Bengal Famine: The Hottest of Churchill Debates

Bengal Famine: The Hottest of Churchill Debates

Bengal 1943-44

Most pop­u­lar by far: On both the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project web­site and this one, more read­er com­ment is engen­dered over Churchill’s role in the 1943 Ben­gal Famine than any oth­er sub­ject. A lot of it, pro and con, is by Indi­ans them­selves. This is under­stand­able. The food short­age that rav­aged Ben­gal in 1943-44 was the great­est human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis in India’s his­to­ry. Up to three mil­lion peo­ple died—5% of the province’s pop­u­la­tion. Pro­por­tion­al­ly, think 16 mil­lion Americans.

The book that start­ed the con­tro­ver­sy, Churchill’s Secret War, is now eight years old. Despite vast evi­dence to the con­trary, notably in Hillsdale’s The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Win­ston Churchill con­tin­ues to be blamed by the igno­rant who haven’t done their home­work. The crit­ics don’t say he caused the famine. They say he did noth­ing to help, and even hin­dered the help that was offered.

In real­i­ty, Churchill and the British War Cab­i­net did their lev­el best to alle­vi­ate Bengal’s plight. They con­sid­ered Cana­da, Iraq, Aus­tralia and the USA, with vary­ing options, for ship­ments of wheat and even bar­ley. Aus­tralia proved the largest source. In the end they eased the tragedy, thanks to Field Mar­shal Wavell, the Indi­an Viceroy Churchill had appointed.

His­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sion by calm voic­es is always wel­come, though increas­ing­ly scarce. Here is one such that makes some new points, pro and con. It is a 2018 com­ment on the 2015 Churchill Project arti­cle, “Did Churchill Cause the Ben­gal Famine?” 

This is not a rehash of the whole sto­ry, or facts already estab­lished. For that, please refer to the links at the bot­tom of this article.

Latest Case Against

The arti­cle,  “Did Churchill Cause the Ben­gal Famine?,” an Indi­an read­er writes, “implies that Win­ston Churchill was a sav­ior (again), in that he com­plete­ly and tru­ly believed that Indi­ans were worth sav­ing. If this was case please tell me why the Denial Pol­i­cy existed….

Don’t use the rea­son that he want­ed to allow the Japan­ese to not have food sup­plies. If you checked the col­o­niza­tion of Indone­sia by the Dutch, you’ll find that their scorched earth pol­i­cy did noth­ing to frus­trate the Japan­ese slight­ly and make the denizens of Indone­sia a liv­ing hell.

To all the posts show­ing the ben­e­fits that India gained of the colo­nial rule from the British, well that is no bet­ter than say­ing that tor­ture induces pain tol­er­ance. The idea of India, although prim­i­tive, did exist at the time. The uni­fi­ca­tion of the provinces would like­ly have occurred nat­u­ral­ly in a chang­ing world. Our own con­sti­tu­tion learned and impro­vised on oth­er people’s democ­ra­cy to cre­ate a bet­ter democ­ra­cy for India in general.

Indi­ans are very for­giv­ing of the past atroc­i­ties that occurred: famines (not just 1943), Jal­lian­wala Bagh (Amrit­sar Mas­sacre) the Rowlett Act, the 1857 mutiny. ‘Sci­en­tif­ic Forestry’ caused a major change and prob­lems for for­est vil­lages Edu­ca­tion: the cur­rent edu­ca­tion sys­tem in India focus­es major­ly on rote mem­o­riza­tion instead of con­cept learn­ing. This tech­nique is only use­ful for few but is applied to all. This sys­tem was intro­duced first by the British.

The only ways I feel that the British helped in any way are the removal of slav­ery and of Sati; and help­ing to remove of the caste sys­tem by let­ting Dal­its, such as the great B.R Ambed­kar, have an ene­my to focus on, allow­ing him become a major influ­ence on the cre­ation of the con­sti­tu­tion of India.


If all the British did was remove slav­ery and Sati, and dimin­ish the caste sys­tem, those were pret­ty big things.

But the arti­cle did not say Churchill was a sav­ior. It said he did not will­ful­ly exac­er­bate the cri­sis and moved every means avail­able to him to alle­vi­ate the Ben­gal famine. Iron­i­cal­ly, it was ulti­mate­ly end­ed by the Viceroy he had appointed.

