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The Bengal Famine of 1943: How the British Engineered One of the Worst Genocides in the Human History

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History is written by the winners and not by the losers. No wonder, the history of India under the British rule is written by British and American authors. It is said that during the Second World War Hitler killed as many as seven million Jews and is regarded as the most devilious person of the twentieth century. But what about the ghastly genocide done by the British government in India by using hunger and starvation as tools and which lasted for about two centuries claiming about thirty million lives. The British always adopted a ruthless economic policy towards India. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. The first of these famines started in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, the indigenous rulers of India were quick and used different means to avert the famine. After the advent of the British rule, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc that these famines brought with them, if anything, they were irritated by the inconveniences in collecting taxes that the famines brought about.

The deadliest famine that occurred after 1771 was in 1943, when more than 3.5 million people died and thousand others survived only by eating grass and human flesh. The Bengal Famine of 1943 struck the Bengal Province of British India (present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and the country of Bangladesh) during World War II following the Japanese invasion of Burma. The food situation in India was tight from the beginning of the Second World War, with a series of crop failures and localized famines. In 1941 Bengal had a poor harvest and several districts witnessed hunger marches. The authorities dismissed these as having been organized by ‘designing persons’ to create political unrest and strove to ensure that no such rumors of shortages leaked out.

The proximate cause of the famine was a reduction in supply with increase in demand. The winter rice crop of 1942 was expected to be poor and to make it more worse Bengal was hit by a cyclone in October, 1942. “An area of 450 square miles was swept away by tidal waves, 400 square miles were affected by floods and 3200 square miles were damaged by wind and torrential rain. A good deal of the reserve stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers and dealers was destroyed. This killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle. The homes, livelihood and property of nearly 2.5 million Bengalis were ruined or damaged. The fungus Cochliobolus miyabeanus destroyed 50% to 90% of some rice varieties, causing even greater damage to yield than the cyclone.”1

In the 1940s to meet the demand for rice Bengal had to import rice from Burma. In the year 1942 the British Empire had suffered a disastrous defeat at Singapore against the Japanese military, which then proceeded to invade Burma in the same year. After the Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942, Bengal and the other parts of India, which imported large amount of rice from Burma, had to find food elsewhere. There were also poor crops and famine situations in Cochin, Trivandrum and Bombay on the West coast and Madras, Orissa and Bengal in the East. It then fell on the few surplus Provinces, mainly the Punjab, to supply the foodgrains to the rest of India. But the Provincial government of Punjab was reluctant to supply large amount of foodgrains to other provinces as they were themselves having difficulty in meeting the local demand. Bengal’s food needs rose at the same time from the influx of refugees from Burma, which made the situation even worse. As the supply of rice was in short and the demand high this made the price of grain to move upward and most of the people were not able to meet this sudden rise in the prices.

Also with the fall of Burma the British government made the Boat Denial Policy and Rice Denial Policy from the fears by the Army and other British authorities that the Japanese would follow up their conquest of Burma with an invasion of British India by way of Bengal. A scorched earth policy was hastily implemented in the Chittagong region, nearest to the Burmese border, to deny the Japanese easy access to supplies and other resources in case of an invasion. In particular, the Army confiscated many boats (and motor vehicles, carts and even elephants), fearing that the Japanese would commandeer them to speed an advance into India. The inhabitants used the boats for fishing and to take goods to market, and the Army failed to distribute rations to replace the fish and the food lost through the stoppage of commerce. The dislocation in the area forced many of the male inhabitants into the Military Labour Corps, where at least they received rations, but the break-up of families left many children and dependents to beg or to starve. This was the condition of Bengal in the early 1940s, which was once the most prosperous part of India.  A brief historical background is needed to understand who was really responsible for all this.

A. The Dependence of Britain’s Economy on Indian Agricultural Products: A Historical Background

If we ponder little bit into history then we will be able to clearly see how the British exploitation completely changed the economic conditions of Bengal. The place which was once regarded as the ‘paradise of the earth’ by Robert Clive, was no more the same. “Historian William Hunter observed in 1874 that in Bengal, if the price of rice after the winter harvest was twice that in a normal year, it foretold a famine – and a price three times the normal, later in the year, indicated that the famine had already set in. Yet even a tripling in the cost of rice, enough to depopulate hundreds of villages, was of little financial significance to a consumer in the United Kingdom. Whereas the colony and the colonizer probably had the same level of prosperity in the mid-eighteenth century (with Bengal having been richer than this average), by the end of the Victorian era the per capita income in the United Kingdom was twenty times that in India. The industrial revolution and imperial policy had plugged India smoothly but asymmetrically into the global economy, such that the high incomes abroad siphoned off a good part of the grain that the land revenue system extruded onto the market. Because the grain was free to follow the cash out of the country, this forced-feedback loop went by the name of free trade.

