Don’t Call Me Resilient

Colonialists used starvation as a tool of oppression

Episode Summary

Vinita speaks to two famine scholars about the use of starvation as a tool in the colonizer's playbook through two historic examples - the decimation of Indigenous populations in the Plains, North America and the 1943 famine in Bengal, India.

Episode Notes

In today's episode, we're continuing the conversation we started last week about using forced famine as a tool to control land, resources and people.  For centuries, starvation has been effectively used by colonial powers to control populations, to acquire land and the wealth that comes with that.  Today, we’re looking at the decimation of Indigenous populations in the Plains of North America –.  and the 1943 famine that took three million lives in Bengal, India, which was then under British rule. These are two vastly different populations that were devastated by a complex set of factors. But both populations had a few things in common: they were thriving with healthy and wealthy communities. And although disease and famine existed before the arrival of Europeans, it cannot be denied colonial powers accelerated and even capitalized on chronic famine and the loss of life due to disease and malnutrition. Through these two examples, Vinita looks at how starvation has been used as a tool in the colonial "playbook." She is joined by James Daschuk, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina and the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. And Janam Mukherjee is an Associate Professor of History at Toronto Metropolitan University, and the author of Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire. 

Episode Transcription




Janam Mukherjee: I believe that famine defines a certain category of people. Who are beyond the pale of our humanity, who are outlined and then marked as outside of human life itself. Authoritarian regimes often resort to famine and torture. 



Vinita Srivastava: For centuries, starvation has been effectively used by colonial powers to control populations, to acquire land, and the wealth that comes with that.

This colonization was accompanied by an entitlement approach, the belief that the indigenous populations are inferior to the lives of the colonizer. So today we're looking at two historic examples, the decimation of indigenous populations in North America, what has been referred to as a cultural genocide, or the American Holocaust, and the famine in Bengal, India, in 1943 under British rule.

According to a recent BBC story, the Bengal famine killed more than three million people. It was one of the worst losses of civilian life on the Allied side during the Second World War. Of course, these are two vastly different populations that were decimated by a complex set of factors. But both populations had a few things in common.

They were thriving with healthy and wealthy communities. And although disease and famine existed before the arrival of Europeans, it cannot be denied that they accelerated and even capitalized on chronic famine and the loss of life due to disease and malnutrition. In other words, as the famous economist Amartya Sen has said, chronic famine springs from the politics of food distribution rather than a lack of food.

With us today are two experts on the famines I just mentioned. James Daschuk is an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina. He is the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. And Janam Mukherjee is an associate professor of history at Toronto Metropolitan University, and the author of Hungry Bengal: War, Famine, and the End of Empire.

Thank you so much both for being here. 



Janam Mukherjee: Thank you, Vinita. 

James Daschuk: Thank you. 

Vinita Srivastava: So, today's conversation is a bit of an experiment, and something that we've been wanting to do for a long time. And that is, can we talk about the tools of colonialism as a playbook across different regions? So, let's give it a try, and let's jump into this conversation.

James, in your book, you mention a scholar who describes what happened in North America as an American Holocaust. This is a very complicated history with many different factors impacting things. But can you describe generally what this means? 

James Daschuk: I think standards approach to American holocaust talk about the apocalyptic events that happened after the arrival of Europeans.

So not only was, They're the displacement of indigenous people, but the diseases that came with them, unbeknownst even to the Europeans themselves, it was before the days of germ theory or anything like that. So I think the arrival of Europeans and, and all the baggage, the biological baggage they brought with them brought such monumental events that's standard to use that term, like you said, an American Holocaust.

Vinita Srivastava: I remember reading in the very beginning of your book that stayed with me is that The indigenous population declined by almost 90 percent and that they were basically destroyed, as you're saying. I'm wondering if we can talk a little bit about what contributed to that decline of population. 

James Daschuk: It's more than biology, for sure, but I think one of the things to think about is, Indigenous people in North America and other places around the world that didn't have a long tradition of, for example, uh, domestication of animals.

We know now in the 21st century that animals are the reservoir of diseases. So because indigenous people in America didn't domesticate animals, they hadn't had the, the biological experience of passing germs or viruses between animals and humans. Europeans arrived with endemic smallpox, the people who they encountered had no biological resistance.

