Did you know that if your ethnic roots are in the Indian subcontinent, you are six times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than Europeans? Indians – as well as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – develop diabetes at a younger age and lower body weights than other populations. Initially, it was suspected that the Indian carbohydrate-rich diet was responsible, but extensive studies now indicate that the numerous devastating famines engineered by the British were responsible for the DNA mutation that has made an entire subcontinent prone to diabetes.
Perhaps you wonder if hunger alone can flip a gene, triggering diabetes in such a large and diverse population spread across a massive area. Well, there is good science to back it up. When people are deprived of essential nutrients for prolonged periods, it can have long-term consequences for their health. Just one famine can increase the risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes.
Thrifty Genotype Hypothesis
Frequent famines play havoc on the human body via a process called the “thrifty genotype hypothesis.” This hypothesis suggests that populations exposed to frequent food shortages and famines develop genetic adaptations that enable them to store and use energy more efficiently when food is available. However, when these populations transition to more food-abundant environments, their genetic predisposition to store energy becomes a liability, potentially leading to obesity and related conditions like diabetes.
Now multiply the effect of famines over nearly eight generations. While India before the British had a famine once every 50 years, the nature and frequency of famines changed drastically under colonial rule (1757 to 1947). Economic historian Mike Davis records 31 major famines in the 190 years of British colonial rule – a famine every six years. In comparison, there were only 17 famines in India over the previous 2,000 years.
Based on official British data, Davishttp://3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/366596806_The_Susceptibility_of_South_Asians_to_Cardiometabolic_Disease_as_a_Result_of_Starvation_Adaptation_Exacerbated_During_the_Colonial_Famines puts the death toll (during the Victorian Era alone) at 29 million. Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel says between 1880 and 1920, British colonial policies in India killed 100 million people – more lives than all famines worldwide.
A study titled ‘The Elevated Susceptibility to Diabetes in India: An Evolutionary Perspective,’ published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, says that because of the impact of British-era famines, contemporary Indians have an elevated risk of diabetes. Due to their relatively higher fat-to-lean mass ratio, Indians accumulate a higher metabolic load when their body mass increases. “In addition, they have a reduced capacity to tolerate this load, given their low average birth weight and their reduced ability to clear glucose, deriving from the lower lean mass. The younger average age of diabetes onset in Indians than in Europeans also indicates reduced metabolic resilience.”
Incredibly Shrinking Indians
Another serious impact of British-engineered famines has been a sharp decrease in the average height of Indians. High levels of mortality lead to the selection of genotypes that confer smaller size, which would require fewer resources to grow and survive. India suffered continuing declines in stature over the last two centuries, even as people in other global regions continued to gain height. The impact was transgenerational, with the average Indian height declining by 1.8 cm per century of British rule.
A historical comparison offers an interesting perspective on declining body sizes in India. Male Mesolithic foragers who lived in northern India around 8,000 years ago had an average height of 181.5 cm. About 2,300 years later, when Alexander of Macedon invaded India, the Greeks discovered that the Indians “were tall in stature, in fact as tall as any men throughout Asia, most of them being five cubits (over 7 feet) in height, or a little less.” Porus, the king of Punjab, who fought an iconic battle with Alexander, is described in almost all primary sources as extremely tall, at over 2.1 meters or 7 feet tall.
However, by the 1960s, Indians were 15 cm shorter than their male Mesolithic ancestors. While the British were not responsible for the decline in the height of Indians before they colonized India, the widespread impoverishment caused by the European invaders indeed accelerated the decline in Indian stature from the mid-1700s onwards to the middle of the 20th century. Only in the last 50 years have the Indians started gaining height again.
British Agenda: Extermination Via Starvation
A key aspect of famines in India during colonial rule is that they generally spread to vast areas, whereas pre-British era famines were localized. The severity of these famines made them some of the worst in world history. Three of the ten deadliest famines and six of the 25 worst drought-associated famines that were coupled with drought occurred in colonial India. These famines affected areas previously immune to famine, such as Marwar and Bengal. Thus, famines were more frequent and widespread, affected more people, and increased in intensity (as nationwide catastrophes) as British rule consolidated.
Contrary to popular belief, famines were not due to a lack of food growth but inequitable food distribution. Before British colonization, Hindu kingdoms had measures to mitigate famines, such as distributing food and funding relief projects. “However, the British abandoned these efforts based on the flawed reasoning that famines were natural occurrences that – to their Malthusian benefit – reduced the population of colonized subjects.”
Davis agrees that the people who died in famines were murdered by British State policy. In 1876, when drought impoverished the farmers of the Deccan plateau, there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the Viceroy, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent their export to England. At the height of the famine, grain merchants exported record quantities of grain. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way.” The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labor, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within these labor camps, the workers were given less food than the Jewish inmates of Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp of World War II.
