On the Trail of Dogs in Colonial India

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Guest blog by Pradeep Kuttuva

Dog bites and rabies are topical public health concerns in India. But what was the situation in colonial India? There has been limited research undertaken in the context of colonial India on dogs – with a notable exception being Jesse Palsetia’s account on the 1832 dog riots in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). What were official and public attitudes towards dogs, dog bites and rabies? And what measures were adopted by the colonial authorities for dog and rabies control? And does this history provide us with lessons that could be potentially useful in the current context?

In order to address this gap in the research, I have been on a trail searching for anything and everything canine in historical archives – state and national – spread across India. The trail started at the Tamil Nadu archives in Chennai (formerly Madras), an important presidency town in British India, wound its way to the hill station of Coonoor (where a Pasteur Institute has been in operation since 1907), to the National Archives in Puducherry (the seat of French colonial India) and the State Archives of Goa (Portuguese colonial India). The trail then continued onto the Maharashtra state Archives in Mumbai ending at the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata – two of the most important presidency towns in British India. Some of the records at the National Archives in Delhi were accessed digitally via their excellent online portal at AbhilekhPatal.

 

Mumbai archives

Figure 1.The historic Elphinstone college building that houses the Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai. Photo credit: Pradeep Kuttuva.

Interestingly, one of the first things that welcomed me at the entrance of every archive or library visited was the sight of a resting street dog.

Pasteur Institute

Figure 2. A dog resting at the entrance of the Pasteur Institute, Coonoor, Tamilnadu. Photo credit: Pradeep Kuttuva.

 “You are the first person to have asked about rabies and dogs in the archives.Thus spoke multiple archivists to me on my visits. This was a positive sign given that the focus of this research was to identify documents at the archives that had not been explored earlier. All the archivists that I met across India were extremely helpful and pointed out relevant catalogues and sources, despite being slightly amused by the research topic – a big thank you to them all. Each of these archives had different procedures for application and entry, and I would like to shout out a massive thanks to scholars who had blogged their experiences at Chennai, Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata archives respectively. These blogs and the friendly archivists both helped me in obtaining faster access to the archival material.

Dogs were indeed a topic of intense discussion and debate during colonial times as evidenced by the number of pertinent documents that were unearthed during my visits. A simple search with keywords like “dogs”, “rabies” and “Pasteur Institute” in the online database of the National Archives, New Delhi, threw up over 1,000 documents – the oldest being as early as 1791. The Mumbai Archives catalogue lists a header labelled “Paria dogs” with pertinent documents starting from 1812 onwards. Similarly at the Chennai archives, the administration reports of the Madras Presidency detail instances of dog killing from 1897 onwards.

A vast majority of these documents pertain to rabies and its control. Rabies seems to have been a serious concern for the British Colonial Administration. In 1897, the then Government of India sent out memos asking for information on rabies treatment by Buisson bath method attempted at Bangalore and Travancore. In the 1920s, several bylaws for the prevention of rabies were passed in municipalities in Madras Presidency. In 1923, rabies was even added to the list of dangerous diseases according to Schedule VI to the Madras District Municipalities Act.

Dog Bite leaflet 1929

Figure 3. Pamphlet on dog bite and rabies issued by the Public Health Department, Madras Presidency, 1929. [Picture courtesy: Roja Muthiah Research Library]

Records also indicate that government servants bitten by rabid dogs were given grants to travel to Paris for rabies treatment at the Pasteur Institute.  Plans to set up a Pasteur institute for Rabies treatment at Kasauli were chalked out as early as 1897, and were followed up with a separate Pasteur Institute in South India in 1904. The Pasteur institute in Coonoor started operations in April 1907.

Pasteur Institute report

Figure 4. First Annual Report of the Pasteur Institute, Coonoor. [Picture courtesy: Library at the Pasteur Institute, Coonoor]

Government records indicate that the muzzling of dogs was resorted to in cantonments and municipalities during the prevalence of rabies in the year 1900. However, the most prominent state response to rabies control seems to have been dog killing. One of the earliest dated document relating to dog killing was a 1791 record stating that “a notice be published offering a reward of one anna for every pariah dog killed in or near Calcutta within one month from the 31st October”. [1]

The Administrative report of President of the Municipality of Madras of the year 1879 states that dogs straying the streets of Madras were killed under the orders of the Commissioner of police, purportedly to avoid “hydrophobia and other loathsome diseases” carried by these dogs [2]. The killed dogs were fed to wild animals at the zoo and used as manure. The 1913 Administration report of the Corporation of Madras Health Department provides more mundane quantitative details. According to the report, in the year 1913 3,003 male dogs, 2,957 female dogs and 392 pups were destroyed. And dog catchers were rewarded by the police at the rate of 4 annas per dog and 1 anna per pup. The skins of healthy dogs were then sold at 1 anna 9 pies per skin [3].

