[Marxism] Did Churchill cause the Bengal famine in 1944?
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 7 08:48:36 MDT 2012
The Straits Times (Singapore)
December 12, 2010 Sunday
Churchill, through a glass, darkly;
British wartime leader depicted as imperialist causing 1943 Bengal
famine deaths in book
BYLINE: Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief
New Delhi: Which post-war child of the 20th century has not heard of
Winston Churchill in the English- speaking world? The oratory that
lifted an entire people, the doggedness that gave Britons their bulldog
mojo and helped wear down Hitler, the Beefeater image of the titan
burnished with a personal fondness for liquid lunches and meat.
Walk into Singapore's colonial- era Tanglin Club and the fine dining
area, most appropriately, is called the Churchill Room. Britain's
wartime prime minister, half a century after his death, continues to be
his nation's most famous son, glowering at the rest of humanity in that
definitive picture shot for Life magazine by the incomparable Canadian
Now comes a book that strips the British lionheart of some of that aura
and portrays a shockingly prejudiced, deeply racist imperialist whose
callous actions - and deliberate lack of attention - probably caused the
deaths of more than three million people in the Great Bengal Famine of
1943, when India was still the British Empire's crown jewel and
In the 352-page book, Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire And The
Ravaging Of India During World War II, author and researcher Madhusree
Mukerjee, 49, documents the thoughts and actions of Churchill and a
close aide, Lord Cherwell, a physicist and Fellow of the Royal Society
whose theories of eugenics fed the former's own baleful prejudices.
Churchill's love of empire is well documented. Indeed, his indignant
outbursts against Mahatma Gandhi - that Middle Temple lawyer
masquerading as a 'half -naked fakir' and sitting down to negotiate
freedom with His Majesty's representative - have been largely viewed
with affection. If anything, they add to the aura of a man whose charm
owes in part to his unswerving belief in king and country.
But backstage he was much worse, apparently.
As the Indian independence movement progressed, Churchill came to loathe
Indians and particularly the country's majority Hindus. He fed Muslim
nationalism, deliberately worked to widen communal fault lines on the
sub-continent and encouraged the creation of Pakistan as a breakaway
state from independent India.
Perfectly fecund himself - producing no fewer than five children between
1909 and 1922 - he would rail against Indians for bringing the 1943
famine upon themselves by 'breeding like rabbits'.
And, as the famine progressed, with millions starving to death and women
in respectable homes prostituting themselves in a desperate attempt to
keep their kitchen fires going, he was unmoved.
The Japanese Occupation of Burma in 1942 cut off rice imports to India.
Churchill's War Cabinet insisted that India absorb the loss and, what is
more, export rice to countries that could no longer get it from
South-east Asia. As India's war expenditure rose tenfold - a war it
fought on behalf of Britain - the government printed paper money,
In January 1943, he ordered merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean
to be moved to the Atlantic, to build up Britain's stockpile of food,
all the while insisting that India export rice. Then he adopted a
scorched earth policy to make sure the advancing Japanese had no access
to India's rice, moved grain to Ceylon and sent shiploads of Indian
grain to shore up food reserves in the Balkans.
The writer George Orwell, then a war propagandist targeting India for
the BBC, resigned in disgust.
In its finest hour, The Statesman of Calcutta, edited by British hands,
rigorously chronicled the travails of famine. Several of Churchill's
aides, including secretary of state for India, Lord Amery, and the
Viceroy Linlithgow, pleaded on Bengal's behalf.
But Churchill enquired why, if the famine was so bad, Gandhi was still
The famine eased in December when rice paddies were cultivated in
Bengal, but by then millions had died. It was a catastrophe that would
exceed the travails of the bloody Partition to come four years later,
when more than a million perished in communal rioting as Hindus and
Sikhs evicted from the new Pakistan met Muslims going the other way.
Ms Mukerjee, based in Frankfurt, Germany, seems at first glance a most
unlikely intellect to take apart this giant figure of history.
Born in Bengal and educated in India and the United States, where she
earned a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago, she is a writer
who served on the board of editors of Scientific American magazine.
Her eclectic interests took her to the Andaman Islands, India's toehold
in South-east Asia, where on a Guggenheim Fellowship she produced the
book The Land Of Naked People, a study of survival of the Stone Age
Sentinelese people. Shifting her attention to poverty and hunger, she
began researching the Bengal famine.
With the diligence of a true scientist, she began to dig into original
sources. The voluminous Churchill memoirs themselves proved of no use -
the Bengal famine gets a one-line mention in an appendix. So she dug
into papers with Britain's Ministry of War Transport, the Cherwell
Papers and the official histories of British wartime food supply and
The unflattering story that unravelled began to frighten her, she says,
because Churchill was such a huge figure of history.
'That made me all the more diligent about my data and double-checking,'
says Ms Mukerjee. 'I went by what Churchill did, not what he said.'
And just as Churchill was prejudiced, she adds, there were plenty of
British officials who were sympathetic to India and tried to help. The
pity is that almost all of them were overwhelmed by the prime minister's
Ms Mukerjee is not the first to study the Bengal famine, nor will she be
The Nobel economist Amartya Sen, a nine-year-old in Bengal during the
famine, demonstrated that such catastrophes occurred not only from a
lack of food but also because of inequalities in the mechanism of food
distribution. Some of Bengal's famine could be attributed to the war
having caused hoarding, pushing prices so high that food went out of reach.
Ms Mukerjee says data on food production suggests that Professor Sen may
not have had the full picture of the shortage.
Still, no author thus far has provided so compelling an account of the
decisions that went into the making of one of the biggest tragedies of
the past century.
How will Churchill continue to be judged?
Regardless of the stunning insights from Ms Mukerjee's book, his place
in history will probably remain unaffected.
Hitler may have preferred an arrangement in which Britain kept India and
its lesser colonies and allowed him to enslave the Slavs in his
hinterland. Churchill's robust anti-fascism and willingness to fight for
France even if it didn't have the nerve to defend itself stand testimony
to the outstanding courage of a man who sought out the most dangerous
front-line appointments while serving as a soldier in the Royal Indian Army.
In the end, of course, it was India with its tradition of truth,
openness and tolerance that conquered Churchill.
In 1951, he told fellow Harrowian Pandit Nehru, India's founding prime
minister, that he would have liked to introduce him to the Americans as
the man who 'conquered two great human infirmities: fear and hate'.
Two years later, finding himself standing next to Nehru's daughter
Indira Gandhi after Queen Elizabeth's coronation, he told India's future
leader that she must have hated the British for their ill-treatment of
Nehru during the freedom movement and how remarkable it was that the
Indians had overcome the bitterness.
'We never hated you,' Mrs Gandhi told him.
'I did, but I don't now,' Churchill responded.
velloor at sph.com.sg
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