If by “uni­fi­ca­tion” the read­er means a unit­ed India emerg­ing after inde­pen­dence, he great­ly under­rat­ed the vast divides among the many reli­gions and nation­al­i­ties. In 1926, over two decades before inde­pen­dence, Churchill wrote his wife:

Read­ing about India has depressed me for I see such ugly storms loom­ing up…. Mean­while we are hold­ing on to this vast Empire, from which we get noth­ing, amid the increas­ing abuse and crit­i­cism of the world, and our own peo­ple, and increas­ing hatred of the Indi­an pop­u­la­tion, who receive con­stant and dead­ly pro­pa­gan­da to which we can make no reply.…only a Mus­lim-major­i­ty state in the north­ern part of the Indi­an sub-con­ti­nent would pro­tect Mus­lim minor­i­ty rights if and when the British left.

It is fair to men­tion the British Raj’s abo­li­tion of slav­ery and Sati. (“The ladies went to their deaths with dig­ni­ty, in the man­ner of a cel­e­bra­tion,” reads one account of the lat­ter.) And Britain tried to break down the caste sys­tem. Yes, there were atroc­i­ties. Churchill railed against them, like Jal­lian­wala Bagh (Amrit­sar) in 1919, demand­ing the per­pe­tra­tors be pun­ished. His ear­ly objec­tions to Gand­hi were over fear of Brah­min dom­i­na­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly over the Dal­its. Yet in 1935 he said Gand­hi “has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables.”

Case for the Defense

In 1944 Churchill told Sir Arcot Ramasamay Mudaliar, India’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the War Cab­i­net that “the old idea that the Indi­an was in any way infe­ri­or to the white man must go.” Specif­i­cal­ly he said: “We must all be pals togeth­er. I want to see a great shin­ing India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Cana­da or a great Australia.” **

These are not the remarks of a white suprema­cist, but a man who exalt­ed above all, despite his impe­ri­al­ist upbring­ing, the rule of law under a just constitution—inspired in India’s case by Britain’s. That was anoth­er good thing the old Raj left in its wake.

It is true that the “Denial Pol­i­cy” (deny­ing rice and sea trans­port to Japan­ese invaders of Bur­ma). was a fac­tor in the Ben­gal famine. But the destruc­tive weath­er and sub­se­quent hoard­ing were much greater prob­lems. It should be obvi­ous to any fair-mind­ed per­son that the invad­ing Japan­ese had far less benign inten­tions for a con­quered India than the old British Raj. War is hell—which is why nations spend so much of their effort try­ing to avoid it.

** Duff Hart-Davis, ed., King’s Coun­sel­lor: Abdi­ca­tion and War: the Diaries of Sir Alan Las­celles (Lon­don: Wei­den­feld & Nicol­son, 2006), 173.

Further Reading

Please see and con­sid­er the facts of the mat­ter, and the truth:

“Chastis­ing Churchill,” by the Indi­an schol­ar Zareer Masani.

“Absent Churchill, Bengal’s Famine Would Have Been Worse,” by Arthur Her­man, author of Gand­hi and Churchill.

“Indi­ans are Get­ting Post-Truth His­to­ry,” by Andrew Roberts at the Jaipur Lit­er­ary Festival.

9 thoughts on “Bengal Famine: The Hottest of Churchill Debates

  1. Dear Sayan­tani Gup­ta: Those are valid points. On the first, please read Abi­jit Sarkar’s “The Effects of Race and Caste on Relief in the Ben­gal Famine.” An abstract with links is on the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project website.
    I referred your com­ments to Dr. Tirthankar Roy, who has also writ­ten on these mat­ters. He writes:

    Suhrawardy was direct­ly respon­si­ble for food pro­cure­ment and sup­ply in famine-hit Ben­gal. He was the most pow­er­ful mem­ber of the Cab­i­net in the elect­ed Ben­gal gov­ern­ment. In prin­ci­ple, he could influ­ence the fed­er­al admin­is­tra­tion to nego­ti­ate food sup­plies from the rest of India. He not only did not do that until very late; he con­sis­tent­ly denied that there was a famine in Ben­gal, against the advice and insis­tence of senior bureau­crats serv­ing under him. I read a semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece by one of these offi­cers and Suhrawardy’s arro­gance makes for dis­turb­ing reading.

