“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. They are the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” — Winston Churchill
The New Nationalist is not a fan of Winston Churchill. In fact, we consider him near the top of the list of the nastiest leaders of the 20th century. Case in point is the hidden history of the 1943 Bengal famine in which nearly four million souls starved to death under British rule. I am using two primary sources for this article: “The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food’ by Lizzie Collingham, and the well-cited book “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukerjee.
The causa proxima for food shortages in the Bengal region in India during WWII breaks down as follows: Bengal’s dismal winter rice harvest of 1942 was low due to warm, humid and cloudy weather. A tropical cyclone in October 1942 destroyed crops, causing the first wave of starvation. The Japanese occupied neighboring Burma, which was a swing or backup producer of grains and rice. A large number of refugees from Burma had come into Bengal, which increased food demand.
Adding to the difficulties was the fact that in 1942 and prior to the poor crop, Churchill, anticipating a Japanese invasion, initiated a scorched-earth policy in eastern India by destroying boats on the coastal areas and transport inland. Rice stockpiles were destroyed, seized and shipped out leaving little in reserve. With scarcity came the hoarders and speculators that further exacerbated the situation. Cultivators, farmers and landlords in India, merchants and traders, and provincial governors hoarded supplies, paralyzed the Indian markets for rice and blatantly profiteered as the famine progressed.
So, clearly, by the end of 1942 even the most incompetent government would know that Bengal was headed for a perfect storm without alleviation. And yet British administrators let the situation go on for a year. Astonishingly, the provincial government of Bengal never formally declared a state of famine. The famine only ended because of the winter bumper crop of 1943-44. Without that, the famine could have taken millions more.
Adding to the politics, Gandhi’s Quit India movement and Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army were fighting alongside the Japanese. On the other side of the coin, by 1943 more than two and a half million Indian soldiers had been deployed to the allied war effort in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. Vast quantities of arms, ammunition and raw materials had been sourced from across India at no cost to Britain.
In keeping with neoliberal proclivities, the British had always taken a laissez-faire philosophy in ruling India. There were 31 serious famines during 120 years of British rule. These famines killed up to 30 million Indians. Therefore, initially, as the famine was developing in early 1943, Secretary of State for India Leo Amery at first took a Malthusian view of the crisis, arguing that India was “overpopulated” and that the best strategy was to do nothing.
According to Mukerjee, “Churchill’s attitude toward India was quite extreme, and he hated Indians, mainly because he knew India couldn’t be held for very long. Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over. Because of the needs of total war, India had become a major creditor or in Churchill’s words — the biggest war profiteer.”
Churchill was totally remorseless in diverting food to the British troops, Greek civilians and Balkan partisans. To him, “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis (was) less serious than sturdy Greeks” — a sentiment with which Secretary of State for India and Burma Leopold Amery concurred. The timing of the famine was precisely when the war was turning in Europe, making Bengal expendable.
Footnote on Leopold Amery (1873-1955): Very typical of the British hierarchy, his mother’s family was crypto-Jewish. The Jewish Virtual Library considers him the drafter of the Balfour Declaration. Amery also helped to create the Jewish Legion. Curiously, one of his sons, John, was hung for treason after the war for conducting pro-axis radio broadcasts. His other son, Justin, was a rabid Zionist and MP.
Churchill was resolutely opposed to any food shipments. Ships were desperately needed for the landings in Italy. Besides, Churchill felt it would do no good. Famine or no famine, Indians will “breed like rabbits.” Very late in the catastrophe, Amery prevailed on him to send some relief, albeit only a quarter of what was needed.
But Churchill was also hoping for more aid from within India itself. Unfortunately, the politicians and civil servants of surplus provinces like the Punjab introduced regulations to prevent grain from leaving their provinces for the famine areas of Bengal, Madras and Cochin. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. Within India, the government prioritized military and defense needs over those of the rural poor, allocating medical care and food very much in favor of the military, laborers in military industries and civil servants.
When the famine got out of hand, even slow-to-react Amery, the crypto-Jewish arch-colonialist, denounced Churchill’s “Hitler-like attitude.” Urgently beseeched by Amery and Viceroy Archibald Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet. Even a few shipments of food grain would have helped, but the British prime minister adamantly turned down appeals from two successive Viceroys, his own secretary of state for India and even the president of the United States. Lord Wavell, appointed Viceroy of India that fateful year, considered the attitude of Churchill government toward India to be “negligent, hostile and contemptuous.”
Offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down as Churchill calculated it would ultimately deflect away from the home front and hurt morale. Overlooked is that the U.S. War Department and Army denied food allocations and shipping space to Britain. This forced Britain to ration food at half the level rationed to American civilians, causing Britain to absorb food stocks from the Empire, and diverted shipping to support U.S. and allied military operations. Mukerjee has unearthed documents that reveal ships carrying grain from Australia bypassed India on their way to the Mediterranean.