IN 1943, OVER three million people in Bengal died of starvation. Was Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill complicit in one of the most devastating famines in India’s recorded history?
The BBC and other Western media have tiptoed around the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. Madhusree Mukerjee’s book Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II laid bare the events that led to the tragedy.
Examining Mukerjee’s account is important now that Britain’s King Charles III has ordered an inquiry into the British royal family’s direct involvement in slavery and other imperial crimes.
Churchill regarded the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 as a local issue, a necessary collateral of war. Mukerjee is brutal in her findings. She writes: “Field Marshal Wavell observed in his diary on July 27, 1943, after witnessing an outburst in the War Cabinet. ‘Winston drew a harrowing picture of British workmen in rags struggling to pay rich Indian mill-owners; it became clear during the August 4 meeting on famine relief that the sterling debt was still embedded in the lion’s paw. Instead of sending relief, the War Cabinet recommended ‘forceful propaganda’ and curbs on inflation as measures against famine.
“After Leo Amery (secretary of state for India and Burma) spoke of the famine, Churchill’s associates questioned the necessity of meeting the Indian demand for wheat. Lord Leathers (minister of war transport) argued that Ceylon’s needs should receive priority, while The First Viscount Cherwell (Churchill’s close advisor, Fredrick Lindemann) suggested an attempt to ‘bluff Indian hoarders’ by announcing that enough grain was being imported to bring prices down.
“Churchill opined that the food crisis pointed to the ‘failure of Indians’ in higher echelons of government. At least the essential war workers should be fed, he felt; but although shipping 50,000 tonnes posed no difficulty, sourcing wheat from Australia could be a problem.’”
British media has over the years downplayed what should, given the evidence available, be regarded as a war crime that led to the death of over three million Indians in Bengal during the last years of British rule.
Famines in British colonies were endemic, including in Britain’s first colony, neighbouring Ireland, as Vikram Doctor explained in The Economic Times: “Ireland was the UK’s first colony, where it learned how to extract value from people who were denied political power. The value came from its land, which was used to produce food for the UK, while political power was denied because most Irish were Catholics, who were barred from British politics till 1829. Protestant landlords gained control of the land, with Catholic peasants as their tenants.
The Green Revolution changed Indian agriculture for good, making India a net food exporter. The BBC, not surprisingly, has not produced a truthful documentary on the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 and Churchill’s role in it
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“The key was the potato. It grew easily in Ireland, sustaining tenants, while the grain and meat they raised were exported to feed the UK during its wars with Europe and later expansion across the world. The British treated the Irish with contempt, both for their Catholicism and potato diet—even as these allowed them to retain political and economic control.
“The system broke down in 1845 with the arrival of the potato blight, a fungus that killed potato plants. As the crop failed, the Irish began to starve— and British landlords continued to export grain from the island. Among the first places real relief arrived from was Calcutta, where Irishmen working for the East Indian Company, horrified at reports of the hunger at home, raised 14,000 pounds, a huge sum at that time.”
Famines in India during British colonial rule haven’t received as much attention as the plunder of Indian tax revenue detailed in Shashi Tharoor’s book Inglorious Empire and Professor Utsa Patnaik’s publications for Columbia University.
Famines struck India from almost the beginning of British colonial rule. In 1770, over one million people died of starvation in Bengal, 13 years after Robert Clive’s seizure of the region following the Battle of Palashee (Plassey). Famines across India followed: the most devastating were in 1783-84, 1791-92, 1837-38, 1860-61, 1876-78, 1896-97 and 1899-1900. Over 30 million Indians are estimated to have died during famines from the late-1700s to the mid-1900s.
After Independence in 1947, there hasn’t been a famine in India. The Green Revolution changed Indian agriculture for good, making India a net food exporter.
The BBC, not surprisingly, has not produced a truthful documentary on the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 and Churchill’s role in it. It is a story waiting to be told, if not by the BBC, by India’s rising cohort of documentary filmmakers.