Even as millions died, Lytton ignored all efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of peasants in the Madras region and concentrated on preparing for Queen Victoria’s investiture as Empress of India. The highlight of the celebrations was a week-long feast at which 68,000 dignitaries heard her promise the nation “happiness, prosperity and welfare.”
In 1901, the Lancet medical journal estimated that at least 19 million Indians had died in western India during the famine of the 1890s. The death toll was so high because the British refused to implement famine relief, with the Viceroy, George Nathaniel Curzon, passing off a severe problem of political economy as a problem of nature. Davis says life expectancy in India fell by 20 percent between 1872 and 1921.
There are, of course, apologists for colonialism, who sometimes foolishly but often callously declare that the details of British-created famines are exaggerations. For them, the media has recorded the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 in excruciating detail. What is remarkable about the scale of this manmade disaster is its time span. World War II was at its peak, and the Germans were rampaging across Europe, targeting Jews, Slavs, communists, and the Roma for extermination. It took Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts 12 years to round up and murder 6 million Jews. However, their Teutonic cousins, the British, managed to kill more than 3 million Indians in just over a year, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill cheering from the sidelines.
Author Madhusree Mukerjee tracked down some of the survivors and painted a chilling picture of the effects of hunger and deprivation. In ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ she writes: “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems, and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”
“No one had the strength to perform rites,” a survivor tells Mukerjee. “Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages.” The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. “Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,” writes Mukerjee.
UCLA graduate and scientist Mani Bhaumik, whose invention of the excimer laser enabled Lasik eye surgery, has the famine etched in his memory. He recalls that he was just 12 when his grandmother starved to death because she used to give him a portion of her food.
By 1943, hordes of starving people were flooding into Calcutta, most dying on the streets. Even an Anglophile politician like Jawaharlal Nehru couldn’t ignore this. He commented that the sight of well-fed white British soldiers amidst this apocalyptic landscape was “the final judgment on British rule in India.”
The British agenda was twofold. One, they had come to settle in India. They had successfully depopulated North America and Australia, killing over 50 million native inhabitants in these continents, thus clearing the lands for Europeans to settle. A similar depopulation of India via famines would achieve the same goal.
Two, the British Empire’s goal was to loot, not to develop the occupied countries as the Romans and Russians did. So the colonial machinery was geared towards sucking out all the wealth and resources of India to Britain. If a natural disaster struck India, it was just too bad, for the British were not there to provide relief. Churchill has been quoted as blaming the Bengal Famine on the fact that Indians were “breeding like rabbits” and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Gandhi was still alive.
By the early 20th century, India had become synonymous with famine. During a meeting with Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt chided the PM about Britain’s predatory rule: “Every year, the Indian people have one thing to look forward to, like death and taxes. Sure as shooting, they have a famine. The season of the famine, they call it.”
In contrast, India has never had a famine since the British were kicked out in 1947. India provides the best example of a country that has successfully averted famine since Independence. Whether it was the chronic droughts of 1966, 1973, and 1987, “in all cases, they have prevented severe food shortages from degenerating into famine.”
Way Out of the Diabetes Deathgrip
The reversibility of genetic changes depends on the type and location of the mutation. While some mutations can be reversed, others cannot. Since waiting for DNA to flip again isn’t a practical approach, how can Indians escape the vicious cycle of diabetes?
For starters, India should have a public health policy that limits the metabolic load from early childhood. That is, drastically curbing or even eliminating the popular sugar-soaked foods in the country. There should be a shift toward diets with low glycemic index (foods that do not cause a sugar spike) and lower unhealthy fats such as ‘vegetable seed’ and hydrogenated oils. Exercise and sports must be made compulsory for children and linked to school grades. Textbooks should have a chapter on famines and how they are causing intergenerational health issues so that young people can internalize the problem and lead their lives accordingly. The alternative is that most people will encounter the problem much later in life when lifestyle diseases already afflict them.
Currently, the diabetes problem is severe. The Indian Council of Medical Research estimates that India has 101 million people with diabetes. With rising wealth and a rapidly growing middle class, the number will go only one way – north. 
“They that die by famine die by inches,” said British author Matthew Henry. You could say the same for those living with diabetes.
- Pranab Ganguly, Progressive Decline in Stature in India: A Study of Sixty Population Groups, https://books.google.co.nz/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4w2hiuK1sOsC&oi=fnd&pg=PA315&ots=woXPdQWAKl&sig=gdRGlCgT55YKk2qfYBYsffBHZsA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 5.4 Digression About India, https://topostext.org/work/205
- Individual Human Rights: The Relationship of Political and Civil Rights to Survival, Subsistence and Poverty, Washington DC, London, and Brussels: Human Rights Watch, p. 3