    We do not know why he fol­lowed this line. The per­son who made the com­ment sug­gests a “com­mu­nal slant.” Suhrawardy did advo­cate the cre­ation of an East Pak­istan, and prac­ticed com­mu­nal pol­i­tics, as many Hin­dus and Mus­lims did in the 1940s. Part of this pol­i­tics was the claim that the Hin­du mer­chants were hoard­ing grain and the poor Mus­lim peas­ants and work­ers suf­fered star­va­tion. Suhrawardy said that, but we do not know if he real­ly believed it. When raids on grain stocks were made, lit­tle was dis­cov­ered. Anoth­er expla­na­tion is that he saw him­self as an ally of the British-run fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, whose main com­mit­ment was the war, not wel­fare of the Ben­galis. He did active­ly help in the war effort, but lat­er got into quar­rels with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, blam­ing it for the famine and being blamed in turn for corruption.

    What is absolute­ly clear through all this is that Win­ston Churchill had lit­tle direct respon­si­bil­i­ty in the mat­ter of food sup­plies to Ben­gal, and those who did have that respon­si­bil­i­ty escaped a seri­ous scruti­ny in the cur­rent sen­sa­tion­al­ist writ­ings about the famine – led by Mad­hus­ree Mukherjee’s book. [Reviewed by Arthur Her­man here.]

    I also for­ward­ed your note to Dr. Zareer Masani who agrees and writes: “It might be worth adding that Hin­du mer­chants were equal­ly blamed for hoard­ing and spec­u­la­tion and for with­hold­ing sup­plies out of Con­gress sym­pa­thies. Reports to Churchill would have been via Del­hi Viceroy, not Ben­gal governor.”

  2. I think there are areas here which need con­sid­er­ably more research. One is the dubi­ous role of Hus­sein Suhrawardy, Food and Civ­il Sup­plies Min­is­ter in the Mus­lim League gov­ern­ment in Ben­gal in 1943. In 1946 he was large­ly respon­si­ble for insti­gat­ing the Cal­cut­ta Riots. There are oral his­to­ry records with­in my own fam­i­ly about the com­mu­nal slant to the dis­tri­b­u­tion of food sup­plies which fur­ther wors­ened the sit­u­a­tion. The oth­er point is the rea­son for the pol­i­cy fail­ures of the British Ben­gal Gov­er­nor. To what extent was this an influ­enc­ing of the League gov­ern­ment? Was Churchill giv­en the right feed­back by the same author­i­ty? Giv­en the fact that even now Churchill us being demonised as the cre­ator of the unfor­tu­nate deaths of the Ben­gal Famine of 1943, these are ques­tions urgent­ly in need of addressing.

  3. There are no “apol­o­gists” ref­er­enced here, rather schol­ars inter­est­ed in the truth. No one should pre­sume they have no fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence of the tragedy because many of them are Indi­an. (2) Even in the British Raj, provinces were ruled by elect­ed local gov­ern­ments formed by demo­c­ra­t­ic process. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, rival­ries and con­flict exist­ed, as Dr. Tirthankar Roy writes: The Min­is­ter of Civ­il Sup­plies, Hus­sein Suhrawardy, was “an aggres­sive cam­paign­er for the no-short­age the­o­ry,” which his gov­ern­ment con­veyed to Lon­don. The econ­o­mist Amartya Sen argued that the famine was exac­er­bat­ed by Ben­gali government’s inac­cu­rate claims of ade­qua­cy more than a bad har­vest. Oth­er schol­ars, like Omkar Goswani and Mufakharul Islam, coun­tered that the har­vest was a greater fac­tor. Dr. Roy adds that the Ben­gal gov­ern­ment also failed to send food “to the region inter­nal­ly, where there was no famine. The real ques­tion is why this didn’t hap­pen, rather than what Churchill did.”

    (3) The Sec­re­tary of State for India wise­ly saw the short­ages build­ing and request­ed food assis­tance because it was his job. (4) In wartime, all media was cen­sored. Those who blithe­ly sug­gest that gov­ern­ments who failed the peo­ple should have done bet­ter seem to for­get that there was a world war on. As Churchill said, wars are “main­ly a cat­a­logue of blun­ders” and “tales of muddle.” 

    (5) Churchill’s appeal to Amer­i­ca was among his last actions to relieve the short­age, In Octo­ber 1942 Churchill told the new Viceroy: “The hard pres­sures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought con­di­tions of scarci­ty, verg­ing in some local­i­ties into actu­al famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diver­sion of ship­ping urgent­ly need­ed for war pur­pos­es, to deal with local shortages.” 

    Churchill then added: “Every effort should be made by you to assuage the strife between the Hin­dus and Moslems and to induce them to work togeth­er for the com­mon good. No form of demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­ern­ment can flour­ish in India while so many mil­lions are by their birth exclud­ed from those fun­da­men­tal rights of equal­i­ty between man and man, upon which all healthy human soci­eties must stand.” Does that sound like a racist com­mit­ting delib­er­ate maleficence? 