Nationalists invariably demanded that cereals not be allowed to be exported in times of famine. But the authorities pleaded the virtues of free trade, and local administrators who curbed exports or otherwise interfered with market forces were severely chastised. Even during devastating famines, the government rigorously collected agricultural taxes, thereby feeding whatever harvest there was into the free market. If the revenue collectors could not gather all the tax due during a famine, they recovered it the following year, along with that year’s dues. ‘The one good harvest that stood between the famine of 1897 and 1899 had to pay the famine revenue and the revenue for the current year,’ observed journalist Vaughan Nash, so that ‘when the moneylenders had taken their share, the cultivator had nothing left for a rainy, or, rather, a rainless day’.

The crux of the matter was that India’s agricultural exports had become crucial to the United Kingdom’s economy. The imperial nation settled more than a third of its trade deficit with the United States and Europe by means of India’s export surplus. Prohibiting the export of food from India would make it more affordable within the colony, admitted economist Fred J. Atkinson in 1909. Yet such a measure would adversely affect India’s trade balance, reduce the value of the rupee, and make the Home Charge (which had to be paid in sterling) effectively more expensive. Moreover, Atkinson continued, ‘if the food supply from India ceased, unless the gaps could at once be filled from elsewhere, food prices outside India would rise, and this, owing to the existence of unions and their methods of enforcing their wishes by means of strikes… might affect wages outside India thus indirectly all prices.’ Should Indians eat their grain instead of exporting it, they would destabilize the economy of the United Kingdom.”2

In 1920s the Great Depression overcame rural India. “High grain prices in the 1920s had allowed some cultivators to accumulate savings in the form of gold or land, which had prompted an increase in taxes. Although the prices of wheat and rice began to slide in 1930, slashing farmers’ incomes, cultivators still owed taxes and other dues. Moneylenders (who, through a chain of refinancing arrangements, were ultimately beholden to banks) ran out of cash, refused additional credit, and instead forced peasants to pay up their debts – which they did by confiscating the gold bangles, earrings and necklaces belonging to the family’s women. (The alternative was to sell land, which for a peasant was the last resort because it deprived the family of its cheapest source of food.)

The secretary of state for India and the governor of the Bank of England controlled the colony’s monetary policy. They ensured that as much as possible of this ‘distress gold’ flowed to the United Kingdom. In the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped the export of the metal and used the country’s gold reserves to support the value of the currency, allowing him to inject money into the economy to revive it. Historian Dietmar Rothermund has written that had the British government in India been more responsive to the needs of the people, it similarly would have collected distress gold and used it to finance projects to alleviate rural suffering. Instead, banks melted down 3.4 billion (Pound 255 million) worth of gold jewellery into bars and shipped it to London, helping to buttress its threatened position as a financial capital of the world. As a result, rural India was drained of its savings, leaving peasants defenseless against future economic shocks.”3

By the 1930’s India was no longer a net exporter of grain, on the contrary, India imported cereals. “Whereas in the nineteenth century it had been producing more than required to feed the people (had the grain stayed in the country), the population’s needs had since overtaken food production. But the depression slashed the net earnings of Bengali peasants, the vast majority of whom needed to buy some rice for their families, by 90 per cent – with the result that they could not import enough. A 1933 survey revealed that 41 per cent of India’s inhabitants were ‘poorly nourished’ and another 20 per cent ‘very badly nourished’, with the statistics for Bengal being worst of all: 47 and 31 per cent, respectively. The province underwent serious food scarcities in 1934 and 1936; mass migration, the most egregious sign of famine, was averted thanks to rice shipments from Burma.

By the time World War II hit, India was importing between 1 and 2 million tons of rice a year from Burma and Thailand. That lifeline would be cut by the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia – just when India had again become an exporter of grain, this time for the war effort.”4

Thus when thousands of Indians were fighting on behalf of the British government in some of the toughest countries around the Mediterranean Sea, and when apart from the troops India was supplying foodgrains, uniforms boots, parachutes, tents, ammunitions and innumerable other necessities, the native people of India were even begging for a morsel of food. This was all because of the deceitful and cunning policies of the British government.

