Can Covid 19 be a Game-Changer? Those Who Serve on the Frontline and Servant Loyalty during the Indian Mutiny of 1857

One is the current pandemic and the other a mutiny – what these events have in common is gender and a crisis in social reproduction. Quarantine diaries and mutiny diaries bring us to historical cross-roads for re-evaluating class-gender-race-caste.

In times of catastrophes, pandemics, uprisings and wars, women’s reproductive labour acquires an intense scrutiny. During critical events, the unequal gender division of labour and class structures may be somewhat momentarily reversed or suspended or re-established. With the raging Covid-19 pandemic, live-out hired help (also known as ‘part-time domestic help’) have been strictly told to keep away from the employer household. By way of example, I turn to India, albeit the dependence on hired help and migrant care-labour has a globalized face today. In the midst of the pandemic, Indian and foreign nationals employers are now managing their homes entirely without hired help. Self-isolation rules are compelling the employer class to cook, clean, dust and care for multiple family members. This has thrown resourceful people of balance; conversations around the everyday dependence on hired help who perform an enormity of tasks are proliferating on social media.

Photos 1 & 2: The gruelling everyday tasks of hired help – A foreign national employers’ instructions. (Source: Shalini Grover)

We are witnessing a great deal of complaining and angst by employers. The bashful display of housework being performed by some men in their attempt to ‘save’ “their” women has also been eye-catching and revealing.

Photo 3: Indian Male actors, Bohra and Bijlani urging the public to help their wives. (Source: Times of India, April 11th, 2020.)

Will the employer class finally learn to value the hired help who sustain their lifestyles? Will men come to terms with the invisible (and fraught) gendered nature of housework? Will humility and respect replace normative class and caste entitlements? And will the vast casualized and feminized work force of Indian domestic workers be in a position to negotiate robust social protections for themselves? These questions are relevant not only for the Indian setting but across the world where women disproportionately shoulder the burden of housework and in countries where hired help is readily available.

The Mutiny of 1857: The Revisiting of Master-Servant Roles

Some examples from the historical past indicate that during crisis and rebellions master-servant roles can be disrupted. A case in illustration is the Mutiny of 1857 (known also as the Great Rebellion), whereby employer dependency on servants was in question. Native servants and ayahs (the female nanny or maid) were divided as to whether they should remain loyal to the imperial home or join the Mutiny. Many domestic servants, decided to remain unquestionably loyal to the imperial order. Indrani Sen notifies how the Rebellion came as a great surprise to the British and it was their domestic servants who alerted them about it by picking up intimations from bazaars and local hearse. The breakdown in trust amongst those servants who remained non-compliant and non-deferential resulted in the revisiting of the master-servant equation. Sam Fortescue, writing on British attitudes towards the Mutiny notes: ‘Many women, too, found life hard without their habitual ayahs, dhobis and assorted other domestic help (2003:24).’ Lydia Murdoch mentions how British wives of a certain class had to dedicate themselves to physical labour, ‘the maid-of-all-work’ (2012: 379). As such, British wives singularly replaced the washerman, cook and nurse. Yet Fortescue describes the indifference of British wives who whilst trying to escape and find shelter thought nothing of ‘the accompanying team of ayahs and khitmutgars that nursed their children and bought them food (2012: 25). Most revealing is Fortescue’s account of how British employers reacted when servants were no longer physically present in their lives.

It is as if these servants did not register in the British mind alongside their despicable compatriots, being invisible until they actually disappeared, whereupon they were suddenly missed

(2003: 25)

Across temporal time zones, comparisons can be made between society’s paid carers whose labour remains undervalued and under-recognized. Today’s dedicated care-workers, nurses, doctors and many other manual workers are risking their lives in countries that are severely affected by the pandemic. In 1857, cohorts of domestic servants and ayahs served in the frontline, mostly surreptitiously, by saving the lives of British families who took refuge in their huts during the Mutiny. Copious information via first hand memories and diaries delineate how ayahs in particular saved the lives of many British children who were in their care from being abducted, orphaned and killed.

Photo 4: Servant loyalty (Source: Rajan Mitra [India Explored Blog])

For British couples, did the years preceding the Mutiny shepherd a re-imagination of more progressive gender/domestic relations? Given the acute scarcity of reproductive labour that dominated the Mutiny (‘The British/wife maid-of-all-work’), did servants’ begin to feel more valued or did their lives alter for the better? The distrust over servant loyalty by those who had remained defiant and treacherous would have created a wedge in master-servant relations that is also built on trust and sentiment. More so, the Mutiny led to the British re-establishing their might over India with vengeful reprisals. Indian Sepoys (‘the rebels’) were publicly executed and the whip of the colonial rule became harsher. Murdoch informs us about the outpouring of grief (especially the large number of child deaths), the instability of British domestic life and tensions that followed. The devotion of ayahs who had kept British families safe and alive no longer mattered, albeit their loyalty became a favoured subject of colonial fiction. The contemporary moment in India conjures the continuity of a neglected domestic servant workforce who live on the margins.

What lessons can we learn from history? Crucially, race, class and gender are deeply entrenched in public/private and waged/unwaged socially reproductive work. In the current pandemic crisis, care workers, nurses and doctors – many from ethnic minority backgrounds have lost their lives in the pandemic. A Guardian analysis found that of the 53 NHS staff who have died so far, 68% are BAME (from black and ethnic minority backgrounds). Will the countless deaths of doctors and nurses all who are in the frontline, change opinions about immigration, race and popular politics that have heavily dominated the Brexit era? The faceless voices of BAME nurses and carers are now centre-stage – what is our identity and why are people clapping for us without knowing who we are? From the historical past we may learn that we cannot allow critical events to bypass us without addressing deep-seated structural inequalities. Covid 19 should be a moment of remarkable mobilization, not a ‘temporary’ suspension’ of the valuable work that women and society’s key workers perform.


Sen, Indrani, ‘Discourses of ‘Gendered Loyalty:’ Indian Women in Nineteenth-Century, ‘Mutiny’ Fiction,’ in, The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, ed. Biswamoy Pati (United Kingdom: Routledge, 2010).

Murdoch, Lydia, ‘“Suppressed Grief”: Mourning the Death of British Children and the Memory of the 1857 Indian Rebellion,’ in, Journal of British Studies, Vol.51, No. 2, 2012.

Fortescue, Sam, ‘Rascally Pandies and Feringhi Dogs: A Study of British Attitudes to Indians During the 1857 Uprising,’ Edinburgh Papers in South Asian Studies, Number 18, 2003.

Personal Archives, Internet Sources and Photos

The Foster Family Archive:

Rajan Mitra, The Great Explorer

Times of India, 11th April 2020: Naagin actors Karanvir Bohra to Arjun Bijlani: These popular TV actors are helping their wives in cooking and cleaning


Tagged: #Affect #Borders #Child care #Class #Colonialism #Domesticity #Economy #Emotional labour #Gender #Geopolitics of care #Housing #Migration #Quarantine #Race #Religion #State power #Surveillance

06 May 2020 — Shalini Grover

Shalini Grover

Kent, UK

Shalini Grover is trained as an anthropologist, who specializes on Gender. She received her PhD from the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Sussex in 2006. She is now based at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics. Shalini has published widely on marriage, kinship, legal pluralisms and labour relations. Her latest work is on domestic servitude and care practices in India which she is exploring through a contemporary and historical lens.