    (6) Tirthankar Roy (Para­dox of the Raj) notes that famines, com­mon in the 19th cen­tu­ry, were unknown in the 20th up to 1943. Rea­sons includ­ed the 1880 Famine Com­mis­sion col­lect­ing data on weath­er and crops and issu­ing time­ly warn­ings; the cen­sus and reg­is­ters of vital sta­tis­tics; and improved rail trans­port and infra­struc­ture. All these improve­ments were installed by British and Indi­ans alike. 

    It might be well to read the works of Dr. Roy, Omkar Goswani, Hus­sein Suhrawardy and Mufakharul Islam and get a prop­er grip on a tragedy whose caus­es are still debat­ed today. Also kind­ly read Zareer Masani, biog­ra­ph­er of Indi­ra Gand­hi: “Churchill a War Crim­i­nal? Get Your His­to­ry Right.”

    None of these gen­tle­men were or are whites, let alone suprema­cists. Of course it’s hard­er to read a book than to retread a Tweet.

  4. I can’t imag­ine the deprav­i­ty of those who sit in their com­fort­able stud­ies deny­ing the lived expe­ri­ence of thou­sands who were so cal­lous­ly den­i­grat­ed and destroyed. (2) The apol­o­gists here appear to be argu­ing that Churchill and Lon­don weren’t aware of the famine in India because “the Ben­galis them­selves” told the War Cab­i­net they had enough food. Which Ben­galis were these? (3) Why, in that case, was Churchill’s own Sec­re­tary of State for India pass­ing along requests for food assis­tance in Feb­ru­ary 1943? (4) What about the assid­u­ous cen­sor­ship of Bengal’s media, that oblit­er­at­ed any accounts doc­u­ment­ing the famine? If the famine was nat­ur­al, and being respond­ed to by the rul­ing impe­r­i­al gov­ern­ment, why the need for cen­sor­ship? (5) You cite let­ters writ­ten belat­ed­ly in 1944 ask­ing for help to the Amer­i­cans as evi­dence of Churchill’s con­cern. That he wait­ed until 1944 rather but­tress­es the argu­ment of his delib­er­ate malef­i­cence. This hor­ren­dous famine killed three mil­lion or more Indi­ans, utter­ly destroy­ing fam­i­lies and liveli­hoods. (6) It is not the only famine caused by Britons dur­ing the colo­nial peri­od, but it is the most recent, and with­in liv­ing memory. 

  5. Amman Mer­chant replies:

    Arthur Her­man writes: “Yet in peace­time, the Raj always han­dled famines with effi­cien­cy.” Of course the British Famine Codes led to the Raj build­ing up a com­pre­hen­sive relief infra­struc­ture, nev­er seen before. As Dr Roy says in his book: “First, the open econ­o­my that the regime spon­sored deliv­ered two extra­or­di­nary ben­e­fits to the Indi­ans: it stim­u­lat­ed busi­ness and reduced deaths from dis­eases and famines.” Before the Raj, India was a land rav­aged with famine, and relief was at best palliative.

    Gandhi’s view was sur­pris­ing to say the least. Thank you for that. I whole­heart­ed­ly agree with WSC, a shame peo­ple didn’t listen.

  6. Dear Mr. Mer­chant: Dr. Roy con­firms what many his­to­ri­ans have con­clud­ed, that fight­ing a war for sur­vival had to take pri­or­i­ty. But I hadn’t read before that the Ben­galis them­selves told the War Cab­i­net there was no short­age of food. Per­haps they were allud­ing to the hoard­ing of grain by Ben­gali mer­chants hold­ing out for high­er prices? 

    Such a claim is not men­tioned in doc­u­ments of Cab­i­net dis­cus­sions on the famine. Nor are there any requests for aid from Con­gress lead­ers. Gand­hi him­self took a remark­ably detached view of the tragedy. From Arthur Herman’s review of the book Churchill’s Secret War:

    The issue bare­ly comes up in [Gandhi’s] let­ters, except as anoth­er griev­ance against the Raj. Yet in peace­time, the Raj always han­dled famines with effi­cien­cy. In Feb­ru­ary 1944 Gand­hi wrote to Wavell: “I know that mil­lions out­side are starv­ing for want of food. But I should feel utter­ly help­less if I went out and missed the food [i.e. inde­pen­dence] by which alone liv­ing becomes worthwhile.”