There's a new interpretation that it's more than just that. It was, it was the violence enacted by the Europeans, by the new arrivals. But I think those two things combined to create standards, Holocaust like situation. 

Vinita Srivastava: One of the things I really liked about reading your book, James, is that every single thing is, is really sourced. You provide all of this information. It's like thousands of years, like 2000 years, and you take us through this history. And one of the most famous lines that's quoted from your book is this line that the first prime minister of Canada said, which is that we're doing all we can basically to refuse food to Indians who are on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense. So first of all, hearing that quote, it might explain why we had this problem with statues of John A. Macdonald in Canada, why they were being asked to be taken down, why some of them were taken down. But can you explain a little bit more in the context of that very famous quote? Now, what was happening at that time? 

James Daschuk: For sure. This wasn't me being a conspiracy theorist. This was me cutting and pasting from Hansard, the official record of the house of commons. One thing we don't tend to think about is that really provocative statement by Prime Minister Macdonald about keeping people on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense.

He was being criticized by the Liberal Party for spending too much money on food. So, there didn't seem to be too many sympathetic actors in 19th century Canadian Parliament with regard to the well being of Indigenous people. I think he was bragging that he was controlling the population, weaponizing food, and he wasn't embarrassed about it.

He was actually quite proud that he was able to control 20, 000 Indigenous people as cheaply as possible. He wasn't wasting the taxpayers money, which is a very cynical thing to say. What that did was, that food as a, as a means to control the population, ensured the, the quick construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which is the backbone of the nation, especially here in Western Canada. 

Vinita Srivastava: So he sacrificed Indigenous populations to build a train across Canada and to help settlers come into this nation, into this land. 

James Daschuk: Yeah. And once you had an industrial means of bringing settlers in, they were coming in potentially by the hundreds every week. So the population here in Saskatchewan. Rose like a rocket over the decades after that, First Nations people were barred from leaving their reserves with a pass system. They were excluded from the commercial economy with a permit system that lasted until the 1960s. So that hunger, the initial hunger was institutionalized for decades.

And the abduction of children into the residential schools program, which we all know about. The hunger was institutionalized to such an extent that tuberculosis broke out almost universally in those kids. And Ian Mosby from Toronto Metropolitan has, has written that things were so institutionalized in the mid 20th century that there were nutritional experiments undertaken on residential school children by Canadian government physicians and scientists.

Vinita Srivastava: I saw that instead of feeding the children, they, or instead of feeding indigenous populations, they decided to study the impact of hunger and starvation. Janam, moving forward into a different time period, but also a different continent, You've researched and published a book about the 1943 Bengal famine in India.

Even though there's now books published on the famine, it's still a relatively unknown history that in the 1940s that more than 3 million people died in eastern India. It was one of the worst losses of civilian life on the Allied side in the Second World War. I know it is complicated, but I'm wondering if you could help unpack what happened in that era.

Janam Mukherjee: I think the prevailing condition of India at the inception of World War I is colonialism. Colonialism is the most dominant force politically, societally, geopolitically, etc. So we have to see colonialism itself as a sort of authoritarian regime with resort to famine throughout the colonial period.

Famine is used throughout the colonial period as a way to subjugate the colonized population. And then in particular, the other main vector creating famine in Bengal in the 1940s is war itself. So the pressures of war, particularly on Bengal in Eastern India, once Japan takes Burma and India becomes the front of the war against the Axis powers, tremendous pressure to produce for the war effort is made in Bengal.

So there's a huge extraction of goods, uh, commodities, resources, as well as people, that puts tremendous economic pressure. And then the colonial system overlaying it. So in the name of war, they're also claiming certain emergency powers that amount to a totalitarian state. They're also facing armed rebellion and active rebellion from the Bengali population in particular.

So famine is a very. Useful tool in a sort of collective punishment of Bengal and India at large. So if we see these two factors of colonialism and then empire at war as being the kind of concrete context of famine, we can expand that and look at famine around the world and see the relationship between authoritarianism, war and famine quite broadly.

And I think explains a lot of modern famines. 

Vinita Srivastava: Many of us are a victim of a lot of brainwashing. You know, we've been taught certain things in school. We're talking about John A. Macdonald in the case of Canada, similar to what John A. Macdonald said. There's a famous quote by Winston Churchill, who lays the responsibility of the famine on the too high population of Bengal.

