Food and Anticolonialism at Gandhi’s Intentional Communities in South Africa and India

Document Type

Contribution to Book

Source Publication

The Provisions of War: Expanding the Boundaries of Food and Conflict, 1840-1990

Publication Date



Justin Nordstrom


The University of Arkansas Press


Fayetteville, Arkansas



First Page


Last Page



Religious Studies

Publisher Statement

The Provisions of War examines how soldiers, civilians, communities, and institutions have used food and its absence as both a destructive weapon and a unifying force in establishing governmental control and cultural cohesion during times of conflict. Historians as well as scholars of literature, regional studies, and religious studies problematize traditional geographic boundaries and periodization in this essay collection, analyzing various conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through a foodways lens to reveal new insights about the parameters of armed interactions.

The subjects covered are as varied and inclusive as the perspectives offered—ranging from topics like military logistics and animal disease in colonial Africa, Indian vegetarian identity, and food in the counterinsurgency of the Malayan Emergency, to investigations of hunger in Egypt after World War I and American soldiers’ role in the making of US–Mexico borderlands. Taken together, the essays here demonstrate the role of food in shaping prewar political debates and postwar realities, revealing how dietary adjustments brought on by military campaigns reshape national and individual foodways and identities long after the cessation of hostilities


Mahatma Gandhi is well known for his advocacy of nonviolent methods of resistance against British colonial rule. Lesser known are his experiments with alternative modernity conducted through the intentional communities that he established in South Africa and India: Phoenix Settlement, established in 1904 outside of Durban, South Africa; Tolstoy Farm, established in 1910 outside of Johannesburg, South Africa; Sabarmati Ashram, established in 1915 near Ahmedabad, India; and Sevagram Ashram, established in 1936 near Wardha, India. At these communities the residents engaged in crucial small-scale experiments with the ideals and methods for enhancing life that Gandhi would apply to larger-scale religious, social, and political problems.

These intentional communities were back-to-the-land farms wherein all residents (Indian and European, male and female) lived and labored together: growing produce, building houses, educating children, and working to confront colonial injustices. They were residential efforts to create a counter-world to the colonialist and capitalist status quo, one built on a foundation of duty, morality, and equal labor. Experiments with food were central to life at these communities, and these experiments had significant implications for how Gandhi would politically engage the British colonial government to fight for Indians’ civil rights and, ultimately, India’s independence.

This chapter takes sugar and salt as its two case studies. In South Africa, Gandhi focused on sugar: its consumption, which he sought to minimize in his personal diet and in the meals served at his intentional communities; its production through Indian indentured labor, which he deemed unethical and akin to slavery; and its cultivation and global trade as part of the economics of imperialism, which he eventually began to protest through acts of civil disobedience. In India, Gandhi turned his attention to salt. Once again, he first began by minimizing the consumption of this substance in his own diet and in the meals served at his intentional communities. Eventually, Gandhi waged a nonviolent anticolonial battle that revolved around salt in the form of the famous Salt March of 1930. While Gandhi’s nonviolent methods have received much attention in analyses of his politics, this chapter argues that food experimentation at Gandhi’s intentional communities was central to his anticolonial struggle.

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