Forgotten famine

Issue: 130

John Newsinger

Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: the British Empire and the Ravaging of India during the Second World War (Basic Books, 2010), £18.99

The Bengal Famine of 1943-44 is one of the most terrible episodes of the Second World War. According to Madhusree Mukerjee’s new book, the death toll has to be revised upwards from the generally accepted figure of 3.5 million men, women and children to over 5 million. Certainly, it was, as the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, put it, “one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule”. And yet it has almost completely disappeared from the history books.

One can read any number of the many biographies of the prime minister of the time, Winston Churchill, without coming across any mention of the catastrophe that he presided over. Similarly with biographies of the deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee, the millions who died of starvation and disease while he occupied that post go unmentioned. Even more incredible is the way the famine is routinely ignored in histories of the British Empire.

Professor Denis Judd, for example, in his acclaimed one-volume account, Empire, does not so much as mention the Bengal Famine. More surprisingly perhaps, he does not mention it in his history of the British Raj, The Lion and the Tiger. And most astonishingly, he does not mention it in his biography of the Indian nationalist leader, Nehru, even though Nehru himself described the famine quite correctly as “the final judgement on British rule”. The immensely prestigious multi-volume Oxford History of the British Empire, the summation of Anglo-American scholarship on the subject, also manages to ignore the episode.

Why this historical amnesia? The reason is quite simply that the majority of British historians of the empire have a benign view of British imperialism. While they will often accept that there were some abuses, even occasional crimes, overall the empire was a force for good. The Bengal Famine poses a serious threat to this benign paradigm, indeed it makes it untenable. Consequently, the famine has been airbrushed from the picture. It raises too many uncomfortable questions about the nature of British rule in India and therefore is either marginalised or ignored altogether. If this was the work of Russian historians during the Communist period, covering up the famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, their work would be quite correctly dismissed as Stalinist apologetics. They would, however, have at least had the excuse that their lives depended on the cover-up!

With the publication of Churchill’s Secret War one can only hope that such a convenient lapse of historical memory will become impossible in the future, although, of course, one cannot count on this. Mukerjee provides a very useful introduction to the place Bengal occupied in the empire from the 1770s on, before going on to focus on the Quit India revolt launched by the Indian National Congress in July 1942 and on the famine. The Quit India revolt, itself a neglected episode, was put down with great brutality (shootings, beatings, villages burned down, rape and torture), and, as she shows, this repression continued even when the country was in the grip of famine. She chronicles Churchill’s fury at the Indian challenge to British rule.

The indictment of the British Empire is that the famine was the product of Indian involvement in Britain’s war and that the authorities completely failed to mount an adequate relief effort. Indeed, grain continued to be exported from India even while millions starved to death. Mukerjee estimates that if these exports had been diverted to Bengal, some two million lives would have been saved. The British government also decided, despite pleas from the authorities in India, not to organise the shipment of sufficient foodstuffs to alleviate the situation in Bengal.

Mukerjee develops a number of rationales for the British failure: the need to ensure adequate food supplies in Britain (Indians starving to death were politically preferable to the possibility of shortages in Britain) and to stockpile food for the liberation of Europe. As Churchill put it, Indians were used to starving! This brings us to Churchill’s role in events, something most of his biographers have failed to confront. As she observes, with considerable restraint, “Churchill’s broad-brush loathing of the natives might have added impetus to the other rationales.”

Indeed, with Australian wheat flour being sent “to Ceylon, the Middle East and southern Africa—everywhere in the Indian Ocean area but to India”, it is hard to avoid concluding that there was “a will to punish”. In just about every War Cabinet discussion of India in 1943, Churchill displayed what she describes as an “inchoate rage”. It is absolutely clear that the famine deaths of 1943-44 lie at the door of the British government.

The publication of Churchill’s Secret War is to be wholeheartedly welcomed. Hopefully it signals the start of a debate about the responsibility for the Bengal Famine and what this tells us about the nature of the British Empire. Certainly, the fact that we have had to wait so long for such a book tells us a great deal about the British historians of the Empire. A paperback edition is urgently needed.