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.
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.