B. Winston Churchill and his Dreadful Policies towards India which Paved the Way for the Famine

In 2010, Bengali author Madhusree Mukherjee wrote a book about the famine called “Churchill’s Secret War,” in which she explicitly blamed Churchill for worsening the starvation in Bengal by ordering the diversion of food away from Indians and towards the British troops around the world. Mukerjee’s book described how wheat from Australia (which could have been delivered to starving Indians) was instead transported to British troops in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Even worse, British colonial authorities (again under Churchill’s leadership) actually turned down offers of food from Canada and the U.S. In her book she wrote that in June 1942, “Viceroy Linlithgow had been warning about a food crisis in India, and earlier that March a member of his council, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, had told the War Cabinet’s shipping committee of ‘some danger of famine conditions, particularly in Calcutta and Bombay’. Wheat was available in Australia, but all Indian ships capable of the round trip were engaged in the war effort. Moreover, in January the prime minister had brought most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, in order to bolster the United Kingdom’s stocks of food and raw materials. He was reluctant to release vessels to carry grain to the colony, because lowered stocks at home would compromise the British economy and limit the War Cabinet’s ability to pursue military operations of its choice – and because his hostility toward Indians was escalating.”5

“On January 2, 1943, Governor Herbert warned the viceroy that his province was desperately short of wheat. ‘Bengal’s normal demand is 18,000 tons a month and we are short of nearly twice this amount over last quarter alone. Amount of 110 tons mentioned by you therefore represents only few hours supply.’ If factory workers who ate wheat did not get it, they would either riot or leave, so the shortage threatened the production of ammunition. Herbert urged Linlithgow to get hold of a ship ‘for large-scale import of wheat which might prove palliative for the whole situation’ involving both wheat and rice.”6

“So early January 1943, Amery (Leopold Charles Maurice Stennett Amery, Secretary of State for India from 13 May 1940 to 26 July 1945) wrote to Lord Frederick Leathers, the minister of war transport, arguing the urgent necessity of sending to India 600,000 tons of wheat within the first quarter of the year (over and above 30,000 tons already promised to the army). The imports would enable the Viceroy ‘firstly to maintain supplies to the Army, secondly to feed the urban population on whose labour the war effort mainly depends, thirdly to maintain supplies to those areas where for one reason or another there is an unsatisfied deficiency of food grains, and fourthly to convince holders of supplies that holding for a major shortage is not good business.’

Amery was talking to the wrong person. Leathers was a former shipping magnate who had been brought in by Churchill to run the British Empire’s merchant shipping during the war. He was reputed to be very competent; but he lacked the authority, and by all accounts the inclination, to release ships for any purpose that the Prime Minister had not approved.”7

 “It was too late. On January 5, 1943, the prime minister had slashed the number of ships operating in the ‘Indian Ocean area’. The term, used in connection with wartime shipping, referred to the entire span of water rimmed by Australia, Arabia, and Africa (as well as the British Empire territories and dominions surrounding this composite body of water). The United Kingdom controlled the merchant ships there, whereas the United States ran the Pacific. Of the forty vessels that remained in the Indian Ocean area after the cut, the lion’s share would go toward supplying Operation Torch, an invasion of French colonies in North Africa, leaving only a handful of ships to ply to and from India – just enough to collect whatever goods the colony could still provide to the outside world.

Churchill seems not to have mentioned this crucial decision when, at a War Cabinet meeting on January 12, 1943, Amery brought up India’s serious food problem. Instead of wheat shipments, the War Cabinet offered to send to the colony an official who had experience, from a stint in the Middle East, of prying grain out of cultivators. Unusually for the Prime Minister when India came up, he was ‘full of internal glee’ – because, it turned out, he was shortly to depart for Casablanca(Morocco) to meet the US president.”8

In any case, “…India received a little less than 30,000 tons of wheat by July 1943 (plus the 30,000 that had been previously promised to the army). That is, of the 600,000 tons that the viceroy had requested in December 1942 as being essential to avert disaster, it received less than 5 per cent. As a result, only a quarter of the wheat that the Government of India had promised to send to Bengal in the first half of 1943 could arrive in that province. Most of that, in turn, remained in Calcutta for use by the priority classes, with small quantities being sent to the districts for official use. In April, an intelligence summary observed that ‘large numbers of starving people’ were emigrating from the province – a marker of famine as given in the Bengal famine Code, the official manual for the region.

