The Great Indian Earthquake: colonialism, politics and nationalism in 1934

by Tirthankar Ghosh (Department of History, Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol, India)

This blog is part of our EHS Annual Conference 2020 Blog Series.

 

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Gandhi in Bihar after the 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake. Available at Wikipedia.

The Great Indian earthquake of 1934 gave new life to nationalist politics in India. The colonial state too had to devise a new tool to deal with the devastation caused by the disaster. But the post-disaster settlements became a site of contestation between government and non-governmental agencies.

In this earthquake, thousands of lives were lost, houses were destroyed, crops and agricultural fields were devastated, towns and villages were ruined, bridges and railway tracks were warped, and drainage and water-sources had been distorted for a vast area of Bihar.

The multi-layered relief works, which included official and governmental measures, involvement of the organised party leadership and political workers, and voluntary private donations and contributions from several non-political and charitable organisations had to accommodate with several contradictory forces and elements.

Although it is sometime argued that the main objective of these relief works was to gain ‘political capital’ and ‘goodwill’; the mobilisation of fund, sympathy and fellow feelings should not be underestimated. Thus, a whole range of new nationalist politics emerged from the ruins of the disaster, which mobilised a great amount of popular engagement, political energy, and public subscriptions. The colonial state had to release prominent political leaders who could massively contribute to the relief operations.

Now the question is: was there any contestation or competition between the government and non-governmental agencies in the sphere of relief and reconstruction? Or did the disaster temporarily redefine the relationship between the state and subjects during the period of anti-colonial movement?

While the government had to embark on relief operations without having a proper idea about the depth of sufferings of the people, the political organisations, charged with sympathy and nationalism, performed the great task with more efficient organisational skills and dedication.

This time, India had witnessed what was the largest political involvement in a non-political agenda to date, where public involvement and support had not only compensated the administrative deficit, but shared an equal sense of victimhood. The non-political or non-governmental organisations, like Ramakrishna Mission, Marwari Relief Society etc. had also played a leading role in the relief operations.

The 1934 earthquake drew on massive popular sentiment, which was similar to the Bhuj earthquake of 2001 in India. In the long run, the disaster prompted the state to introduce the concept of public safety, hitherto unknown in India, and a whole new set of earthquake resistant building codes and modern urban planning using the latest technologies.

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