Monday, July 13th, 2020

The 1934 Earthquake : Opportunity In Calamity

- Prabhat Kumar Rai -

Eighty five years back, in the ungodly hours of January 15, 1934, following the Maker Sankranti festival, Bihar endured calamitous earthquake which caused extensive ravages. Around 11000 persons were killed, mostly in Bihar, apart from colossal damages to buildings, structures, cultivable land and water bodies. The epicenter of the deadly earthquake was located in  Eastern Nepal about 9 km South of Mount Everest. The tremors spread from Kathmandu in North to Monghyr ( now Munger) in South, Purnea in East to Champaran in West. Several buildings in Calcutta ( now Kolkata) too suffered damages by the cataclysmic  event. The magnitude of intensity of the shock was 8.4 on Richter scale. It wrought havoc throughout length and breadth of the area involved. Water vents and sand fissures erupted at many places causing subsidence which caused further damages. Extensive liquefaction of the ground over a vast stretch set afloat  the structures. Wells became choked with sand and water bodies turned shallower with sand deposits on the beds. The area circumscribed by the Ganges, the Gandak and the Kosi was the worst hit. Railway track at many locations got buckled and distorted. Sugar factories suffered huge damages ruining the facilities for crushing the sugarcane , the only cash crop in some affected areas.

       Munger town was faced with ghastly destruction owing to its peculiar geological configuration. It lies on alluvium resting on a spur of Archaean rocks projecting North-ward under it. The waves suffered reflection and interference at the junction of two formations of different character of alluvium and metamorphic rocks giving rise to violent vibrations. Most of the houses were reduced to pile of bricks and most of those standing were completely wrecked inside.

.      Dr R.S. Caldwell, EIC, ICS, Principal, Science College, Patna formulated a scheme for dealing with the excessive sand deposits drawing lessons from 1897 earthquake mostly confined to Assam & North Bengal. He was of the view that with judicious land husbandry for one rotational period of three years, it will be possible to bring the land to normal fertility . The sand deposits on the land have beneficial effect on the land fertility mainly attributed to its effect on the physical texture of soil. Dr Caldwell also pointed out that varying amount of silt according to to the distance from the place of ejection has an important bearing on collecting specimen for detailed analysis.

     Dr Cresole Pierre , Swiss engineer and a close friend of C.F. Andrews, also visited the areas having excessive sand deposits and experimented with various methods for removal of earthquake sand . What struck him most was courage and serene manner in which people faced such a grim tragedy. According to him, this aspect was most beautiful of Indian character; the adversity did not put their mind out of action. In an interview to the Hindustan Times dated May 3, 1934, Dr Cresole expressed astonishment to find poor and hapless farmers working overtime for six pice a day. He mentioned that Gandhi during his visit to Switzerland in 1931 told us that we in Europe were not conscious of the fact that a part of standard life in the West was supported by the poor people of East. He further added: ‘ I am not an economist to know whether this is true or not, but it is painful to us to think that possibly we of the West are responsible for state of affairs . It is something like a big blow on the head to hear a farmer working for six pice a day.Who  is responsible for these good , nice people carrying such a heavy burden in their lives ?’

      The Directorate of Bihar State Archives, Patna has published, ‘ Documentation of the Records on Earthquake in Bihar (1934)’ in three Volumes in which certain classified documents as well as all the correspondences  by the then British Officials  at field and Headquarter level have been chronologically compiled. Readings into these Volumes reveal many interesting and hitherto unknown or little known features in the aftermath of the terrible natural disaster . Some of them are presented below.

.           Munshi Premchand, a noted Hindi litterateur , who was a staunch nationalist appreciated the Viceroy’s gesture to open Special  Fund for relief purposes. He told: ‘ The tragedy of Bihar was the test of fraternity of both Government and Non-Government Organisations. It is good sign that the Government and political parties are working together in this pious work.’ However, the Daily Rashtra Bandhu ( 20.4.1934 ) observed : ‘ Major portion of the donations money from Viceroy’s Fund have been spent in rendering assistance to the big European Planters who have sufficient land and money in banks. One of the planters has received Rs 80000/- and another a sum of Rs 40000/- while they have refused application for loan from several zamindars.’

.       File No E8 of 1934, letter dated 9.2.1934 from Commissioner, Muzaffarpur to Chief Secretary , Government of Bihar & Orissa (now Odisha) in respect of town planning mentions :  ‘Theoretically the clean sweep made by earthquake is a God-sent opportunity to replace dirt, filth , discomfort and irregularity by the Model town.’ A letter from the Commissioner, Bhagalpur to Secretary , Board of Revenue, Government of Bihar & Orissa , (File E-45 of 1934), echoes similar expressions: ‘ The need for remodeling Monghyr town has been obvious for many years, and a proposal to do this through the medium of some kind of improvement trust was submitted to the Government in my letter no 2814J dated 29.7.1933 but for the time being it was dropped vide Ministry of Local Self Government’s letter no 10558 L.S.G. Dated 13.12.1933. A month later, the earthquake occurred and complete ruin of great part of the town have provided an unforeseen opportunity for replanting the congested areas. It would be a crime against posterity to let this opportunity slip.’