Curiously, the Government of India chose not to explain to the Bengal administration why it was unable to help out in supplying wheat. Instead it insisted that the province had more than enough rice. ‘This shortage is a thing entirely of your own imagination,’ Justice Henry B. L. Braund of Bengal’s Department of Civil Supplies said he had been told by officials of the Government of India in March 1943. ‘We do not believe it and you have got to get it out of your head that Bengal is deficit. You have got to preach that there is sufficiency in Bengal and if you wait you will find that there is sufficiency in Bengal.’ Civil servant Pinnell was similarly instructed by Major General E. Wood of New Delhi’s Department of Food that if only he would ‘preach the gospel of sufficiency’ and hint that large imports of grain might suddenly arrive and drive down prices, he would draw out hoarded stocks. Meanwhile he should battle any misconceptions about shortages ‘by attacking and confining on a large scale those who were likely to be its exponents’. A food minister was appointed for Bengal – Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy of the Muslim League – and although he believed a famine to be approaching ‘he was not allowed by the Government of India to say so.’ On the contrary, he announced that the province faced no shortages.”9

In the War Cabinet meeting of 4th August, 1943, the secretary of the State for India, Amery began the proceedings by giving the account of the shortage of foodgrains that India was facing. “The Indian economy ‘was being strained almost to the breaking-point’ by the demands of war, Amery stated, and the direst effects could be countered only by meeting the viceroy’s request. The War Cabinet took the view, however, that the problem ‘could not be dealt with simply by the importation of grain’. Lord Leathers argued that it would be ‘extremely difficult’ to find ships to get grain to India. If the War Cabinet felt that something needed to be done, he would suggest sending ‘not more than 50,000 tons as a token shipment. This should, however, not be earmarked for India but should be ordered to Colombo to await instructions there.’ It might also be possible to send up to 100,000 tons of barley from Iraq.”10

It is a complete nonsense that during this time of the year 1943 the British government was having difficulty in sparing ships to transport grains to India. “In truth, perhaps at no other period during the war than in the summer and fall of 1943 did the number of ships at hand so greatly exceed those already committed to Allied operations. The war against U-boats(U-boat is the anglicized version of the German word U-Boot, a shortening of Unterseeboot. While the German term refers to any submarine, the English one refers specifically to military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars.) was won and American production of ships was increasing steeply; the net gain for the Allies had been 1.5 million tons of shipping in May alone. That month the president had transferred to British control fifteen to twenty cargo vessels for the duration of the war. By the summer of 1943, the British shipping crisis had given way to what historian Kevin Smith calls a ‘shipping glut’ and the S branch(S branch means the Shipping Ministry.) would refer to as ‘[w]indfall shipping’. Lord Arthur Salter, had headed the British shipping mission to Washington, returned London to find that instead of worrying about the scarcity of ships, his colleagues were now concerned about the impact on post-war trade of too many ships in American hands. So many vessels would present at North American ports that autumn to be loaded with supplies to add to the United Kingdom’s stockpile that not enough cargo could be found to fill them. If ever during the war a window had opened for saving lives in Bengal – at no discernible cost to the war effort – this was it.” 11

So, the whole excuse of not having enough ships was only a hoax for not supplying grains to India and starving the country to death. By the fall of the year 1943, “Ceylon and the Middle East were to receive each month 75,000 tons of Australian wheat to meet the regions’ continuing needs, according to the Ministry of War Transport. In addition, building a stockpile required ‘to meet potential demand for re-occupied S. Eastern Europe’ would consume 70,000 tons of wheat by the end of October and a further 100,000 tons by the end of 1943. Churchill must have had the Balkan stockpile in mind when he commented on the necessity of conserving Australian supplies: because Europeans, if and when they were liberated, would need wheat, Indian would have to make do with barley. Cherwell(a Frederick Alexander Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell, was  in charge of the Office of HM Paymaster General (OPG), which held accounts at the Bank of England on behalf of Government departments and selected other public bodies from 1942-1945.) Leathers(Frederick James Leathers, 1st Viscount Leathers Minister of War Transport from 1941-1945.) and Grigg(Sir (Percy) James Grigg, Secretary of State for War from 22 February 1942 to 26 July 1945) must also have known that the surplus shipping and Australian wheat were to be used for building the Balkan stockpile, and could not be spared to relieve famine in India; these most loyal of Churchill’s aides were no doubt looking for reasons to reject the viceroy’s request.”12