That's been a standard trope in the West that people in the Global South starve because they're just simply too many people. And what you're saying, I think is something very, very different that famine across the board, almost you can point to certain factors. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, like responsibility behind the famine, who was responsible for it.

Janam Mukherjee: I think famine is, is most commonly seen as a kind of by product of various systems, whether that's economic systems or environmental systems or political systems. When you have empire at war, the kind of will towards power becomes totalitarianism, as Winston Churchill famously called the war effort, a total war.

During total war, extreme measures are taken, and those extreme measures are also categorical. I believe that famine defines a certain category of people who are beyond the pale of our humanity, who are outlined and then marked as outside of human life itself. Authoritarian regimes often resort to famine and torture.

These are the most direct, biopolitical, Aspects of a structural violence on population. And I think famine has to be seen not as a consequence of certain orders of power, but it's really necessary of certain power structures to delimit a population that is beyond human concern or compassion or life itself, because to starve a population is a collective act, whereas torture, for instance, is an act upon individual parties.

Famine is a collectivization of a kind of torture of populations. So you starve an entire population, which is a collective punishment, whereas torture is an individualized punishment. 

Vinita Srivastava: In your book, you said, the mute complicities of an increasingly callous society at large grew more indifferent month after month and year after year.

Janam Mukherjee: So, because famine, as I say, delimits a population that is understood through public discourse to be outside of human concern. I think this is why famine is allowed to occur in the world in places like Yemen today, which has been suffering a famine situation for many years. And the concern of the world is not there.

And in kind of solidarity with the people of Yemen or the people of Sudan or the people of Afghanistan, for that matter, as well as Gaza, starvation in being seen as a consequence of certain orders of power and of war is seen as an incidental. I think it needs to be seen rather as a part and parcel of certain orders of power and authority and in relation to conflict occupation and territorial expansion, as in the case in North America.

Vinita Srivastava: James, I see you nodding your head. I wonder if you want to jump in.

James Daschuk: I think here in the Canadian West, it was, it was more of a slow burn, but I'm thinking of the idea of settler colonialism. It's not an event. It's a structure. And here in Western Canada, our founding mythology of the Canadian society is that we're the breadbasket of the world and we're a haven for dispossessed European peoples and people came here to have a good life and that may all well be true, but that society is founded on the institutionalized structural In position of, if not outright starvation, of generational food insecurity that continues into the present.

We've got hungry kids going to bed without supper here in Saskatchewan every single night. 

Vinita Srivastava: Last week on this podcast, Hilal Elver, who is the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, talks about the famine in Gaza. And then she talks about the lingering intergenerational impacts of starvation.

Not only are people living through it in the present day, but she talks about the impact on future generations. She talks about especially the impact on children. How three months or longer of malnutrition can impact so much in one's little body. James, you write extensively about this, the lingering effects from the North American famine. That's one of the reasons you wrote your book. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of those lingering effects? 

James Daschuk: Yeah, for sure. Well, I teach in the Faculty of Health Studies. We use as an interpretive model the social determinants of health. One thing to think about, across Canada, a former federal government cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, in 2018, said there was a 15 year life expectancy between Indigenous people and the rest of the population in Canada.

So what that means is, if you're Indigenous, you can expect to lead a shorter, sicker, hungrier life. And it's really based on poverty. There's no biological difference. What it is, is it's the social forces, the structures that have kept people poor, that have created that intergenerational trauma. Think about a hundred years of a family having their children taken away from them, abducted by the authorities, sent to a place where they're institutionally malnourished, potentially abused.

They have their language taken away from them, generation upon generation. And actually, there's a class action lawsuit. That, that's being organized for the survivors of intergenerational trauma. So not only are the, the survivors of schools going through that, the legal system, now the children of, of, of those people are, are starting the process of restitution.

You can physically see the impacts of two generations, three generations later. And I want to turn to Janam to talk a little bit about it because you, you talk about in your book, how directly tied you are personally to the Bengal famine. It's part of the reason you started your research there. Your dad lived through it. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal journey? 

Janam Mukherjee: My interest in the, in the spirit of time in India, in Bengal, the 1940s is the period of my father's childhood. He was born in 1932. I was born in the U. S. in my own childhood. I heard these stories that were very disconnected from my own reality about the things that my father had seen when he was a child, and that was aerial bombardment by the Japanese on Calcutta.

