Bill Gates predicted the epidemic and during this epidemic said that the fight against the virus is uniting the whole world. While he was right on his first prediction, he went horribly wrong in his second one as the pandemic has divided humanity as never before. There are concerns over child and woman abuse in quarantined homes, rapes in hospitals, doctors who are all fangs against patients of a different community, landlords who are turning doctors and nurses out of homes, theories that say that minorities are behind the pandemic, conspiracy theories linking the Chinese to a wilfull spread of the virus like suicide bombers, villagers attacking students from cities who return home, natives attack the migrants. In social distancing, each one is against the other, constructing any and every human as a source of infection, portending death. Untouchability has never attained such a high rationale as now.
The pandemic with its panic has invoked within each human each of her hate categories who, in her mind must yield her the space to live by dying off or disappearing from the face of the earth. Something very similar happened during the Bengal Famine of 1943, whose direct fall out was the Partition. Few historians have connected the two dots, namely of communalism and famine together and encouragingly Rakesh Batabyal is one of the very few, if not the only one to do so. Using the data he has placed, I will attempt a sociological analysis as why pandemics, famines, disasters invariably invigorate the social fault lines so bitterly, often to points of no return.
What happened when the Famine took place? In simple Malthusian terms, there was less food than there were mouths to feed. So, if people died and demand for food was adjusted to the reduced supply, one would need to take a decision as to who should die; the one who is taken as a surplus; for Hindus, it were the Muslims and vice versa. It need not have been this way if a communal feeling was not already endemic within the Indian society.
Hindu Muslim enmity and rivalry is not an invention of the British nor is Divide and Rule their sole creation. One has to read Al Biruni, Jaisi, Amir Khusro and the various accounts of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to know that the hate towards each other came right at the start of the Muslim conquest of parts of India. For the Hindus, India lost freedom with the conquest of the Turks, meaning Qutab Uddin Aibak and the establishment of the Slave Dynasty. Now that Freedom drew close, it was time to reclaim Independence; for the Hindus, this meant freedom from both the British as well as the Muslims. For the Muslims, at least as per the accounts of Richard Eaton, the arrival of the Islamic conquerors meant a semblance of order to the rather fragmentary and tentative rule of Hindu kings. We must recall that just before the Islamic conquests, the political map of India was highly fragmented with constant skirmishes among small kings and petty regional powers. Many Hindus converted to Islam, not so much due to social oppression as it is made out to be, but more in a desire to be with the winner class, as Hannah Arendt says in her book, Banal Evil. The Hindus and Muslims represented two kinds of politics, two kinds of world views and at the level of religion, they did have distinctly different cosmologies. So the first line of division in the political space, where considerations of nature of the State, or the idea of nation, or of the idea of sovereignty are concerned, the Hindu Muslim divide is the first cleavage along which the society would respond.
During the Famine, these ideas of the State, nation, sovereignty were raised; and this was again because the famine broke the social network of production relations, as Schumpeter has so clearly written in his essay on the Circular Flow of Economy, turning people into destitute with only the State to support them. The state did a very bad job of it and as Amartya Sen writes that the drop in production was only about 10%, there was widespread speculation and hoarding that made people without the means to buy food drop dead in the streets. The Bengal Famine killed 3 million persons, the largest death so far before the Chinese Famine under Mao which clocked 5 million. Rakesh Batabyal finds that during this time, both Hindu and Muslim merchants hoarded rice, but the Muslim merchants used their supplies to use as relief and thus created a feeling that as if the Muslim League was in command and could ensure food security. The Hindu merchants made money and accumulated capital. The Hindus, who had a sense of land and construed Muslims as being outsiders and aliens, notwithstanding the fact that they were of the same ilk, felt that if the Muslims went away, the lowered supply of rice would match the lowered levels of population and hence equilibrium could be achieved. It is interesting to observe that Hindus wanted the Muslims out, Muslims wanted their own people to head the Government. Jaya Chatterjee presents such a thesis.
The problem with the Famine was that in either case, people lost faith in the governments because the State was seen as being incapable of helping people live on. The Hindus, who were socially more entitled imagined that they could drive out the excess, or the unnecessary or the surplus population, namely the Muslims away, while the Muslims thought that a better protection would be to go under the Muslim League because of their relief work. Unable to arrive at any equilibrium bargaining point, the country tore, the game ended.
Pandemics work first by disturbing the social networks which ensure the flow of goods and money; or the tracks on which the economic goods run. Once the social units are delinked from the track, they turn to the State, and if the State cannot fulfil the needs, riots ensue which means that people using one identity try to stave off people from other identities so that the lowered supply of goods equal to the lowered population, lowering being achieved by rampant killing and genocide. Rakesh Batabyal’s work on Communalism and Famine in the context of Bengal in the 1940’s is a step by step key to the dangers that disaster can spell for communal unity, social integrity, political legitimacy which are crucial infrastructure that hold any economy together.