At the end of the year 1943, the United Kingdom had build up a stockpile in the Mediterranean region for feeding the Greeks and Yugoslavs it intended to liberate. That would simply mean that shiploads of Australian wheat would pass by the famine-stricken India, destined not for consumption by the starving people but only for storage and latter to be shipped away. For example, in September 1943, ten vessels were loaded with wheat flour and two with other foodstuff, but none would be for India. Similarly, in October ten vessels were loaded with wheat and other foodstuffs, but again none was for India. As long as food could be exported from India for the use in the war, the imperial administration had exported it in large quantities. But while the colony itself suffered from famine shiploads of Australian wheat would pass it by, to be stored for future consumption in southern Europe.

The excuse that the British government provided for not unloading the wheat shipment in Bengal was that the people of Bengal are not habituated to eat wheat. This untruth appeared so regularly in British accounts of the Bengal famine, “…in one of three forms – that Bengalis ‘would sooner starve to death’ than eat wheat, had difficulty digesting wheat, or did not know how to prepare wheat – that it deserves special scrutiny.

Wheat was one of the ancient crops of Bengal and is one of the nine plants symbolically offered to the goddess Durga. When Bengalis worship her in October, they eat a paste as a sacral offering. They have no trouble digesting it; on the contrary, better-off Bengalis use cream of wheat to wean infants.”13

C. Some Horrific Incidents during the Famine

  1. “In Sapurapota village of the 17th Union of Panskura Than a Muslim weaver was unable to support his family and, crazed with hunger, wandered away,’ recorded Biplabi(Local newspaper)on August 5, 1943. ‘His wife believed that he had drowned himself in the flooded Kasai River, unable to feed her two young sons for several days, she could no longer endure their suffering. On 7/23 she dropped the smaller boy torn from her womb, the sparkle of her eye, into the Kasai’s frothing waters. She tried in the same way to send her elder son to his father, but he screamed and grabbed on to her. The maddened mother had lost all capacity for love and compassion. She discovered a new way to silence her child’s searing hunger. With feeble arms she dug a small grave and threw her son into it. As she was trying to cover him with earth a passerby heard his screams and snatched the spade from his mother’s hand. A kagmara (low-caste Hindu) promised to bring up the boy and the mother then went away, who knows where. Probably she found peace by joining her husband in Kasai’s cold torrent.”14
  2. A schoolteacher in Mohisadal reported seeing children picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggar’s diarrheal discharge.15
  3. A British soldier Clive Branson wrote to his wife. “The ride was pleasant enough, until the train entered Bengal. ‘The endless view of plains, crops, and small stations, turned almost suddenly into one long trail of starving people. Men, women, children, babies, looked up into the passing carriage in their last hope for food. These people were not just hungry – this was famine. When we stopped, children swarmed round the carriage windows, repeating, hopelessly, “Bukshish, sahib” – with the monotony of a damaged gramophone. Others sat on the ground, just waiting. I saw women – almost fleshless skeletons, their clothes grey with dust from wandering, with expressionless faces, not walking, but foot steadying foot, as though not knowing where they went. As we pulled towards Calcutta, for miles, little children naked, with inflated bellies stuck on stick-like legs, held up empty tins towards us. They were children still – they laughed and waved as we went by. Behind them one could see the brilliant fiendish green of the new crop.”16
  4. “Stories of abandonment during the Bengal famine – of a small child found wandering alone in a field or of a woman who continued to eat at a relief camp while her baby died untended in her lap – are also common. An actress in Calcutta reported that once when her cook poured onto the pavement some phyan, the starchy water in which rice had been boiled, a shriveled-up woman who nevertheless seemed young caught it in her clay pot. Her four children ran up, but the mother ferociously slapped them away and drank up most of the phyan in quick gulps. … At Faridpur in eastern Bengal, some workers were removing a corpse when a woman huddled nearby threw a bundle in their direction, saying, ‘Take that also.’ It was the body of her child.”17
  5. A British soldier posted in Chittagong wrote in his diary: “I have heard many homeless little children of between 5 and 10 crying bitterly and coughing terribly outside my room in the Rest Camp at Chittagong at 3 & 4 in the morning in the pouring monsoon rain. They were all stark naked, homeless, motherless, fatherless and friendless. Their sole possession was an empty tin in which to collect scraps of food. We were strictly prohibited from helping any of these refugees in any way, under heavy penalties. Many could not endure to see this suffering, though, and did help surreptitiously.”18