His house was very close to the docks that were bombed, and he remembered the foundation cracking, The sound of the bombs, the famine, and then the civil war between Hindus and Muslims in India at the end of colonial rule. So that's essentially what I knew of India, but famine itself in particular, I found when much later in life, I began researching it and traveling to Calcutta to do that research.

Had written a deep script in Bengali population at large. The 1943 famine was told about by parents and then grandparents and now great grandparents. It had influenced the culture of Bengal in deep ways and abiding ways in terms of aesthetics, art, food, culture, et cetera. So famine is very much with Bengali people.

I think it will remain as such in many ways. It's also a collective experience, often of populations. You see that in Ireland. You see that in Ukraine with the Holodomor famine, where, you know, it is also a cultural foundation or, or starting point and often a nationalist, uh, starting point, it triggers off resistance and collective understanding of a collective plight, uh, so famine has that boomerang effect.

Vinita Srivastava: You said it. Resistance. I have to say that since I've been thinking about this, I just keep writing down in a piece of paper resistance and putting a big square around it. How do we start to talk about resistance?

In your book, Janam, there's a scholar that talks about How people in Bengal, quote, died without a murmur. James, in your book, you talk about the collective punishment that would happen if there was resistance, that food would be withheld for a whole week. The ration of food would be withheld on that reserve. So I do want to ask you both about if you can think about instances of resistance that you can draw from in your work and in your research about these famines. Janam I can start with you and then go to James. 

Janam Mukherjee: What I really aim to detail is that the Bengal famine was resisted at every stage. You can't expect people in the last throes of starvation who are walking skeletons, who are ridden often with madness because of the condition, their physiological condition is such.

that you can't really expect resistance from already starving masses. What you see is resistance to the policies that lead to starvation. Often those policies, particularly in the context of the Bengal famine, were related to war. So the wartime efforts to appropriate rice were resisted. The efforts to collectively punish various parts of the population were resisted in the form of armed resistance often.

So these all have to be seen as part and parcel of resistance to the power structure that is exacting famine. So resistance, I think has to be seen more broadly, but it often does delineate the power structure itself. It sheds light on the power structure. It, in a sense, exposes its weakness. Because famine is often the result of a dying power structure, of a power structure in a desperate attempt to maintain its order of power.

It's often a last ditch of empire in particular. So we see famines at the end of many of the colonial states as empire is coming apart and colonialism is being ejected from the colonized world. 

Vinita Srivastava: James, what do you think? 

James Daschuk: I think the resistance was at a different level here in Canada. With the Indian Act, during the patriarchal system, adult male First Nations people were made wards of the state.

So they had the legal sanctions of children. So instead of having an organized campaign, as Janam just mentioned, I think the, the resistance was more at the community level, at the family level. One of the things that comes to mind is a film that a friend of mine, Floyd Favel just produced. Ashes and embers.

And in 1948, the residential school children made a plan and burned the school down. They warned all the other kids when it was time to make a break for it, and they burned the school down. And there are plenty of instances of that without the structure actually changing. And I think at the end of the Second World War, there was an inordinate amount of First Nations men that volunteered for service, probably to get out of reserve conditions, whatever it might be.

Also to, to get back to traditional warrior societies, that kind of thing. But when they came back, they were fighting in the same trenches as non Indigenous people. And they organized politically and worked very hard and ultimately successfully to gain recognition. You know, that recognition is still coming, but you know, these things take time.

I think it's important to talk about resistance and all, even if it's like, as you say, kind of an everyday in community resistance, it's, it's it's very challenging to talk about what we're talking about. You guys have both written books, but these are very challenging things to engage with. I'm wondering, how do you both see these two very different chapters of history intersecting?

Janam Mukherjee: You know, I think the way you began, the question of territorial expansion, the question of control of populations, the role that food distribution and starvation play into those orders of colonial power. are certainly in conversation with each other and are related. I always see famine as delineating the other, the colonized other, more clearly than any other act of state.

It is to make of the colonized people, the wretched masses that the colonizer wants to understand them as. It's actually to make them physically that. And the intergenerational connection then of devitalization, of impoverishment, of the long trajectory of slow famine, that also has close similarities in the North American as well as in the Asian context.

Vinita Srivastava: James, what do you think learning about the history of this famine, starving, clearing the plains you talk about, what do you think it can teach us? 

