How Sir Winston Churchill Starved 4 Million Indians

by Ramtanu Maitra

Churchill’s Secret War: The British
Empire and the Ravaging of India during
World War II
by Madhusree Mukerjee
New York: Basic Books, 2010
332 pages, hardbound, $28.95

Madhusree Mukerjee’s book is not a denunciation
of the British rule of India, but a meticulous chronicling
of the role of the British Raj in furthering a famine in
Bengal, and suppressing the fact that this deliberate
holocaust took 4 million lives. British historians, including
Sir Winston Churchill in his five-volume
memoir, glossed over this rather “irrelevant incident.”
Historians around the world have made little effort
either to find out how many lost their lives in the 1943
famine, or what role the British colonialists played to
cause this man-made famine.
However, in 1999, Dr. Gideon Polya, a professor at
La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, made the
following observation in an interview: “The wartime
Bengal Famine has become a ‘forgotten holocaust’ and
has been effectively deleted from our history books,
from school and university curricula and from general public perception. To the best of my knowledge,
Churchill only wrote of it once, in a secret letter to
Roosevelt dated April 29th 1944 in which he made the
following remarkable plea for help in shipping Australian
grain to India: ‘I am no longer justified in not asking
for your help.’ Churchill’s six-volume History of the
Second World War fails to mention the cataclysm that
was responsible for about 90% of total British Empire
casualties in that conflict, but makes the extraordinary
obverse claim: ‘No great portion of the world population
was so effectively protected from the horrors and
perils of the World War as were the people of Hindustan.
They were carried through the struggle on the
shoulders of our small island.’ ”
Mukerjee, a Bengali herself, has conducted extensive
research to document what she writes, and also
interacted with those who survived the holocaust and
lost their parents, children, and other relatives. In
Bengal, millions were dying because of food shortages
caused by British looting to feed the troops engaged
in World War II, and partly due to nature’s fury
in the midst of a well-developed independence movement,
which led to the end of the British rule in 1947.
She documents the British War Cabinet’s role,
Churchill’s, in particular, in exacerbating the food
shortages, stonewalling attempts to send food from
other countries to alleviate the crisis, and, in fact, justifying
the necessity to cull those who are not only “inferior,”
but who breed like rabbits.
The author points out that Churchill, explaining why he defended the stockpiling of food within Britain,
while millions died of starvation in Bengal, told his private
secretary that “the Hindus were a foul race, protected
by their mere pullulation from the doom that is
their due.” Pullulation, Mukerjee notes, means rapid
Mukerjee cites the notes from the British War Cabinet
meetings that were released in 2006, which show
that Churchill’s decision not to send food to starving
Bengal was anchored on the analysis that, after the war,
Europe would need a lot of food, and food prices would
be high, and for Britain to import food at that time would
prove costly. Moreover, surplus stocks built up in Britain
by the denial of food to Indians would be worth a lot
more on the world market after the war. On the basis of
this analysis, Churchill resolved in 1942 to build up a
stock of 27 million tons through civilian imports.
The British East India Company
The author reaches back in history to document the
looting of Bengal by the rapacious British East India
Company, which began in the mid-1750s to form the
backbone of what became the mighty British Empire, and which made Bengal, once a
much more prosperous province
than the entire British
Isles, so vulnerable later. The
book does not deal, however,
with the devastation of the region’s
farmlands, Bengal and
Bihar, in particular. These farmlands
had been wrecked by
opium cultivation and indigo
plantation by the British. To
learn about that barbaric role of
the British, one must read
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppy,
and Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nil
Darpan (Mirror to Indigo Cultivation),
written in Bengal in
the mid-19th Century.
However, Mukerjee does
provide some figures of the
looting by the East India Company
that filled the coffers in
London. Bengal fell under East
India Company control in 1757,
and “within five years,” the
author reports, “Bengal became
India’s poorest province.” The Company directors were
looting freely and paying His Majesty’s Government
£400,000 annually. For centuries, gold and silver had
poured into Bengal, but, by 1769, all that was gone. Between
1766 and 1768, the author notes, Bengal imported
£624,375 worth of goods and exported £6,311,250: The amount going out was ten times that
which was coming in.
Churchill, or Hitler: Take Your Pick
One of the interesting aspects in this book is the author’s
observation that, when it came to India, there was
hardly any difference between Hitler and Churchill.
Both were avowed racists and killers; both loved wars
and had a particular hatred for the Indian people; and
both were eager to see Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,
known as the Mahatma Gandhi, or Gandhiji, killed. The
author notes that Hitler was a great admirer of Britain
and the British Raj. Indeed, the British bankers did a
yeoman’s job to get Hitler to seize power and build his
Third Reich.

Read the full article in pdf format here

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