From these real life incidents one can make out that how inhumane were the conditions in Bengal. Even when millions of Indians were serving in British units during this time, Churchill repeatedly denied food exports to India. How this utter inhumane cruelty of the British can ever be explained. These conditions created by the British not only bring them on par with the Nazi Germany but in terms of inhumane activities they even exceed them.

D. World’s Response to the Famine and Chruchill’s Refusal to Take Help Reflecting His Dislike for India

“Starting in the summer of 1943, The Statesman began to publish editorials excoriating the government for the spreading famine. Stephens(Ian Stephans, Chief Editor of the Statesman) pointed out the official confusion, indifference, subterfuge, and buck-passing and every day his voice became more strident. The response was disheartening: ‘Write, write, write, but nothing came of it,’ he wrote in a memoir. On Sunday, August 22, the newspaper came out with close-up photographs of children with protruding rib cages and panoramas of stick-like beings huddled in vast numbers. Despite a warning from censors, the next week The Statesman printed more photographs – and another editorial.

Until Stephens publicized it, the calamity in Bengal had been unknown to most of India and utterly unheard about in the rest of the world. In a bid to keep the news from leaking out, the Government of India had allegedly destroyed all but one of five thousand printed copies of Hungry Bengal, a collection of sketches and reportage on the Midnapore famine – but it could not suppress The Statesman. In New Delhi, storefronts displayed the pictures of famine victims, and in Washington the State Department circulated them among policymakers.”19

When the news of the Bengal famine began to spread many nations and individual groups poured into to help the dying souls of Bengal. But the British government, mainly Prime Minister Churchill, was reluctant to take any help and was willing to let the people of Bengal to die.

“On August 14, 1943, the Indian Independence League, an association of expatriate nationalists, announced over Axis radio that it was accepting the help of Japan, Thailand and Burma to send rice to India. ‘Though it is normally impossible to send rice to India from Japanese occupied territory the league is prepared to do so if the British Government approves the proposal and gives an undertaking that the food so sent will not be reserved for military consumption or exported from India’ went, the message, as translated from Tamil by British intelligence. Over the next months Subhas Chandra Bose repeated the offer, because he had instigated it, in speeches and broadcasts, such as this one from Singapore: ‘100,000 tons of rice are waiting to be sent to India to alleviate the famine. The rice is stored in a suitable port near India. As soon as the British Government shows its readiness to accept delivery, I will announce the name of the port and the competent authority from whom the rice is to be collected. I will then also ask the Japanese Government to guarantee a safe convoy for the transport. Further deliveries for the starving population of India can be made as soon as the offer has been accepted. I hope that the British Government will accept without hesitation, as it is a humane offer, the acceptance of which will save hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in India.’ Ripples of hope stirred in his prostrate homeland. According to one intelligence report, the ‘latest Bose rumour is to the effect that he has written to the Viceroy asking him to send two ships to enable Bose to send rice to the starving people of Bengal.’”20

“The British must have thought his offer was genuine,’ opined historian Sugata Bose (a grandnephew of Subhas Bose) in an interview. ‘If they really thought it was a bluff they would have called it.’ Had the leader failed to keep his promise, he would have been destroyed as a political force. ‘When it came to a question of Bengalis starving to death, Subhas Chandra Bose would not have engaged in a propaganda stunt,’ Sugata Bose added. ‘When you look at his life, he was engaged in social work – plague relief and flood relief – since childhood.’

The War Cabinet knew of Bose’s rice offer (having received at least one of the pertinent intelligence summaries), but whether or not the issue was discussed is unclear. Although ships capable of traversing the oceans were scarce, hundreds of smaller vessels were plying along the Indian coast, most of them under government control. The proximity of Calcutta to Rangoon or other Burmese ports meant that Bose’s rice could have arrived within a week or two, had the authorities chosen to collect it. Distributed at the rate of a half-kilogram per person per day, 100,000 tons would have fed 1.6 million people for four months – after which Bengalis would be harvesting their own winter crop.

