New Delhi: Several actions of war-time
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's government had
directly and inevitably led to the death of some three million
Indians in the 1943 famine, argues a new book.
"Churchill's Secret War" by physicist-turned-researcher
Madhusree Mukherjee, which investigates unexamined parts of
the statesman's records, provides evidence of how the Prime
Minister and his advisors chose to use the resources of India
to wage war against Germany and Japan, which caused food
scarcity and inflation in the empire.
Also, says the author, the deprivation and anarchy of
the era had torn the fabric of India's society and Churchill's
efforts to retain the colony by means of divide and rule also
contributed to partition.
The book notes that Churchill had a profound contempt of
native Indians especially Mahatma Gandhi who for him came to
represent a "malignant subversive fanatic" and a "thoroughly
evil force." He had remarked in a conversation, "I hate
Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."
After the capture of Burma by Japan, the British
destroyed majority of boats and bullock carts in Bengal to
prevent them from falling into Japanese hands in case of an
invasion. They also started stockpiling food for soldiers
which resulted in soaring prices of rice.
Mukherjee quotes British Army officer Clive Branson's
account of his arrival in Bengal. "One long trail of starving
people...I saw women -- almost fleshless skeletons."
The author cites War Ministry records and personal papers
that show ships carrying cereals to the Mediterranean from
Australia bypassed India. Mukherjee also delves into Secretary
of State for India Leopold S Amery's personal diary whose
papers were opened to the public in 1997.
Contemporary historian Ramachandra Guha says, "In her
book, Madhusree writes evocatively of how hunger and rebellion
in rural Bengal was a product of cynicism and callousness in
In 1947, Winston Churchill hired a team of researchers
and "ghost-writers" to formulate the definitive history of
World War II, the book says. As historian David Reynolds has
detailed, the treatise was in actuality a memoir of epic
proportions, one which fell victim to a selective memory.
The Bengal famine received but a fleeting mention in a
document that happened to make it into an appendix. Despite
their distortions, the six massive volumes became the primary
reference for a generation of historians -- which may explain
why the famine is almost totally absent from the tens of
thousands of tomes written about the war since then.
The famine commission which began secret hearings in July
1944 would elucidate all the local factors that had led to the
catastrophe and avoid every lead that had pointed back at
London, the book claims.
Hints of a cover-up are there in Amery's diaries which,
says the author, do not have any mention about the scorched
earth and in his papers the pertinent correspondence with
India are missing. In the minutes of a meeting of the Chiefs
of Staff available on microfilm at the National Archives of
UK, a section dealing with shipping to India is blacked out.
It appears that the famine commission suppressed the
results of a government-sponsored survey on famine mortality.
Instead it provided its own estimate of the death toll -- a
figure that still remains controversial.
Demographers Tim Dyson and Arup Maharatna noted a
peculiar pattern in the registration data for West Bengal.
During the years 1941 to 1946, the proportion of deaths in
certain districts remained exactly the same, a sign that the
numbers could have been manufactured.
Diverse authors have applied equally diverse correction
to the raw numbers to obtain other estimates. Economist
Amartya Sen took the registered deaths for West Bengal,
extended them to East Pakistan and applied the corrections to
get around the three million famine toll.
"Among the sources of inspiration and information are
noted author Mahasweta Devi who described the famine to me in
awful details," says the author.
"Madhusree has dug up the most pulsating and upsetting
recollections of my teenage... in the convincing critique she
brings to light how starvation deaths have been brought about
by a domineering power, be it that of Hitler or Churchill and
not by nature," says 85-year-old Mahasweta Devi.
Other sources for the author have been newspaper reports
published at that time as well as common people whose accounts
had prodded her to dig further.
The Frankfurt-based author says it took her close to
eight years to finish the book. "I was starting from scratch,
as I knew no history and had to read up about colonial
economics, famine, the Bengal famine, before I even knew which
questions to pose."
"After I realised that the answers lay in the UK, I
studied wartime shipping and economics and pinpointed the
archives that were likely to be able to fill in the gaps. I
had no idea that the colonial period was so exploitative....It
was devastating for the poor, however, and that I did not know
about," the author told PTI from Germany.
"I think Churchill was larger than life. Everything he
did, he did on a grand scale.
"During the war he was very unbalanced, excessively
passionate, in his feelings about India. He had a lifelong
tendency to get carried away by whatever project his mind was
on. At the time he should have sent famine relief to Bengal,
he was determined to fight Germans in the Balkans. That
preoccupation, combined with his hostility to Indians, led him
to deny relief," Mukherjee feels.
First Published: Sunday, September 12, 2010, 20:26