How the British Broke Our Charitable Institutions and Created a Nation of Beggars

How the British Broke Our Charitable Institutions and Created a Nation of Beggars

Note: This essay is the second part of The Dharma Dispatch series documenting the methodical and systematic manner in which the British not only destroyed Indian food production but converted the country into a nation of beggars. This series has been excerpted from the meticulously researched book, “Annam Bahukurvita” authored by Dr. J K Bajaj and Dr. M D Srinivas with permission. Some formatting changes have been made. Some formatting changes have been added.  

Read all essays in this series

Polluting the minds

Such contempt for the ways of the Indians and vigorous exertions to limit the money spent on the institutions of hospitality had their impact. Most of the institutions of hospitality, like all other institutions of Indian polity, began to fall into disuse within a couple of decades of the onset of British rule in any area.

Individual adherence to the discipline of sharing before eating of course continued till much later, but it seems that those of the Indians who came in closer contact with the Europeans had begun to imbibe the contempt that the Europeans felt for the ways of the Indians, so that already in 1829, William Bentinck, the then governor-general of the east-India company, could write:

“Recent events, and the occurrences now passing under our eyes, still more clearly justify the persuasion, that whatever change would be beneficial for our native subjects, we may hope to see adopted, in part at least, at no distant period, if adequate means and motives be presented. I need scarcely mention the increasing demand which almost all who possess the means evince, for various articles of convenience and luxury purely European. It is, in many cases, very remarkable. Even in the celebration of their most sacred festivals, a great change is said to be perceptible in Calcutta. Much of what used, in old times, to be distributed among beggars and Brahmins, is now, in many instances, devoted to the ostentatious entertainment of Europeans; and generally, the amount expended in useless alms is stated to have been greatly curtailed. …”

William Bentinck was probably overstating the case. Though the institutionalized sharing of the earlier Indian polity had largely been curbed by then, and though some of the highly resourceful Indians in Calcutta and also perhaps in Delhi and Agra, which by then had been under British domination for more than half a century, had indeed begun to hanker after the European ways, yet avoidance of what he calls useless alms could not have been too widespread: there were hardly many Indians who would have had the means and the temerity to engage in social intercourse with the Europeans or to covet their luxuries. William Bentinck in fact recorded his minute of May 1829, from which we have quoted above, partly to make a case for a greater presence in India of “intelligent and respectable Europeans” to enhance the possibilities of “a more general intercourse” with the “native subjects”.

Those of the Indians who came under the cultural sway of the Europeans, however, did find the hospitality of the Indians amongst one of the many evils of the Indian society that needed to be combated and eliminated: the fight against the evil formed part of their agenda of reform. Thus, the very first issue of Keshub Chandra Sen’s Sulabh Samachar, dated November 15, 1870, carried an article against the evil of giving alms. “Giving alms to beggars is not an act of kindness,” the article proclaimed, “because it is wrong to live on another’s charity.” And the article went on to suggest that incapacitated beggars should instead be trained to do “useful things for society.”

This attitude of demanding work of those who do not have enough to eat has over time become a cliché amongst the relatively well-off Indians, especially among those who claim to have acquired a modern and rational consciousness.

Institutionalizing callousness

But, even after almost a hundred years of efforts by the British administrators and the Indian reformers to curb the Indian’s disposition to share food before partaking of it oneself, the habit remained strong and widespread enough for the famine commission of 1880 to take it into account while deliberating on ways of providing efficient relief in situations of famine.

The British administration in India and its revenues were by then fairly secure, and there was no further need for the urgent dismissiveness of a Wellesely or a Bentinck. The famine commissioners, therefore, could dispassionately weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the Indian disposition to look after others. However, the conclusions they arrived at were not much different: for them too this disposition was essentially an evil that could be countenanced in relatively normal times, but which had to be controlled if not entirely eliminated in times of real distress. Thus, in their report of July 7, 1880, the commissioners observe:

“Native society in India is justly famous for its charity. It is owing to the profound sense which is felt by all classes of the religious duty of succouring, according to their means, the indigent and helpless who have claims on them as members of the family, the caste, or the town or village, that in ordinary times no State measures of relief are needed. Native charity, however, does not work according to the English pattern. It does not tend to organization or co-operation among those who bestow it; it consists too much in giving a small dole to numerous applicants rather than in providing completely for the wants of a few applicants. Such charity is to be encouraged at the beginning of distress;.. .but when famine has once set in with severity it may become a serious evil unless it can be brought under some systematic control. .. .When once Government has taken the matter thoroughly in hand and provided relief in one shape or another for all who need it, and a proper inclosed place of residence for all casuals and beggars, street-begging and public distribution of alms to unknown applicants should be discouraged, and if possible entirely stopped.”

Once the state came into the picture, the commissioners wanted the individuals with their spontaneous charitable impulses to simply get out of the way. And even their contributions to the relief effort of the state were unwelcome. Thus, the commissioners go on to recommend that:

“Under the system of Government relief which recognises the responsibility of the State to provide for all who really require relief, there does not appear to be any reason for making an appeal to the public to aid the Government by their contributions. This is a relic surviving from a past state of things, and is unsuitable where efficient relief measures are carried out on a uniform plan designed to give security to the whole population, at the public cost, and on the responsibility of the Government. …”

Incidentally, the relief that the commissioners recommended consisted in providing a survival wage, “sufficient for the purposes of maintenance but not more”, in return for a day’s hard labour at specially organized work sites. For those whose health had deteriorated beyond the possibility of work, the commissioners recommended provision of “dole” after due examination by inspecting officers, and the dole was to be withdrawn as soon as a person, in the eyes of the inspecting officer, began to look fit enough for work. Even from women “who by national custom” were “unable to appear in public”, the commissioners expected work, in the form of spinning cotton for the state, in return for the dole of grains provided to them and their children.

Such was the horror that the British administrators felt for the “gratuitous” giving out of food, which for the Indians is the very essence of being human. Giving food without demanding work in return seemed to somehow violate the British sense of ethics and morality: they insisted on elaborate controls on the distribution of food in times of great distress, even though they noticed “the reluctance which the people exhibit to accept public charity, and the eagerness with which at the earliest opportunity they recur to their own unaided labour for support …”

The famine commissioners report of 1880 became the basis for the creation of an elaborate bureaucracy for the management of relief and distress, and the judgments and sensibilities of the British thus became institutionalized into state-controlled mechanisms of commanding the supply arid distribution of food, that remain with us till today.

To be continued


  1. Minute of William Bentinck, 30.5.1829. Extracts reproduced here are from papers kindly made available by Sri Dharampal.
  2. Cited in David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind, Princeton 1979, pp. 107-8.
  3. Report of the Indian Famine Commission, London 1880; reprint, Agricole, New Delhi 1989, para 187, pp. 60-1.
  4. Report of the Indian Famine Commission, above, para 188, p. 61.
  5. Report of the Indian Famine Commission, above, para 111, p. 36. The imperative of providing a wage that does not exceed the requirements of bare survival is mentioned and discussed again and again in the report. See, especially, para 131, p. 43 and para 184, p. 50.

The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.

The Dharma Dispatch