Ending Famine in India. A Transnational History of Food Aid and Development, c. 1890–1950

Simonow, Joanna
Global Connections: Routes and Roots
Anzahl Seiten
283 S.
€ 117,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Madhavi Jha, Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto

Joanna Simonow’s “Ending Famines in India” presents an instructive recollection by John Fischer, a US diplomat and journalist. While travelling through Bengal during the famine of 1943–44 Fisher met an unnamed American General who had dreamt that “all the Englishmen [had] quietly slipped out of this country [India] during the night, and left us Americans holding the bag.” The General could not “imagine anything worse” (p. 105). This nightmare was prescient, if not accurate in its details. A new world order was indeed taking shape with a reduced role for the European powers, but the nightmarish misery in the shape of famines, poverty, and conflict would be experienced disproportionately by the erstwhile colonised nations outside of the Global North. As for the United States of America, already at the centre of disbursing post-war relief, aid and humanitarianism was no unsolicited burden shoved on to them by the British, but rather a means to consolidate their global might.

Rising American power and the making of famine as an international cause forms the backbone of “Ending Famines in India”. Conceptually the book is divided into three aspects of famine relief: nutritional sciences, missionary movement, and anti-colonial mobilisation. In each of these sections Simonow takes us through the developments from the late nineteenth century to the early decades of independence from the British rule. Apart from providing a historical depth to America’s South Asian engagement, this temporal choice has another goal: to emphasise continuity in the elite responses to famine relief. The book breaks from much of the existing works on famines in South Asia which tend to gather around major famine time periods of either the late nineteenth century or the aforementioned Bengal famine. Though reduced in their ability to wreak large scale havoc, famines and scarcities were very much part of the South Asian experience in the intervening period. Even as the colonial state did not always acknowledge their presence, this book convincingly demonstrates that famine remained a driving force for developments in nutritional sciences, missionary activities, and the tripartite relationship between India, USA, and Britain. Simonow draws attention to the need to think about poverty, hunger, scarcity and famine in a spectrum without diluting the notional utility of each of these concepts.

Famine historiography in South Asia has been a fertile source of writings on high politics and its various entanglements. Works on the causes of famine have left scholars divided on the issue of British culpability.1 Both within and outside South Asia there have been efforts to rethink famine as a natural calamity.2 Another way of thinking through colonialism and famine has been to trace the ‘uses’ of famines for the colonial state: famines or the threat of their occurrence became conduits of consolidating colonial power. Hence, famine and hunger have been analysed in the history of philanthropy, of non-state actors such as missionaries, and of the post-war decolonisation process.3 The novelty of “Ending Famines in India” does not simply lie in bringing together and building on these different threads of scholarship. The book goes a step ahead and centres famine in these different narratives. Hence, the readers get a long shot view of how famine continued to be a cause celebre in the twentieth century, while the implications of this status on the famine-affected remained uneven.

Famines have had an affective field of force throughout history.4 At the same time, most of the world’s famines in the last two centuries have occurred amidst plentitude, with ever improving means of communication and ever growing sophistication of nutritional insights. The world is not free of severe food insecurity even at the time of writing this review.5 Famine will visit parts of Gaza by May 2024.6 Hence, how we, those who are unaffected by famines, consume famines, including thinking about our own corresponding actions (either as discerning donors in the nineteenth and twentieth century or as ethical consumers today), is a result of complex, multi-sited socio-political and technological processes. Simonow brings us the twentieth century history of experiencing South Asian famines from near and afar, through charity and philanthropy, through science and experiments, and through lobbying and building solidarity.

“Ending Famines in India” is an account of non-state actors located in South Asia, Britain and America who were engaged, consciously or unconsciously, in this process of making meaning of famine for their respective publics in these three regions and beyond. At a first glance, it would seem that the loud, expert, and even collective voices of non-state actors failed to deter the economic and geo-political rationale of American, British or Indian state when it came to famine relief. Hence, medical opinion of the leading nutritional scientists did not lead to any substantial change in the allocated ration for famine relief. In another instance the growth in scientific knowledge on micro-nutrients needed for holistic human health allowed the colonial state to shift the onus of food insecurity to the cultural exceptionalism of South Asians. Again, the full potential of Indian Multi-Purpose Food, with all its problems of being a techno medical solution to malnutrition, could not be realised as USA discouraged investment in Indian MPF to favour American produced corn-soy-milk.

However, Simonow’s carefully mapped polyvalent account also provides us the history of dissent to the growing American hegemony on the imagination of the ‘third world’ and its developmental needs. It is true that in the 1940s the extraordinary alliances that the supporters of the India League in America or the Indian Famine Relief Committee evidenced, did not produce a kinder outlook of the world than US President Harry S. Truman’s “bitch with too much a litter” (p. 178). But it does tell us that not everyone was on board. Simonow also reminds us that these solidarities were not simply a result of the passion of well placed do-gooders, but rather of the politics engendered through transnational circulation of material and affective ties.

“Ending famines in India” could have engaged more with caste. This lack is puzzling as one third of the book is devoted to missionaries, whose interwoven history with caste is now well established in South Asian historiography. In certain instances, it is not evident why particular transnational connections have been drawn by the author. What is the relevance of the relationship between the head of the Hindu Mahasabha, Syamaprasad Mukherjee, and the Mahabodhi Society of India with its East Asian associations? Without deeper analysis, such (few) loose ends take away from the strength of the transnational analysis in the rest of the book which goes beyond the mere existence of these connections. On the whole, the book lives up to the promise of providing a transnational account, that too, in an engaging narrative which is easy to read and for both subject specialists and others.

1 Tirthankar Roy, Indian Famines. “Natural” or “Man-Made”, in: Arun Bandopadhyay / Sanjukta Das Gupta (eds.), In Quest of the Historian’s Craft. Essays in Honour of Professor B.B. Chaudhuri, New Delhi 2018, pp. 75–103.
2 David Arnold, Famine. Social Crisis and Historical Change, Oxford 1988; Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts. El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, London 2002.
3 Sanjay Sharma, Famine, Philanthropy and the Colonial State. North India in the Early Nineteenth Century, Delhi 2001; Madhusree Mukherjee, Churchill’s Secret War. The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Chennai 2010; Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal. War, Famine and the End of Empire, London 2015; Benjamin Robert Siegel, Hungry nation. Food, famine, and the making of modern India, Cambridge 2018; Abhijit Sarkar, Fed by Famine. The Hindu Mahasabha’s politics of religion, caste, and relief in response to the Great Bengal Famine, 1943–1944, in: Modern Asian Studies 54 (2020), pp. 2022–2086; Chakali Chandra Sekhar, Famine, Caste Differences and Missionary Christianity in Colonial India. Burning Hunger, in: South Asia Research 43 (2023), pp. 210–226.
4 Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine. Expressions of the inexpressible?, Durham 1997; Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, Natural disasters and Victorian empire. Famines, Fevers and Literary Cultures of South Asia, Basingstoke 2013.
5 Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. [last accessed on 23.04.2024].
6 Neve Gordan / Muna Haddad, The Road to Famine in Gaza, in: The New York Review, 30.03.2024 (23.04.2024).

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Mehr zum Buch
Inhalte und Rezensionen
Weitere Informationen
Sprache der Publikation
Sprache der Rezension