Bengal Famine: The Hottest of Churchill Diatribes

Bengal Famine: The Hottest of Churchill Diatribes

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.

Response

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 1943 Churchill told Sir Arcot Ramasamay Mudaliar, India’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the War Cab­i­net: “The old idea that the Indi­an was in any way infe­ri­or to the white man must go. 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.

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.

5 thoughts on “Bengal Famine: The Hottest of Churchill Diatribes

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.

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