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