How the British Systematically Destroyed Indian Food Production

How the British Systematically Destroyed Indian Food Production

Note:  Beginning with this essay, The Dharma Dispatch will carry a series documenting the methodical and systematic manner in which the British not only destroyed Indian food production but the attitude, manners, customs, and the conception of food that had been handed down to Indians since the Vedic period. 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.  

Deprecating the Indian manners

Early European observers and British administrators in India repeatedly came across the Indian habit of offering food and hospitality to all those who happen to come to their door or the village, and they often wrote about it in rather deprecating terms. One of the better known among such observers is Abbe J.A. Dubois, the French missionary who arrived in India in 1792 and spent 31 years enjoying the fabled Indian hospitality in the villages of Mysore, pretending all the while to live as one amongst the villagers. The Abbe is revered as the first sociologist of India for his observations on what he calls the “Hindu manners, customs and ceremonies”. And while documenting the manners of the Indians, he writes extensively about the strict discipline that Indians followed in the matter of eating and sharing their food.

The Abbe writes about the elaborate ceremony associated with the meal of a grhastha [householder]: about the scrupulous attention that the grhastha paid to hygiene and piety in the matter of eating; about the way he took out shares for the gods, the ancestors and the bhutas before beginning to eat; and about the way he desired to have as many guests as possible at mealtimes. He particularly notices the care that was exercised in feeding the dependents. “The remains of food”, says the Abbe, “are never put aside…, nor are they given to the servants. .. .to be a servant is no degradation. A servant generally eats with his master, and what he left could not be offered to the poor, … Rice that is to be given away to the poor… is boiled separately.”

The Abbe, of course, does not approve of any of this, and much of what he writes reads like an extended spoof on the ways of the Indians. The good Abbe was probably distracted by the usual prejudice of a foreigner against the ways of an alien people. He was also concerned that such adherence to strict discipline in matters of day-to-day living made the Indians look upon others, especially the Europeans, as uncouth barbarians, and rendered them immune to the blandishments of what to the Abbe seemed to be the infinitely superior civilization and religion of Europe. It was probably this strict and elaborate discipline that the Indian grhastha anchored in his civilization followed, that made the Abbe come to the despairing conclusion that Indians would rather be reduced to barbarism than accept the religion of the conquering Europeans. To the great discomfiture of his fellow Christian missionaries, he asserts that, 

“Should the intercourse between individuals of both nations, by becoming more intimate and more friendly, produce a change in the religion and usage of the country, it will not be to turn Christians that they will forsake their own religion, but rather (which in my opinion is a thousand times worse than idolatry) to become mere atheists…

Disrupting the polity

The early British administrators harboured similar civilizational antipathy towards the Indian ways. They, however, also had a more mundane objection to the Indian tradition of offering food and hospitality to all comers. As we have seen in the preceding chapter, in the traditional Indian polity that the British encountered here, the precept of caring for others before eating was not left to the whims of mere individuals, but was enshrined in concrete institutional forms. Most localities, thus, assigned specific and substantial shares of their produce to the maintenance of institutions that provided food, shelter and other hospitality to the seeker. A fairly large proportion of the production was thus committed to such institutions, and similar other functions. This put severe strains on the revenue that the British could extract from the lands that came under their control; and therefore the hospitality of the Indians came to be seen as a serious vice.

This, for the early British administrators, was such a serious problem that Richard Wellesely, the British governor-general at the time of the conquest of Mysore, while instructing the British resident at Mysore about the affairs of the newly conquered state, was compelled to specifically warn him about this aspect of the Indian polity. In the detailed instructions issued in 1799 and conveyed to the resident by the military secretary, the governor-general writes:

“But though Hindoo princes are for the most part sufficiently frugal in their immediate personal expences, and though the same spirit of parsimony usually pervades all departments of their Governments, there is one kind of profusion which they are but too apt to practice to an extent that does not unfrequentiy involve their affairs in general embarrassment, namely the alienation of land in favour of individuals (most commonly Brahmins) and of pagodas. His lordship observes that Purniah has already proposed, and obtained the sanction of the late commissioners in Mysore for every considerable endowment of the latter description. His lordship is aware that these are stated to fall very short of what they amounted to before the usurpation of Hyder Alii Khan, but he is also inclined to think that they are at least as liberal as the circumstances of the country will admit of. You must therefore be extremely careful how far you allow any augmentation of these establishments, or any other alienations of the sircar lands on whatever account. It will be proper that you should come to a very explicit understanding with Purniah on this head; letting him plainly know that no grants of the nature in question must ever be made without your approbation, and that there is no instance of mismanagement which would be more likely to alarm his lordship or to impress him with the necessity of enforcing the stipulations of the 4th article of the treaty of Seringapatam than any departure either open or secret from his lordship’s injunction in this particular.”

The 4th article of the treaty of Srirangapattanam, referred to above, gave the British governor-general the right to issue regulations and ordinances for the internal management of any branch of the government of Mysore, or to bring it, as the terms of the treaty said, “under the direct management of the servants of the said Company Bahadur”. 

Bowing to such undisguised threats, Diwan Purniah—who was re-installed as the chief minister of the newly conquered state of Mysore, and who administered the state in the name of the king but on behalf of the British — brought down the resources assigned to what we have been calling the institutions of hospitality and learning from 2,33,954 to 56,993 controy pagodas, in the very first year of the new administration.

The amount of 2,33,954 controy pagodas, which was assigned to temples, mathams and muslim institutions during the reign of Hyder Ali Khan was itself, as the British governor-general acknowledges, far below what would have been allowed under more traditional Indian arrangements, that prevailed before Hyder Ali Khan’s accession to power.

To be continued


  1. Abbe J.A. Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 3rd edition, Oxford 1906,p. 184.
  2. Cited in the editor’s introduction to the above, p. xxvi.
  3. Letter from W. Kirkpatrick, military secretary to the governor-general, to Col. Barry Close, British resident at Mysore, 4.9.1799, in Wellesely Papers, British Museum, Add Ms 13669. Extracts reproduced here are from papers kindly made available by Sri Dharampal.
  4. See, Major M. Wilks, Report on the Interior Administration,Resources and Expenditure of the Government of Mysore, Fort William, Calcutta1805; reprint, Bangalore 1864, para 185, p. 34.

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