A 1926 government order recommends the usage of electrocutors for killing dogs in Ootacamund municipality similar to the ones used in Bangalore where 250 dogs were killed every month. The accompanying report gives design details of the plant and even states that “this system of destroying dogs is most humane and there is no fear and trembling of the dog” [4].

State sponsored dog killing seems to have also met considerable public resistance in colonial India. One of the earliest recorded protests was found in a letter to the Court of Directors of the Bombay Presidency dated 5 May 1814. This predates the Bombay dog riots that happened in 1832 when the Parsis of Bombay rioted against the British to stop the indiscriminate killing of dogs in Bombay.

The 1814 letter called attention to a petition by Indian inhabitants against the operation of the Rule ordinance and Regulation II of 1813 for the destruction of dogs and impounding stray cattle. According to the document, “the number of dogs which had been suffered to be at large had become so great a nuisance and so dangerous during the hot weather seasons that the regulation became a measure of absolute necessity. However, the letter adds that “when the regulation was first enacted in April considerable dissatisfaction was manifested by a part of the native inhabitants who proceeded to the extreme measure of closing all the shops in the Bazaar and in obstructing the police officers in the execution of their duty [5].” However, the public debate (quite like the current debate on dogs) seems to have been quite polarized even then with many purportedly supporting the killings. This same document goes on to state that “we have the satisfaction in believing that the more reasonable part of the community are convinced by the expediency of the Regulation and of the delicacy with which its provisions are being carried out”.

Interestingly, Gandhi seems to have not had a strong opinion against dog killing. In a 1926 article in his newspaper Young India, Gandhi endorsed the killing of 60 (supposedly rabid) dogs straying in the office premises of a businessman in Ahmedabad. I found a Tamil translation of this essay at the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai published in Navasakthi, a Tamil magazine [6]. The essay seems to have raised a furore then. Angry letters poured in from several quarters, each of which Gandhi dutifully seems to have responded to. More details on the discussion can be found here.

These documents are only a sample of the rich tapestry of material available. Documents such as vernacular news reports still remain unexplored and could provide more valuable details regarding public concerns about dogs and dog killings. Much of the archival documents in French and Portuguese have not yet been included in this research. But even this limited sample presents sufficient evidence of numerous discussions on dogs, much of which remains relevant even today. And it points to the need for future focused research on this topic.

 

Pradeep Kuttuva is an independent researcher based in Chennai. He holds a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (UAB) and Technische Universität Hamburg (TUHH). His research interests cover environmental and social justice, environmental movements and commons. His most recent projects include a study on critically understanding state and community led water body restoration efforts in the city of Chennai and another to better understand human-street dog interactions in Chennai for safe co-habitation.

This research was supervised by Chris Pearson and funded by Centre for Humanities and Social Science of Health, Medicine and Technology and the Wellcome Trust Institutional Support Fund at the University of Liverpool.

 References

[1] “Resolution of the Board, that a notice be published offering a reward of one anna for every pariah dog killed in or near Calcutta within one month from the 31st October,” 1791, Public Records, Home Department, National Archives of India, File No. P.P. 3656, B.S. 371.

[2] “Administrative report of the Municipality of Madras for the year 1879,” 1880, p. 8, Tamil Nadu Archives Library, Chennai.

[3] “Administrative report of the Corporation of Madras, Health Department for the year 1913,” 1914, p. 7, Tamil Nadu Archives Library, Chennai.

[4] “Dog Destruction – Ootacamund Municipality,” Public Health Department, GO 2015 11 November 1926, Tamil Nadu Archives, Chennai.

[5] “Relating to the petition by native inhabitants against destruction of dogs,” Public Department, Letters to the Court of Directors, Vol. 40, 1814, pp. 208-212, Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai.

[5] Navasakthi, August 1926, p.23.