James Daschuk: Well, the stories we've heard about Canada being, you know, one of the kindest nations in the world probably isn't so true. But one thing, and this is in conversation with Janam and, and, and other scholars, is the British empire, when we were kids, when I was at the French school back in my hometown, we had that, to that map with all of the pink countries, that sort of, the sun never set.

Different manifestations of colonialism, different uses of food as a weapon, uh, it wasn't just them. You know, all different strategies. And I guess we're coming together to deconstruct that myth of the British empire, the benevolence of the British empire. We have a long way to go down that trail, but there are actually scholars now trying to defend the British empire and receiving a backlash.

I'm thinking of Nigel Biggar, a retired professor from Oxford, who's written a book called the Colonialism, A Moral Reckoning in an attempt basically to explain the mixed legacy of colonialism. So in one sense, the anti anti colonialists getting organized is a sign that, uh, that we're doing our job. 

Janam Mukherjee: Good point.

Vinita Srivastava: I want to turn to the current situation in Gaza and I'm wondering if you think that there's anything to learn from these chapters of history and can we apply it to the current situation in Gaza where experts are saying famine is imminent? 

James Daschuk: I'm just a simple Canadianist. But on the radio, Antonio Guterres was speaking about there are truck convoys full of food, there's a fence, and there are people who are in imminent danger of starving to death.

That's not an absence of food. That is the organizing principle I've been looking at, that Janam been looking at, and that other scholars have been looking at.

Vinita Srivastava: That there is no lack of food, basically, that famine is a structure. 

James Daschuk: Absolutely. And no matter what the geopolitical implications are, children should not be starved.

Janam Mukherjee: As is also well outlined in international law. I think all famines are very specific and as a historian, I always argue for the historical specificity and not to make too gross generalizations, but we can learn from previous famines about orders of authority, occupation, and war in particular. I would suggest that famine is not a consequence of war.

It's incidental to war. Famine is the handmaiden of war. It has been for centuries. It is part and parcel of war, no matter what legislation is made to outlaw the directed use of starvation as a weapon of war. It seems that those international laws have not worked. And famine remains part and parcel of how war is fought.

Practiced on the face of the earth. So the question of the orders of authority that war allows and the decisions made in terms of sacrificing large populations of people and subjecting them to hunger remains with us. And I think there's a lot to learn from history in that regard. And there's unfortunately a lot to be seen in the present in that regard as well.

Not just in Gaza, but also in Yemen and also in Sudan and in other parts of the earth as well. So you still have one out of two people living in India under the nutritional kind of global standards or one half of this hungry people on earth live in India. So these orders of power still exist. 

Vinita Srivastava: I think they exist right in Saskatchewan, as James was saying, too, where he says children are going hungry and this just seems to be unacceptable that if it's about control, then it's unacceptable.

Janam Mukherjee: And it's about war and it's about winning. The ideology of war is in the modern age, regardless of all kind of Codes of conduct otherwise, it's still what it's always been. It's a brutal attack on whole populations that does not discriminate well or often between enemies and civilians. And we see that collapsing in all the wars around us. Those questions of who is the enemy and the civilian population most often becomes the enemy in relation to the opposing sides in conflict. 

James Daschuk: It's really interesting to have both of us, Vinita, because in Janam's case, it's a conflict. In my case, it's the establishment of what is thought of as a peaceful society and it can structures continue.

I don't know if they diverged food insecurity, famine, that whole continuum. In the case of my research is the structure of our province and potentially Canada. 

Vinita Srivastava: I thank you both very much for taking the time to have this conversation. I appreciate your time today. 

Janam Mukherjee: Thank you, Vinita, and nice to meet you, James. 

James Daschuk: Thanks, Vinita. 



Vinita Srivastava: That's it for this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient. You heard me say at the beginning that this was a bit of an experiment from us, and I would love to know what you thought. You can reach the team at, and be sure to follow us on Instagram. @dontcallmeresilientpodcast.

Don't Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation. This series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our associate producer is Ateqah Khaki. Our student journalist is Husein Haveliwala. Krish Dineshkumar does our sound design and mixing, and our consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Lisa Varano is the managing editor of The Conversation Canada, and Scott White is the CEO. Zaki Ibrahim wrote and performed the music we use on the podcast. The track is called Something in the Water.