Churchill didn’t even bother with the long-floated idea that British imperialism benefited its subjects. “I hate Indians,” he told the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” “The famine was their own fault,” he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, attributing it to the Indian habit of “breeding like rabbits.”
He resolutely opposed all food shipments and emphasised that ships were “desperately needed” for the landings in Italy, which were slated for September, even though the Americans opposed the invasion. He felt that sending food to India would mean a loss of valuable transport.
Amery recalled: “I lost patience and couldn’t resist telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.”
(Amery himself was no angel, having argued that India was “overpopulated” and that the best strategy was to “do nothing”.)
In her book Mukerjee relates how Indian grain was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) even when it was unneeded. As Indian cities were littered with the bodies of those who had died of starvation, Australian wheat sailed past to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and the government ignored offers of American and Canadian food aid.
The Bengal government was unprepared; too much rice had already been shipped off to feed troops in the Middle East and Ceylon. With the hot weather rising, people began to die. By September relief centres were flooded with “rickety babies with arms and legs like sticks, nursing mothers with wrinkled faces; children with swollen faces and hollow-eyed… walking skeletons all of them” (Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, 282-84, 288). Calcultta’s death rate in mid-October reached two thousand a month. British and American soldiers were horrified to step out of Calcutta cinemas and find people literally dying in the street, as vultures, crows and kites circled above.
Either the officials were too distracted (Bengal’s governor fell ill and died during the crisis, leaving an administrative vacuum) or were too slow to react; or they simply did not care, even as the magnitude of the disaster reached Biblical proportions.
The British Government had inflated local market prices to ensure supplies, making it unaffordable for ordinary Indians to purchase grain. India was disallowed from using its own ships to import food. Native officials were also to blame: Bengal’s Muslim League ministry failed miserably, while many of its Hindu members made huge profits trading in rice during the shortage.
India’s new viceroy, appointed the same year, called the Churchill government’s attitude to India “careless, vindictive and despicable.”
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, a professor now at Harvard University, writes in The Friday Times 15th Anniversary edition that the nasty Bengal famine of 1943, which he witnessed as a child, was made viable not only by the lack of democracy in colonial India, but also by severe restrictions on reporting and criticism imposed on the Indian press, which isolated even the Parliament in Britain from the misery in British India. The British press in India voluntarily cooperated with the government. The famine received governmental acknowledgement and serious political attention only after Ian Stephens, the courageous editor of The Statesman of Calcutta (then British-owned), could not, in good conscience, comply any longer and decided to break ranks by publishing graphic accounts and stinging editorials on October 14 and 16, 1943. The parliament in Westminster then acquired a grip on reality, and famine relief – much delayed – at last began a few weeks later. The famine ended not long after that, but with the loss of more than 3 million lives.
Arthur Herman in his book Gandhi & Churchill says that the Bengal Famine signalled the severing of India’s last ties of loyalty to Britain.
As for Churchill: after Gandhi’s assasination, everyone including the assassins offered their condolences and regrets, but Churchill never published any tribute at the passing of his longtime rival. “An awful tragedy has already occurred,” he told the House of Commons, referring to the Partition. “At least 400,000 men and women have slaughtered each other in Punjab alone.” This number was greater, he pointed out, than all the losses of the British Empire in World War II. “Millions are fugitives, wanderers or exiles from their place of birth. We can only be thankful that no such catastrophe or anything which approached one twentieth part of its magnitude, fell upon the helpless Indian people during the long years they dwelt in peace and safety under the British Raj and Imperial Crown.”
An angry Labour MP rose to point out, correctly, that millions had died during the 1943 famine under Churchill’s watch. Churchill replied that under British rule, India’s population rose by 100 million and that there was a difference between failing to prevent food shortages and deliberate murder.
Churchill wanted to write history himself, hoping to be remembered as he cast himself till eternity. And for a while the myth lasted: in 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and as recently as 2002 a BBC poll declared him the “greatest Briton” of all time.
But as power starts to shift once again, going now from West to East, it prompts fresh readings of the world’s history. Let us hope Madhusree Mukerjee’s book is the first of many.
Saad Sarfraz Sheikh is a photojournalist and percussionist based in Lahore. He writes at sssheikh.wordpress.com
Published in The Friday Times, July 22-28, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 23