Society for Sick Societies: Between Pandemia and Pandemonium

Society for Sick Societies is a diagnostic project. Built as a series of episodes, each one of its vignettes sets out to analyze an expressed symptom of a sick society–a practice, pattern, gesture, proverb, or technique that seems to encapsulate social malaise in pseudo or post-democratic societies. The triple S is critical theory’s first aid to a state of crisis, probing sickness as both real and symbolic, affecting the biological body, the social body, and the body politics. This series is edited by Laliv Melamed. 

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Indian government has invoked a colonial-era emergency legislation–The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1896–giving itself extraordinary powers to detain and imprison anyone it imagines to be inimical to public health. The act concerns itself exclusively with authorizing and extending police powers; it has nothing to say about epidemic response. Following the tracks of this legislation reveals the coloniality of the forms of power and policing afforded to contemporary states in response to pandemic outbreaks.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a major outbreak of the plague spread across the world. Its animal vectors–rats and fleas–spread through networks of ocean trade. But unlike many other outbreaks of the plague, its fatalities were regionally concentrated; it particularly devastated the Indian subcontinent, taking about twelve million lives in between 1894 and 1940. This was not the first time the colonial government had encountered a disease of such scale. Throughout the nineteenth century, it had watched cholera claim about forty million lives. In response, the British had taken a decidedly laissez faire approach. Unsettled by an almost successful rebellion in 1857, they prioritized their economic interests and held back from instituting coercive measures that might again reveal the fragile legitimacy of their rule.

The 1894 plague marked a dramatic reversal of this approach of privileging colonial economic interests over Indian public health. Alarmed by its global spread, European powers threatened trade sanctions and embargos, thereby forcing the colonial government’s hand. Responding to this threat to their trade interests, the colonial government in Calcutta passed a hasty piece of legislation–the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1896–that authorized the brutal policing and forced quarantining of the infected. In the approving words of a local Methodist chaplain, the British military was deployed to conduct house-to-house searches “to enforce segregation, both of the plague stricken and of those who had been in attendance on them, to whitewash and disinfect infected dwellings, destroy the furniture, let light into the rooms, put the waterpipes outside the houses; order houses unfit for habitation to be forthwith pulled down, and where necessary burn them.” The British saw the disease as one of “darkness” and “filth,” a description that fit their perception of the natives they ruled. The violence of the civilizing mission to bring the light of rational science revealed itself all too clearly in the Act’s aftermath, as the military literally tore apart the dwellings of those suspected to be infected in order to let the light in.

In the present, the contemporary postcolonial government has revived the Act’s exceptional measures to charge longstanding critics of its authoritarian policies. The coronavirus outbreak could not have come at a better time for the government’s political purposes. It invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act in March, effectively countering the primary strategy adopted by many protestors–sit-ins in Muslim neighborhoods that metonymically extended public space into national belonging. The act allowed the government to arrest those leading the protests, journalists who had amplified its message, and allies (Dalit activists in particular) that had lent it support.

The invocation of the Epidemic Diseases Act is thus fertile ground for philosophers keen to point out that states of emergency are precisely the moments governments extend their power and mark its enemies. The Indian government has mobilized fears around the virus to mark out Indian Muslims as infective threats. Expertly deploying the language of war, the Prime Minister routinely describes health workers as corona-warriors, while government officials warn of a corona-jihad. An incident of a Muslim religious gathering that contributed to the virus’s spread has been taken as a synecdoche for the dispositions of an entire Indian Muslim community, marking them out as legitimate targets of violence and exceptional policing. Now, in the statements of government officials and complicit media pundits, infection, immunity, and inoculation are interchangeable descriptions for both the virus and Muslims. It is precisely this intensifying interlocking of politics and biology that philosophers of biopolitics like Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito have long warned against. Simona Forti succinctly parses their warning that this “Pandemia would realize what its etymology implies, (pan/all – dēmos/ people) “to make the people One”!”

At the same time, the biopolitics unfolding around the coronavirus point to the limits of such a theoretical approach. Theories are not ready-made toolkits, ready for deployment as first-aid in times of critical breakdown. In parsing the outbreak, Agamben had without a moment’s hesitation equated the response to the virus with the response of European powers against 9/11. Such quick translations have their costs, obfuscating the forms of response right before our eyes. The response to the virus by most governments across the world has been chaotic, ill-coordinated with medical and public health institutions, and always on the precipice of failure. While there certainly have been efforts to translate the pandemic to a pandemia, these efforts have often come up against their own limits. For Forti, the fear and chaos the virus has evoked is better described as an uncertain pandemonium that has afflicted not only the governed, but governments as well.

I add here that colonial history is particularly instructive of this twin potential of pandemic disruption. While they lend themselves to projects of pandemia, the pandemonium that accompanies a virus (to which there is really no effective and proportionate response) reveals state power at its most fragile. Indeed, in his work on emergency law in the colonies, Nasser Hussain demonstrates that the “rule of law”—a founding rational for colonial conquest—posed a troublesome paradox for colonial government. Time and again, the British in India were forced to respond to political exigencies with “emergency powers” to quell rebellions and dissent. This constant tension—between rule by exception and rule by normative principles—made clear how emergency powers were the very precondition of colonial rule. And as such, they gave the lie to the fundamental rationale for colonialism, to supplant the arbitrary exercise of “oriental despotic” power with a more rational, normative legal system. The lesson to take from Forti and Hussain is this. While declarations of emergency are certainly designed to extend the authority of the state, they are also moments that reveal the fragility of its claim to legitimacy.

