leave us in the uphill battle against the coronavirus?
It is a cause for considerable worry in the age of Covid-19 that, distinct from the scientific steel frame of science education and spirit of inquiry that Nehru bequeathed to the country, the political dispensation ruling India is unabashedly suspicious of science, not unlike the women surrounding my wounded uncle.
The malaise begins at the top, but does not exclude the middle classes. Had it been different, the government would have arrested sadhus and politicians prescribing cow urine and gobar as a cure for the pandemic we are facing.
Instead of being grateful to the Christian missionaries for setting up schools and hospitals that continue to provide critical care to the poorest, the establishment spews unalloyed contempt for them. It was in the Vajpayee era that Graham Staines, a Christian missionary from Australia, while working among the lepers in the most remote villages of Orissa, was killed. Bajrang Dal activists, a key component of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, burnt him alive with his two sons Philip and Timothy in a jeep they were sleeping in.
Staines — like Mother Teresa who was honoured with Bharat Ratna by Indira Gandhi — was caring for people afflicted with leprosy, people who in sections of the Hindu faith are not even entitled to cremation rights. One has seen their bodies being dumped into the Ganga in Varanasi to be eaten by fish. The Lahore summit helped Vajpayee in distracting from the global outcry the murders set off.
Resistance to scientific education is both a political and a religious muddle in India and Pakistan, not different from the problem that Galileo faced. The violence-wracked resistance against the WHO-sponsored polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan was further complicated by the perceived use of its mapping to track Osama bin Laden. The same resistance was cleverly negotiated though among uninformed Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh, abutting the Deoband region.
Muslim women exuded a fear that goes back to colonial times, which saw cultural resistance to modern offerings. The women (and certainly the men as well) saw the polio vaccine as a way of robbing their progeny of fertility.
A Muslim worker for Unicef thought up a completely novel if maverick approach fraught with risks. To show that the future children would not be affected adversely to have babies, the worker fed polio drops to a fertile hen. When the hen laid an egg, the story goes, the women agreed to accept the vaccine. Asked why she took the huge risk, the woman worker said she knew the hen.
There were caste issues too, with vaccine givers shunning low caste community clusters, a problem that was fixed by Dalit leader Mayawati when she became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Similar problems were reported from Bihar.
Where does this social history of resistance leave us in the uphill battle against the coronavirus, in troubled countries like India and Pakistan in particular? It is perverse to say this, but it may be a blessing for these countries that there is no medication yet to thwart the disease. With medication, both have run into trouble; the battle for polio vaccination being a good example. In China, where the current problem began, the main strategy was to flatten the curve by interdicting human-to-human contact as witnessed in the lockdown of virtually the entire country. This has become the model strategy for most others, including India, where an additional protocol was prescribed by the prime minister, to clap hands for five minutes at 5 pm on Sunday, apparently to cheer doctors and nurses at the forefront of the battle. In China, the medical corps were given a rousing guard of honour when they left Wuhan after taming the outbreak.
A cultural issue that could be germane to the India-Pakistan context comes from the Ebola outbreak in western Africa. Violent resistance came from communities who would not stop hugging their dead. Not heeding the caregivers’ sound advice proved avoidably fatal to far too many.
There is another handy pointer from history to bear in mind for a successful drive against the deadly coronavirus in India. In 1897, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a friend of Jinnah, a hero of Hasrat Mohani, and an icon of Hindutva, was charged with sedition. Tilak violently opposed the British campaign to fight bubonic plague in Poona. He wrote angrily in the Marathi newspaper, Kesari, and as a result of the articles, the government claimed, the collector of Poona — responsible for controlling the plague epidemic — and a young military officer were shot dead. Tilak, defended in vain by Jinnah, was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He is a beloved of the ruling party.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2020