To be sure, Subhas Chandra Bose was a despised enemy of the United Kingdom; he was an Axis collaborator and a target of British assassins. But when occupied Greece underwent famine in the winter of late 1941, Germany had permitted humanitarian agencies such as the International Red Cross to bring in relief and distribute it, a remarkable instance of Axis-Allied cooperation during the war. When it came to Bengal, His Majesty’s Government would turn down even those offers of cereals that came not from adversaries but from friends. The dominions of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada all asked how they could help. ‘Australia could supply all the wheat needed for the starving in India provided the United Kingdom could provide the ships,’ stated a minister in Canberra, as reported by Reuters on September 28. ‘Wheat was practically waiting to be loaded on boats.’

Virtually all dominion shipping was under the War Cabinet’s control, as were seventeen merchant ships registered in India, amounting to around 80,000 gross tons, that were capable of the journey to Australia, ’Almost all our ships have been taken away,’ Sir J.R Srivastava later told the famine commission. (Srivastava was the member of the viceroy’s executive council who was responsible for food.) At ‘one time I asked whether these ships could not be released to us to carry foodgrains. But nothing came of it.’ As a result, only highly compact foods could be loaded onto the ships that were already destined for India from the empire’s ports. Amery informed the New Zealand government, which had authorized £10,000 of famine relief, that ‘a free gift of powdered or condensed milk to this value would be the most useful form of gift as shipping could be most easily arranged for that.’

Ireland sent £100,000, and Prime Minister Eamon de Valera asked his compatriots for more; meanwhile, the leader of the country’s Labour Party reminded the Irish people that when their forefathers had starved under British rule in the previous century, Indians had sent help. Private charities in the United Kingdom and the United States also began to collect money. The Red Cross started operations in Calcutta, but it could provide only milk powder, vitamins, and medicines. These were valuable, but no substitute for rice or wheat.”21

After a War Cabinet debate of the Bengal Famine in November, 1943, it was agreed, mainly due to international pressures to supply foodgrains to India. The war cabinet managed to “send 50,000 tons for each of January and February, and that was agreed upon. As it happened, Canada had offered a free gift of 100,000 tons of wheat to India to relieve the famine, and Viceroy Wavell had accepted. Churchill had already rejected Canada’s proposal because, according to a document with the Ministry of War transport, ‘it would be unjustifiable to impose any additional strain on our shipping resources (especially if that involved seeking further shipping assistance from the Americans) for the sake of the wholly uneconomic prospect of shipping wheat from Canada to India.’ But a Canadian ship of 10,000 tons had become available at Vancouver, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King wanted to fill it with wheat for India. To Amery’s consternation, Leathers and Churchill were ‘vehement against this’ and resolved to stop the consignment. ‘I can only trust that they won’t have begun loading before Winston’s telegram arrives,’ Amery recorded. ‘The trouble is that Winston so dislikes India and all to do with it that he can see nothing but the mere waste of shipping space involved in the longer journey.’

At the time, a consignment of 9,000 tons of rice from Brazil was on its way to Ceylon, and shiploads of Australian wheat were circumnavigating India on their way to the Balkan stockpile. Other ships were travelling to Argentina to collect wheat for Britain – a trip twice as long as that to Canada or the United States. And as it happened, the United Kingdom already had more than enough wheat. ‘I hope that out of the present surplus of grain you will manage to do a little more for the domestic poultry keeper,’ the prime minister directed the day after this meeting. If their hens could get more grain, Britons would get more eggs.”22

Even as Bengal was going through famine and thousands of people were starving to death, this did not deter the British government a bit. Instead of taking care of the local people and aborting this man-made famine, the British policy was actually contrary to this. As during this time the government should have imported foodgrains to meet the local demand but instead of that it actually exported tons of rice. “Whereas India annually imported at least a million tons of rice and wheat before the war, it exported a net 360,000 tons during the fiscal year April 1, 1942, to March 31, 1943. Of this quantity, 260,000 tons were rice. Gross exports of foodgrains (including lentils) in that fiscal year totaled 465,600 tons. The exports took place after the war had reached India’s borders, imports of rice from Southeast Asia had been cut off, invasion appeared imminent, and hunger marches and food riots had become routine. The exports continued even after the cyclone had damaged vital winter crop of rice. On April 22, 1943, more than a month after it had been warned of famine, the Ministry of War Transport recorded with approval ‘continued pressure being brought upon India to persuade her to release more than the previously agreed quotas of rice and, more recently, cargoes of wheat’. Between January and July of 1943, even as famine set in, India exported 71,000 tons of rice, an unknown fraction of it through Calcutta’s port.

