At the turn of the twentieth century, India experienced the worst of a global plague pandemic, recording 95 percent of the world’s mortality and eventually a loss of over 12 million lives. The years immediately preceding the plague had seen localised experiments in native self-governance. In 1896, as the outbreak peaked, the colonial administration seized the pandemic as evidence of an Indian incapacity for self-rule. It instituted the Epidemic Diseases Act—an emergency measure that further extended its already authoritarian power in the colony. Cities were put under martial rule and military patrols conducted house searches, forcibly evacuating the infected to quarantined hospitals. Driven by public-health beliefs that the disease was a product of native “filth” and “darkness”—rather than zoonotic bacterial origin—they hosed down neighbourhoods with disinfectants, confiscated possessions, and tore apart walls and roofs to literally bring light into the huts of the diseased poor. Sometimes, they razed entire huts to the ground.
In 2020, the Indian government has invoked precisely this same Epidemic Diseases Act in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Following a hasty national lockdown that left millions of migrant workers stranded, the Modi government enforced this act through an ordinance in April. It amended the EDA to protect frontline health workers who, suspected of carrying the virus, have become targets of violence. Dressed in this guise, the ordinance has earned the government widespread praise.
Yet, the same government turned down far more careful legislation introduced last year directed to protect medical workers. Instead, it used the fears around COVID-19 to take the EDA’s already draconian measures into uncharted legal territory. The new ordinance directs courts to “presume the guilt”—until proven innocent—of those charged with inflicting grievous harm. The act has re-authorised forcible searches, seizures and imprisonments by the Indian police.