.        Usurious moneylenders , a big institution by themselves  in rural India, also did not miss the opportunity of fleecing the miserable  lot. An extract of Budget Speech of the Finance Minister for 1934-35 ( File no E-375, June 1934)  underscores this menace poignantly : ‘ Heartless moneylenders started behaving as doctors and hakims reap a good harvest in plague epidemic. If no control is exercised on the rate of interest, both the revenue paying Zamindars and Raiyats will be ruined. Very low interest rate for licensed private moneylenders and liberal opening of branches of cooperatives in towns and villages are essentially required.’

.       Soon after the grim tragedy, Dr Rajendra Prasad was released from jail on 17.1.1934 and he organised a non- Official , ‘ Bihar Central Relief Committee ‘. He identified himself fully with the Organisation so much so that names of Dr Rajendra Prasad &Bihar Central Relief Committee became synonymous. The dedicated and signal service rendered by him with utmost sincerity of purpose won him national recognition and applause.

 Mahatma Gandhi, who was campaigning against untouchability in South India on the fateful day, on hearing the news of the catastrophe in Bihar, reacted quickly : ‘ Bihar earthquake was Providential retribution for its failure to eradicate untouchability’. Such inopportune and incongruous remark after a tragedy which took heavy toll of lives and property rendering vast population shelter less  and starving, sparked off serious controversies leading to public debate with none other than Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore. Gandhi was totally unapologetic and unrelenting as he kept on giving vitriolic statements without a modicum of sympathy for the sufferers even as a mere tokenism. He was firm in his belief that the natural disaster was a divine chastisement for the great sin committed against those described as Harijans. ‘ God has punished Bihar’, he added emphatically, ‘because the people there practiced untouchability against the Dalits with a vengeance’. Tagore, who had given the honorific ‘ Mahatma ‘  to Gandhi, was quite perturbed over such irrational and unscientific remarks from a widely revered figure like Gandhi. He shot up a letter for publication in the popular ‘Harijan’ magazine which was being edited by Gandhi. The epistle expressed ‘painful surprise at the kind of unscientific view of the things’. Gandhi argued the propriety of ethical principle with cosmic phenomena. Tagore felt ‘ profoundly hurt’ as Gandhi’s  words strengthened the ‘ elements of unnecessary ‘  which was the ‘ fundamental source of all blind powers that drive us against freedom and self- respect.’ Gandhi did publish Tagore’s letter in the Magazine but stuck to his guns: ‘ I instinctively felt that the earthquake was a visitation for the sin of untouchability.Of course, the Sanatanists have a perfect right to say that it was due to my crime of preaching against untouchability. I cannot prove the connection of the sin of the untouchability with the Bihar visitation, even though the connection is instinctively felt by me.’ Gandhi was emotional in his views while Tagore’s rebuttal bordered on rationalist philosophy.

             Gandhi further mentioned : ‘ If my belief of connecting the earthquake and untouchability turns out Ill-founded , it will have still done good to me and those who follow and believe with me. Religious idiom is best way to reach out to the people.’

.           The three Volumes of Documentation of the Records on Earthquake (1934) contain vivid and authentic description of related reports and correspondences including Gandhi’s speeches at various places in Bihar and Orissa. Despite vociferous and stiff opposition by the Sanatanists, Gandhi stubbornly kept on asserting that earthquake was a tragic way of divine intervention against the odious practice of untouchability prevalent in Bihar.

.          At Mangal Pond ( talaab )in Patna City on 20.2.1934, while  addressing a large gathering, Gandhi repeated: ‘ The earthquake must have been a punishment for some sin such as untouchability.’ Again at Dinapore ( now Danapur), on 25.2.1934  he exhorted : ‘ Earthquake was due to people’s wickedness in maintaining untouchability .’ He announced that all money collected would bedivided in half between the Earthquake Relief Fund and the Harijan causes. The claim on the donations for other than relief purposes was taken unkindly by the members of the Relief Committee. It gave rise to feeling among the sufferers that Gandhi was not having an iota of sympathy for them. A report from DIG/CID to Secretary ( File no 38 of 1934 , 3.4.1934)mentioned that the general impression of the Munger public is that Gandhi is more concerned with the Harijan movement than the earthquake.

.             At Chapra, Gandhi adjured : ‘ The earthquake was due to sin of untouchability and as a proof of repentance they might contribute to Harijan Fund. The country sometimes suffered on account of the sins of the kings and sometimes on account of sins of the subjects.’ At Lalganj ( Hajipur) on 15.3.1934 , Gandhi said a gathering :  ‘ The earthquake being  God-sent should be welcome and people should regard it as a punishment for observing untouchability.’ He further urged : ‘It was a great warning from God against sinners as well as great blessings from Almighty against champions of faith ………. It is incumbent upon them to take lesson from the warning of God and treat untouchables as their brothers and remove the feeling of hatred existing between them.’