    Churchill was always reluc­tant to deal with or trust Con­gress as the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Indi­an peo­ple. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, in research­ing Churchill’s views on the Armen­ian geno­cide, I came across this speech on India in the Com­mons on 12 Sep­tem­ber 1946 (Com­plete Speech­es, VII, 7412-13):

    The sec­ond point to which I would like to draw the atten­tion of the House is the car­di­nal error of His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment when, on 12 August, they invit­ed one sin­gle Indi­an par­ty, the Con­gress Par­ty, hav­ing made oth­er efforts, to nom­i­nate all the mem­bers of the Viceroy’s Coun­cil. There­by they pre­cip­i­tat­ed a series of mas­sacres over wide regions, unpar­al­leled in India since the Indi­an Mutiny of 1857…. What hap­pened in Bihar casts into the shade the Armen­ian atroc­i­ties with which Mr. Glad­stone once stirred the moral sense of Lib­er­al Britain. We are, of course, cau­terised by all that we our­selves have passed through. Our fac­ul­ty for won­der is rup­tured, our fac­ul­ty for hor­ror is numbed; the world is full of mis­ery and hatred.

  7. Amman Mer­chant writes: Dr. Tirthankar Roy is a pro­fes­sor in Eco­nom­ic His­to­ry at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. Quot­ing from his lat­est book, How British Rule Changed India, on the Ben­gal Famine, page 130.

    Churchill’s Secret War (2010) lays the blame at the door of Lon­don. It says that Win­ston Churchill held racist views about Indi­ans which pre­vent­ed Britain from sup­ply­ing enough relief to Ben­gal in time. As polit­i­cal his­to­ry, the argu­ment is naive. There is lit­tle evi­dence that Churchill’s per­son­al views about Indi­ans influ­enced the poli­cies of the War Cabinet.

    With Japan’s entry into the war and the fall of Sin­ga­pore in Feb­ru­ary 1942, the British Empire’s resources were a crit­i­cal asset for Britain to fight a war that stretched from Europe to North Africa to Asia. A poten­tial obsta­cle to using this resource was the local nation­al­ist movement.

    The con­text for almost every­thing [Churchill] said about Indi­ans and the Empire was relat­ed to the Indi­an nation­al­ist move­ment. Nego­ti­at­ing with the Indi­an nation­al­ists dur­ing the war could be point­less and dan­ger­ous because the mod­er­ate nation­al­ists were demor­al­ized by dis­sen­sion and the rad­i­cal nation­al­ists want­ed the Axis Pow­ers to win on the East­ern Front. Racist or not, no Prime Min­is­ter would be will­ing to fight a war and nego­ti­ate with the nation­al­ists at the same time. What has any of that to do with the famine? Very little.

    The War Cab­i­net did not divert enough ships from the the­atres of war to Ben­gal or order India to divert army rations to feed­ing peo­ple because the Cab­i­net believed what the Ben­galis told it: there was no short­age of food in Ben­gal. The Cab­i­net took deci­sions in the knowl­edge that the axis pow­ers were sink­ing one ship every day and had sunk around a mil­lion tons of ship­ping in 1942.

    The regions where rice might be avail­able were the most dan­ger­ous waters to enter. Army rations were already reduced. Fur­ther cuts could risk a mutiny.

    Final­ly we have anoth­er schol­ar, this time an expert (who research­es this area and whose books are stan­dard works) who blunt­ly states the truth and doesn’t mince words.

  8. The Churchill smear in that arti­cle is I think too insignif­i­cant to war­rant a reply, but the author does put one in mind of some­thing Churchill said about Richard Cross­man MP (14 July 1954}: “The Hon. Mem­ber is nev­er lucky in the coin­ci­dence of his facts with the truth.”

  9. Once again the same tired old post-truth his­to­ry about Sir Win­ston presents itself in a ridicu­lous arti­cle in The New York Times.

    At least this one doesn’t direct­ly accuse him of genocide. 

    Although the writer is at pains to empha­size that Sir Win­ston (b.1874) was a racist which clear­ly shows his agen­da, by his stan­dard even Gand­hi should be con­demned for his racism.

    Please read the arti­cle and point out the lies spewed by this author. (As some­one who doesn’t sup­port Brex­it, I admit that it is the Remain­ers who are obsessed about with Empire 2.0—and Empire in general).

    The writer engages in coun­ter­fac­tu­als with regard to the uni­fi­ca­tion of India and heav­i­ly down­plays British achieve­ments, which even Indi­an nation­al­ists at the time laud­ed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.