Understanding humanitarian action in South Asia: responses to famine and displacement in nineteenth and twentieth century India

Working and discussion papers
May 2015
Joanna Simonow
Large-scale humanitarian disasters have long been a feature of life in South Asia, with famines claiming millions of lives between the latter half of the nineteenth century and the mid 1900s, and mass displacement following the Partition in 1947 and the Bangladesh war in 1971.

This Working Paper explores the concepts, mechanisms and practices underpinning humanitarian action in South Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This paper first examines the British colonial responses to famines, revealing how Victorian thinking about the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, ingrained racial stereotyping, the drive to minimise the costs of empire and an instinctive faith in the laissez-faire economics of the market led to responses that were almost without exception inadequate and incoherent.

The paper then looks at the evolution of relief aid in independent India, focusing on the displacement that followed Partition in 1947 and the refugee influx that accompanied the Bangladesh war in 1971.

During the 1947 crisis, the Indian government focused on the relief and rehabilitation of Hindus, disadvantaging the internally displaced Muslim population and turning a blind eye towards the millions of refugees from East Bengal seeking shelter. The new state essentially continued British policy and practice, categorising recipients as ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’.  By 1971 attitudes and capacities had changed; while old notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poor persisted in government rhetoric, the Indian state successfully provided immediate relief to refugees from East Pakistan.