Shiploads of food departing a captive and stricken land recall the Indian famines of the Victorian era and the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, when crop failure combined with colonial policy to fell millions. The exports of 1942 and 1943 were far smaller than those of earlier times, but just as damaging given the substantial imports that were needed to keep native souls from departing their bodies. Ceylon, Arabia and South Africa, where the rice ended up, were already better supplied with grain than was India. But if distributed at relief camps in Bengal at the average rate of a half-kilogram per person per day, 71,000 tons of rice would have kept 390,000 people alive for a full year. The 360,000 tons of wheat and rice, if similarly used, would have saved almost 2 million.”23

Throughout the year 1943, when India was going through an acute famine and was wading into an economic morass, the United Kingdom’s civilian stocks of food and raw materials continued to swell, and by the end of “1943 they would stand at 18.5 million tons, the highest total ever. The United Kingdom imported that year 4 million tons of wheat grain and flour, 1.4 million tons of sugar, 1.6 million tons of meat, 409,000 heads of live cattle, 325,000 tons of fish, 131,000 tons of rice, 206,000 tons of tea, 172,000 tons of cocoa, and 1.1 million gallons of wine for its 47.7 million people – a population 14 million fewer than that of Bengal. Sugar and oilseeds overflowed warehouses and had to be stored outdoors in England under tarpaulins. American and Canadian grain traders complained that excessive British demand was distorting the market and worried that, after the war, the United Kingdom would use its vast stocks to manipulate world prices.”24

Finally in the year 1944, India received 660,450 tons of wheat. “Fending off a second Indian famine took the combined efforts of the secretary of state for India, the viceroy of India, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, the supreme commander in Southeast Asia, and the commander-in-chief in India. It would be beyond anyone’s power, however, to win the prime minister’s consent to loosening political control over the colony.”25

Thus, by the end of the year 1944, the worst famine that was apparently engineered by the British government came to an end. The British government and mainly the British Prime Minister Churchill was solely responsible for this great calamity. It was Churchill’s antipathy towards India that India had to go through such gruesome conditions. Churchill’s hostility towards Indians has long been well established and documented. His attitude toward Indians was made crystal clear when in May 1943, while discussing his policies with the Secretary of State for India, Leopold S. Amery, Churchill exclaimed, “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with beastly religion.” It was this thinking of the Churchill that led him to make India go through all this. As we have seen above that the British government had enough means to avert the famine of Bengal and some officials even tried to do this but it was the reluctance of Churchill that they could do nothing. Reportedly, when he first received a telegram from the British colonial authorities in New Delhi about the rising toll of famine deaths in Bengal, his reaction was simply that he regretted that nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi was not one of the victims. Later at a War Cabinet meeting, Churchill blamed the Indians themselves for the famine, saying that, ‘Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.” The Delhi Government sent a telegram to him painting a picture of the horrible devastation and the number of people who had died. His only response was, ‘Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’ This antipathy of Churchill towards India led millions of Indians to starve and nearly 3.5 million to perish.

 

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_famine_of_1943
  2. Churchills’ Secret War, Madhushree Mukerjee, pp.52-53, Tranquebar Press, 2010
  3. Ibid, pp.28-29
  4. Ibid, p.54
  5. Ibid, pp.104-05
  6. Ibid, p.110
  7. Ibid, pp.110-11
  8. Ibid, pp.111-12
  9. Ibid, pp.129-30
  10. Ibid, pp.143-44
  11. Ibid, pp.145-46
  12. Ibid, p.151
  13. Ibid, p.147
  14. Ibid, p.153
  15. Ibid, p.168
  16. Ibid, p.171
  17. Ibid, p.155
  18. Ibid, p.188
  19. Ibid, p.176
  20. Ibid, pp.176-77
  21. Ibid, pp.179-81
  22. Ibid, p.209
  23. Ibid, pp.131-32
  24. Ibid, p.211
  25. Ibid, p.240
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