International History and Politics
04 March 2021

Grain riots, famine, and moral economy in the late 19th-century Colonial India

Amal Shahid, PhD candidate in International History and Politics, discusses her research on "Grain riots, famine, and moral economy in the late 19th-century Colonial India."

Event summary

The first History Brunch of the 2021 Spring semester took place on Wednesday the 3rd of March, following the Graduate Institute’s online format due to Covid-19. During this session, students explored the famine relief policies of the colonial state in the North Western Provinces of Agra and Oudh in India (NWP), as PhD candidate Amal Shahid presented her paper on « Grain riots and the moral economy of famine labour. »

The talk focused on grain riots and looting during famines in the NWP in between the years of 1860-1920. Questioning how the case of famine riots in India can add to our understanding of moral economy and popular action, Amal argued that grain riots in NWP were less premeditated and more spontaneous than the ‘collective’ crowd action seen in Western Europe in the 18th century.

In presenting her argument, Amal explained how the riots neither followed a binary pattern of elite/popular, nor showed a linear pattern in their occurrences, but rather reflected differing practices and levels of bargaining by labour in times of distress. She then went on to highlight that these grain riots were not immediately aimed directly at the government, but at its larger policies, which was a reflection of the 20th century's anti-colonial struggle. Indeed, while the grain riots themselves were a form of protest and considered a crime by the colonial government, it was not preconceived but reflected a general frustration with the effects of famine and inadequacy of the government’s relief measures (providing jobs in the form of public works such as road, railway and canal construction). Throughout her talk, Amal showed how relief works that were intended to protect and prevent against famines exacerbated famine conditions through aiding grain trade and speculation, while charitable contributions of corn were insufficient to prevent large-scale mortality.


KEYWORDS: International History ProgrammesInternational History