19th century Indian diet: rice fights wheat

19th century Indian diet: rice fights wheat THE Indian diet has always provided much food for thought. The 1994 UNICEF report, The Progress of Nations, prescribes adequate food along with the control of disease as essential weapons to fight malnutrition.

Debates on the Indian diet date back to the 19th century. There were 2 areas of colonial concern: famine and prisons. "During the Mughal era," states Irfan Habib, eminent historian, "foodgrains were supplemented by herbs and vegetables. Salt and cloves were expensive and ghee was a part of the diet in Agra Bengal and Western India but the Assamese abhorred it."

Says David Arnold, historian, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, "Initially, the British were "exotic" outsiders who could learn to survive in an unfamiliar environment from the natives." British doctors frequently castigated gorging meat and drink as unsuited to India's hot and humid climate.

Indians, on the other hand, looked on with horror at the British pork and beef. Francis Buchanan Hamilton, a physician, says that the British diet reduced them in Indian eyes "to the lowest dregs of Hindu impurity".

Because of repeated famine in the late 18th century, the British were interested in new food plants which might help ward off starvation and human misery. But they were also perplexed by the quantity and quality of food to be provided.

During the Madras famine of 1876-78, there was a heated exchange on this issue between W R Cornish, the Sanitary Commissioner for Madras, and Sir Richard Temple, the Government of India's Special Advisor. In 1874, Temple stated that a diet of one pound of grain was enough to sustain life and the government could not be expected to do more. Cornish argued that this diet was not sufficient and needed to be supplemented by other foodstuff. Cornish rightly linked inadequate food to ill health. The Cornish-Temple debate was about physical wasting and state responsibility -- it was not about malnutrition as a perennial problem.

The second problem which vexed the British was the kind of prisoner ration. Until the 1830s in Bombay, Bengal and the Northwest provinces, prisoners were given an allowance and bought supplies from private traders who visited jail. A system of common messing ostensibly strengthened discipline. Bengal and the Northwest province were torn by prison protests, strikes and assaults on warders and riots. Frightened, the government rescinded the order. The Mutiny of 1857 occupied British minds for a while.

But how and what prisoners should be fed, and attendant caste issues, were still a vexatious problem. Should prisoners be given just the bare necessities? Dr F J Mouat, Bengal's first Inspector of Prisons, felt that the state was duty-bound to preserve the prisoners' health, even with "luxuries" like ghee, meat, fish and vegetables. But another viewpoint argued that rewarding criminals was unethical. The general rule so far was that the food quality should be that of a labourer's.
Muslim and Hindu diets But what was the Indian diet? To answer this vexing question, the government of India asked each province to report on its jail diet, comparing it with that of ordinary labourers. Most respondents were civil surgeons who drew distinctions between Muslim and Hindu diets: physically, the Muslim meat-eater's diet was superior to a vegetarian Hindu's. Hindu diets lacked protein -- the first time that such a word was used in Indian dietary literature.

The diets of Bengal and North India were contrasted and the wheat diet of the North was declared superior. Commentators had 3 criteria; physical stature and appearance (unsupported by any physical measurements), occupation, and the observers' own cultural prejudices, including a bias for meat.

The majority of the commentators saw no link between diet and disease. Ill health was explained due to consumption of coarse and indigestible food, crowded and ill-ventilated conditions in jails, or, quite simply, to "vice" and "dissolute living".

In contrast to prisons, the military diets of Indian soldiers received scant attention till 1890. Concern for the health of European troops in case an epidemic occurred seems to have been the chief reason. By 1860, nutritional research in Europe distinguished between nutritive value of different foodgrains. In India too, British doctors concentrated on assessing the value of Indian foods in order to zero in on the health of Indian soldiers.

Wheat and ragi met with approval but criticism was directed at rice for being low in food value. Cornish stated that rice was the food of "the rich, the dainty and luxurious", the Brahmins and the upper castes. By 1890, any tendency by the British to regard themselves as "exotic outsiders" who could learn about diet from the natives was abandoned. In fact, the British preference for wheat instead of rice reflected the triumph of Western science over Eastern beliefs and values.

In 1912 D McCay, Professor of Physiology at the Calcutta Medical College, stated that it was the body's ability to absorb nutrients which led to better health. He had just published a study on the effect of jail diets on prisoners and contrasted diets in Bengal and the United Provinces.

In terms of nitrogen absorption and protein intake, he declared wheat to be superior. A rice diet provided only 8 or 9 grammes of nitrogen a day while a wheat diet provided 12 to 14. For McCay, this was clinching evidence.

He perceived that the physical frailty of rice-eating Bengalis and the robust constitution and "martial" bearing of wheat-eating Rajputs and Sikhs was due to differences in diet. He supported his argument by quoting profusely from P D Bonarjee's Handbook of the Fighting Races of India.

McCay's analysis has been described as the "first scientific study of the subject" of nutrition, becoming a nutrition psalm for the next 30 years.

Fodder for racism
His work cast the "martial races" theory in new light. By 1915, it had been well-entrenched in British military ideology and strategies in India. It contrasted the reputedly manly physique and fighting spirit of the Punjabis, Pathans and other people of North and Northwestern India with the supposedly feeble, stunted, and effeminate Bengalis and Madrasis. Cooler climates supposedly produced better soldiers than hot steamy ones and Aryan races were held superior to people of reputedly non-Aryan stock.

McCay's sweeping analysis was open to criticism. He had not personally investigated soldiers to establish a connection between diet and a "martial physique"; he had just relied on Bonarji's book. The health of Indian soldiers was hardly exemplary. It was only after new recruits had begun the army's dietary regime and physical training that they acquired a physique. Regional diets could be misleading for village dietaries might have been much more varied. But McCay's work certainly pointed out the need for a radical change in regional dietaries to improve public health.

By the 1930s, diet became a political issue, a marker of Indian deprivation and loss. The importance of malnutrition for the nation's future was stated by J W D Megaw, Director General of the Indian Medical Service in the early 1930s. He stated that only 39 per cent of the population was well nourished, 41 per cent was poorly nourished and 20 per cent very badly nourished. About 2.5 million people suffered from rickets and 3.5 million from night blindness.

Then, Dadabhai Naoroji in the 1870s used data from prisons emigration authorities to prove that Indians did not get even the bare necessities of life. A generation later, Gandhi embarked on his own experiments. His search for a swadeshi diet was a political riposte to a century of negative British notions of the Indian diet. Gandhi rejected meat and questioned the methods and premises of Western nutritional science. He believed in the "unlimited capacity of the plant world to sustain man".

Sustained British attacks on Indian rice diets along with the discriminatory logic of the "martial race" theory had its own impact on the Bengali bhadralok. In a discussion on the Diet of the Bengalis in 1929, Chunilal Bose, Professor of Chemistry at Calcutta's Medical College, fully shared British criticism of rice diets as "wanting in nutritive value". He attributed the "evil" of a high death rate and a low birth rate to a poor diet.

He said, "It is the duty of every son of Bengal to devise means and adopt measures for the increased supply of milk and fish throughout the province." It was N Ganguli, a Bengali academic, who clearly traced the root cause of malnutrition in colonialism, feudalism and capitalism. "It is not medical knowledge which is lacking. It is the economic system which tolerates poverty which is at fault."

Based on David Arnold's The Discovery of Malnutrition and Diet in Colonial Indian Economic and Social History Review 31,1 (1994)