The British colonial government very quickly learned this lesson when they first enacted the Epidemic Diseases Act. Even before it had been put into place, a thousand mill workers had attacked Bombay’s main plague hospital, convinced that the British had abducted the infected for the purpose of medical experimentation. The forms of the rumor were telling: they involved the upside-down hanging of patients to extract vital substances from the body, whose therapeutic power was then exported for the use of British soldiers fighting wars elsewhere. The screams that surrounded the hospital lent further credence to the rumors, as death by plague were often a painful and almost inevitable outcome.

Soon after the Act’s enactment, the British arrested Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a leading anticolonial figure at the time. This, despite Tilak’s initial support for these emergency measures, since he believed some of them to be necessary to counter the deadly spread of the disease. His initial ire was against Indian elites who were escaping plague-affected cities. But Tilak’s own response aside, his arrest catalyzed national protests and riots. Further killings of health officials and armed confrontations between publics and the army followed in several parts of the country. To be clear, this unrest was not an organized anticolonial nationalist movement. It took different forms in different regions, responsive to different colonial violations. For instance, upper-caste Hindus were most aggrieved by forced hospitalizations that put them in proximity with lower-caste Indians. For many Muslims, forced evacuations from homes violated the sanctity of the purdah. At the same time, despite the variety of motivations, the anti-plague measures conjured into being precisely what the British had feared. Hand-posted signs spread across Delhi and Bombay warning of a repeat of the 1857 rebellion if the Act was not rescinded. In response, the ever-strategic colonial government backed down as quickly as it had mobilized. By the turn of the century, it ended measures that had provoked the most outrage: compulsory hospitalizations, intrusion into community norms and the destruction of homes and property.

During the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, a disease that killed about 15-20 million Indians within just a few months (more deaths than the plague exacted over decades), the colonial government invoked no draconian legislations comparable to the forced quarantines of 1896. This is not to say that this returned reticence proved successful at extending its hold over the colony. By 1918, an organized independence movement had begun to take shape under Gandhi, who organized some of the most dramatic acts of anticolonial mobilization in Indian history while still recovering from this virulent strain of the flu. Tellingly, this moment of anticolonial mobilization was driven by anger against another emergency law: the Rowlatt Acts of 1918-19 that extended wartime curtailment of civil liberties into post-war India.

Writing just a couple of years later, Walter Benjamin described precisely the perils of extending state power through emergency law. Benjamin rejected a distinction fundamental to the rationale of positive law, the distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned violence. While this claim might appear deceptively true in times of peace (when law works to preserve state legitimacy) its hollowness is revealed when the state seeks to make new laws to found or extend its legitimacy. Rule by emergency exemplifies this second mode, which invokes law not just to restore order in the particular, but to re-establish the authority of the state in general. In colonial India, this function of emergency legislations was often unmistakably clear. To rehearse Hussain’s argument, colonial rule in India was shaped from the very beginning by an irresolvable paradox. Colonization depended on the claim that it was replacing arbitrary sovereign power with a rule of law based on systematic norms. But faced by persistent political exigencies, it repeatedly resorted to emergency legislations to sanction its use of violence to suppress unrest. The Epidemic Diseases Act was one such instance, when the colonial state seized the opportunity of a pandemic to further extend its authority. But in the same gesture, it revealed the absence of consent upon which colonial presence in the colony was based.

In the present, invocations of emergency powers continue to reveal the limits of thinking of modern law as based on a distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate use of state violence. The invocation of the EDA joins other emergency legislations in postcolonial India when the state, threatened by dissent, seeks to re-establish its founding authority. For the British, this turned out to be a dangerous strategy. But unlike the colonial state whose legitimacy was always an open question, the current government rests on far more solid ground, returning to power in 2019 through an overwhelming electoral victory. Yet, the months since the elections had begun to reveal the limits of public consent to its increasingly authoritarian rule. The persistence of protests even in the face of violent killings revealed, if only briefly, the possibility of another politics.

Thus, so far, the pandemic seems to have lent itself to philosophical readings that see it as authorizing a pandemia, a “making one” of the nation by targeting its others. The affective terrain—fear, chaos, suspicion, and rumors—that has coalesced around the virus has been carefully managed by the government. It has orchestrated its own set of political affects, urging the celebration of corona-warriors through banging pans and lighting candles, while its own officials and media sycophants circulate rumors of a corona-jihad. At the same time, the very nature of the virus threatens pandemonium. While often brutally coercive, the contemporary government’s quarantining measures rest on an uneasy faith that segregation alone (without adequate testing and care) can prevent the virus from further spread.

It may well turn out then that colonial history leaves us with few conceptual tools with which to understand our contemporary postcolonial situation. But it is equally possible that the pandemonium that haunts the dreams of pandemia might lead to outcomes that are indiscernible to our point of view from the present. Very few had anticipated the widespread protests before the pandemic arrived, which had been directed against the current government’s Islamophobic policies. Since, the virus has not only further exposed the government’s ongoing Islamophobia, but has also made visible its cynical efforts to extend its power to police and imprison dissidents and critics under the guise of a pandemic threat. It is also already made clear that its quarantine measures will disproportionately hurt those already disenfranchised. If the limits of colonial efforts to translate pandemics into pandemia serve as even an imperfect portent, history should be a source of unease for those in power.


Image: “Medical officers, justices of the peace, search parties and disinfecting staff, ready to start on their work,” 1897. Courtesy of Apollo-University of Cambridge Repository. 

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Dwaipayan Banerjee

Dwaipayan Banerjee is an assistant professor of science, technology, and society (STS) at MIT. His first book Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in India examined how the giving and receiving of blood shapes political life in north India. His second book Enduring Cancer: Life, Death and Diagnosis in Delhi is an ethnography of cancer in India.