How Food Has Sparked Protests Throughout History

Indian farmers today, who are fighting against new corporate-friendly farm bills, follow a long line of revolutionaries who used food as a means of protest.

Meher Mirza

September 30, 2021

How Food Has Sparked Protests Throughout History
Protestors at the Indian Farmers' Protest, December 2020 (Ravan Khosa/Wikimedia)

It all began with a chapati. 

“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr. Gilbert Hadow in a letter to his sister in Britain in March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it...It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.’”

The chapati movement was indeed an oddity. The first written record of it came from the town of Mandleshwar, Madhya Pradesh, on January 12, 1857, when Captain R.H. Keatinge reported a stack of chapatis brought from Indore, which was suffering from cholera. So he believed it to be a symbolic warding off of disease. But the chapatis soon spread, infiltrating town after town in northern India. They were spotted in Kanpur, then in Mathura. The modus operandi was always the same — village watchmen handed chapatis to other watchmen and messengers, who distributed four more chapatis to neighboring watchmen. “The watchmen themselves did not know the reason for distributing the breads,” writes Subhrashis Adhikari in The Journey of Survivors: 70,000-Year History of Indian Sub-Continent. “They just followed the order.” 

At first, the English were equally baffled; they inspected whatever they could get their hands on, but found next to nothing. But soon their bemusement vaulted to terror. They began to suspect a nationwide conspiracy to disgorge them from India. 

Throughout history, revolutions have turned on a grain of rice. The price of bread lit the bonfire of the Arab Spring. The Richmond Women’s Bread Riots, ignited by food deprivation, became the biggest civil disturbance in the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The rising prices of food recently unseated Haiti’s prime minister. In the final stages for the movement for Telanga’s statehood, protesters set up makeshift kitchens on busy roads for vanta vaarpu (cook and eat agitations), a tactic that students of Osmania University followed to stand in solidarity with striking state transport employees. And today, one whole year after their protests began, India’s farmers are still sitting vigil against the government’s corporate-friendly farm bills that they believe will render them vulnerable to the vagaries of the private sector.