                     A piquant scene was created at Ranchi ( D.O. No 159/C dated 8.6.1934)when Gandhi openly criticized the women , present in large number to hear his speech, for wearing ornaments and requested them to donate  the same  for Harijan Fund. This led to strong protest from the women and most of them boycotted the meeting. There were volley of protests at various places toured by Gandhi and his voice was drowned in the cacophony  of stiff opposition by the Sanatanists. At Arrah ( now Ara), a violent mob pelted stone damaging windscreen of Gandhi’s car and police had to intervene to remove the obstruction. As per report of British  field officer, large crowd was attracted by personal loyalty to Gandhi – not by conviction in the social uplift of the depressed classes.

The Pandas of Deoghar staged severe protest and broke the glass of the road vehicle by which Gandhi was travelling. Gandhi meekly beseeched the irate protestors that he would never allow any Harijan to enter the temple unless approved by general public . He also told that he was equally a Sanatanist , protector of cow and believer in  caste system according to Hindi religious books. He , however, struck a cautionary note while leaving the place : ‘ He would never enter a temple which was not open to Harijans. Those observing such untouchability were worst than so-called untouchables. The curse of untouchability was a stigma on the Hindus and must be removed, or it would extinguish the Hindus and Hinduism from India.’ To him, earthquake relief work and Harijan works were equally sacred.

            His visit at Bankipore excited little interest( Patna Collector’s D.O. No 172/C dated 11.8.1934 to Chef Secretary, Government of Bihar & Orissa). There was  undercurrent of dissatisfaction among general public who wonder how the money collected by Bihar Central Relief Committee had  actually been utilized. Gandhi made no bones about his intention and categorically explained: ‘ His tour was simply in connection with Harijan Movement i . e. removal of untouchability of the depressed classes and collection of fund for the purpose.’

         In Odisha, Gandhi encountered trenchant criticism and opposition during his tours. At Balasore , a pamphlet mentioning derogatory remarks was distributed. It said: ‘ Gandhi is an England returned Barrister and this itself shows how much regard he has for the Hindu religion. We have heaps of Hindi Shastras and authorities to correct. It would be sheer foolishness for us to be led by the saying of a single individual.’ At Puri ( D.O. No. 67 C dated 7.5.1934 from Deputy Commissioner, Puri to Chief Secretary , Government of Bihar & Orissa) , the Sanatanists under leadership  of Raja of Puri, Mahanth of Emar Math and other Mahanths condemned Gandhi in no uncertain terms as imposter, a cheat, a swindler and his new cult of Harijan movement. An Oriya booklet entitled, ‘ ASLEE GANDHI’ ( Real Gandhi) purporting to expose Gandhi’s real character and activities was circulated. Black flags and anti- Gandhi placards were displayed on the streets during his visit with slogans like.  ‘ Dharmodrohi Gandhi Ferija’ ( enemy of religion-  Gandhi – go back ).

          Gandhi firmly told : ‘ For me there is vital connection between Bihar calamity and untouchability. The Bihar calamity is sudden accidental reminder of what we are and what God is .’ [1] But in the opinion of orthodox Hindus, Gandhi’s persistent efforts to open the gates of temples for untouchables antagonized deities and they inflicted tragedy in Bihar.

About the Author
Prabhat Kumar Rai
Author and Consultant
Former Energy Adviser to Hon'ble CM, Bihar
Former Chairman of Bihar State Electricity  Board & Former  Chairman-cum-Managing Director Bihar State Power (Holding) Co. Ltd. . Former IRSEE ( Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers ) . Presently Energy Adviser to Hon’ble C.M. Govt. of Bihar . Distinguished Alumni of Bihar College of Engineering ( Now NIT , Patna )  Patna University. First Class First with Distinction in B.Sc.(Electrical Engineering). Alumni Association GOLD MEDALIST  from IIT, Kharagpur , adjudged as the BEST M.TECH. STUDENT.
Administrator and Technocrat of International repute and a prolific writer . His writings depicts vivid pictures  of socio-economic scenario of developing & changing India , projects inherent values of the society and re-narrates the concept of modernization . Writing has always been one of his forte, alongside his ability for sharp, critical analysis and conceptual thinking. It was this foresight and his sharp and apt analysis of developmental processes gives him an edge over others.
Email: –
Disclaimer : The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of INVC NEWS.



Users Comment

M.Akhtar, says on October 5, 2019, 11:48 PM

Very well-researched and well written article. My maternal grandfather was serving at Patna under Directorate of Health Services during the earthquakes, and did commendable jobs in rescue and rehabilitation. I had heard many stories from him about this earth quake during my childhood.