The centuries-old strategy of quarantine is today the fundamental means of responding to outbreak of infectious diseases. The modern state of J&K came into existence in 1846 with the Treaty of Amritsar through which the British transferred Jammu and Kashmir to Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh. During the early part of Dogra rule (1846-1900), the valley deteriorated to an extent that epidemics were a common phenomenon. It was the time when cholera, plague, smallpox and many more such diseases affected vast numbers of people. Dr Ernest Neve described cholera as the most destructive epidemic to have visited India in the nineteenth century. It was known by the name “Waba” in Kashmir. Many Kashmiris even today refer to Covid-19 as Waba. Modern historian Anil Kumar has recorded that a cholera epidemic occurred about ten times in J&K in the 19th century, in 1824, 1844, 1852, 1858, 1867, 1872, 1875-76, 1879, 1888, and 1892. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, cholera became more rampant in the state due to improved means of communication and travelling activities, including religious pilgrimage. The Amarnath cave was among the places from where the infection is said to have spread on various occasions. Dr Elmslie also notes, “Some sepoys who had got leave to go and wash in the Ganges at Hardwar had returned to their regiment at Srinagar and brought the seeds of cholera with them”. The cholera of 1892, which was the most devastating among all, was reportedly spread due to travel from Punjab and the total number of deaths in Kashmir due to this cholera was 11,712. Ernest Neve has recorded that Srinagar city, which was known to be the City of Sunhas, become the “City of Dreadful Deaths” and it was even difficult to dispose of dead bodies. This was the time when emphasis on quarantine and sanitisation measures began in Kashmir and the need of the hour even today is to follow the same method.
The first and foremost step the Dogra government began to take to contain outbreak of an epidemic was establishing of inspection posts at the places of entry in the state. The officials at these posts were strict and never led any passenger enter without medical check-up. The posts were set up at Banihal, Baramulla, Uri, and all people who were found to suffer from bowel complaints were detained at a temporary hospital till they were treated. Sanitary cordons were constructed around infected areas so that the free movement of people could be discouraged.
Poor sanitary conditions in Kashmir valley were described as one of the main reasons for the frequent epidemics. However, sanitary conditions improved a lot after establishment of municipalities in 1885. The epidemics of cholera taught an important lesson of sanitation to the people “that the disease could not be cured but it could be prevented.” More emphasis was laid on preventive medicine and sanitation after the epidemic of 1892. When there was no vaccine or therapy to treat epidemics, these measures helped to contain infection, delay the spread of disease, prevent panic and death, and maintain the normal functioning of society. Let’s learn from history and follow these tried and tested methods to save our lives.
The writer is a research scholar at Department of History, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow. [email protected]