“Amnesia” or Fantasy? The Indian Contribution in World War II

“Amnesia” or Fantasy? The Indian Contribution in World War II

Indi­an amne­sia? “Dunkirk, the War, and the Amne­sia of the Empire,” by Yas­min Khan. New York Times Opin­ion page, 2 August 2017.


We should be grate­ful to Pro­fes­sor Yas­min Khan. Why? Because in deplor­ing the absence of Indi­an troops in the new movie Dunkirk, and the trag­ic 1943 Ben­gal famine, she blames “the impe­r­i­al state,” not the usu­al cul­prit, Win­ston Churchill:

At least three mil­lion Ben­galis died in a cat­a­stroph­ic famine in 1943, a famine that is almost nev­er dis­cussed. The famine’s caus­es were a byprod­uct of the war, but as Mad­hus­ree Muk­er­jee has proved in her book Churchill’s Secret War, the impe­r­i­al state also failed to deliv­er relief. Many sol­diers signed up as vol­un­teers to fill their belly.*

*Curi­ous­ly, the link sup­plied is a semi-cri­tique in Harpers, itself a mix­ture of truth and coun­ter­fac­tu­als. For a bal­anced review of Churchill’s Secret War, see Arthur Her­man, “Absent Churchill, India’s 1943 Famine Would Have Been Worse.”

(Arthur Her­man was nom­i­nat­ed for a Pulitzer for his book Gand­hi & Churchillan ele­gant account of the two lead­ers. It cap­tures both Churchill’s gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it and Gandhi’s great­ness of soul.)

An endless supply of victims…

Yes, the film leaves out Indi­an troops at Dunkirk. But why stop there in the quest for vic­tims? The film omits the Cana­di­ans. It doesn’t show one Bel­gian. Except for a cou­ple of nurs­es, it leaves out women. (A gal­lant band of female tele­phon­ists of the Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Ser­vice were among the last off the beach­es. Hero­ic women were in some of the res­cue craft. Oth­ers worked 24/7 in Admi­ral Ram­say‘s Dover bunker, which direct­ed the operation.)

If we are going to accuse Britons of “amne­sia” over the Indi­an war effort, we ought at least to grasp the facts. Like Prof. Khan, we begin with the 1943 Ben­gal Famine. Arthur Her­man was right: with­out Churchill and his cab­i­net, it would have been worse. 

Churchill mined his resources for Indi­an food supplies—amidst glob­al con­flict, strained ship­ping, hos­tile U-boats, and short­ages every­where. He even tried to sub­sti­tute Iraqi bar­ley, which Indi­ans wouldn’t eat. In vain he plead­ed for help from Roo­sevelt. He got much from Aus­tralia. Not all of Australia’s grain ships bypassed India, as the author of Churchill’s Secret War has stated.

To tell the truth…

It is quite untrue that “the impe­r­i­al state failed to deliv­er relief.” The oppo­site is the case. Vast sup­plies of grain reached Indi­an ports. There are oth­er vil­lains in the sto­ry. The Japan­ese seem always to escape blame—yet their inroads into Bur­ma and India had much to do with the short­ages. So did hoard­ing by Indi­an grain mer­chants. Before accus­ing “the Impe­r­i­al state” of starv­ing the Ben­galis, one ought to con­sid­er more than one dis­cred­it­ed book.

The famine is not “almost nev­er dis­cussed.” The evi­dence is there for any researcher to con­sid­er. See for exam­ple “Did Churchill Cause the Ben­gal Famine?” (Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project). Review the proof itself  in Hillsdale’s The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Vol­ume 19 (scroll this link to “Ben­gal Famine”).  Read Arthur Herman’s Finest Hour arti­cle. Con­sult “Churchill and the Ben­gal Famine” on this site. The record is clear. Again and again and again.

Churchill on Indian contributions

Since Prof. Khan is con­cerned about British “amne­sia” over Indi­an con­tri­bu­tions in World War II, per­haps this will enlight­en her. Author Muk­er­jee often quotes Churchill’s post­war asser­tion: “India was car­ried through the strug­gle on the shoul­ders of our small island.” That quote is bad­ly trun­cat­ed. Pray con­sid­er the full con­text. (Chap­ter XII, The Hinge of Fate, 1951):

British Gov­ern­ment offi­cials in India were wont to con­sid­er it a point of hon­our to cham­pi­on the par­tic­u­lar inter­ests of India against those of Great Britain when­ev­er a diver­gence occurred…. Con­tracts were fixed in India at extrav­a­gant rates, and debts incurred in inflat­ed rupees were con­vert­ed into so-called “ster­ling bal­ances” at the pre-war rate of exchange…. we were being charged near­ly a mil­lion pounds a day for defend­ing India from the mis­eries of inva­sion which so many oth­er lands endured. We fin­ished the war, from all the worst sever­i­ties of which they were spared, owing them a debt almost as large as that on which we default­ed to the Unit­ed States after the pre­vi­ous struggle.

In Victory, Magnanimity

Churchill’s mag­na­nim­i­ty will out. Those who accuse him of racist dis­re­gard for the Indi­an peo­ple might look at what he writes next. Think about it:

But all this is only the back­ground upon which the glo­ri­ous hero­ism and mar­tial qual­i­ties of the Indi­an troops who fought in the Mid­dle East, who defend­ed Egypt, who lib­er­at­ed Abyssinia, who played a grand part in Italy, and who, side by side with their British com­rades, expelled the Japan­ese from Bur­ma…. The loy­al­ty of the Indi­an Army to the King-Emper­or, the proud fideli­ty to their treaties of the Indi­an Princes, the unsur­passed brav­ery of Indi­an sol­diers and offi­cers, both Moslem and Hin­du, shine for ever in the annals of war….

Upwards of two and a half mil­lion Indi­ans vol­un­teered to serve in the forces, and by 1942 an Indi­an Army of one mil­lion was in being, and vol­un­teers were com­ing in at the month­ly rate of fifty thou­sand…. the response of the Indi­an peo­ples, no less than the con­duct of their sol­diers, makes a glo­ri­ous final page in the sto­ry of our Indi­an Empire.

6 thoughts on ““Amnesia” or Fantasy? The Indian Contribution in World War II

  1. The film “Dunkirk” was quite sur­re­al in oth­er ways. Any news­reel or pho­to of WW2 shows many sol­diers with a cig­a­rette hang­ing out of their mouths…and as for the pris­tine beach­es! There are a few min­utes of the Dunkirk beach­es shown in the film “Atone­ment” (2007) which are far more real­is­tic and cap­ture the mood of despair over the whole shambles.

  2. Thank you for your con­stant vig­i­lance in pro­tect­ing Win­ston Churchill’s good name from those who con­tin­u­al­ly seek to besmirch it.

  3. Any­one who fought against Nazi oppres­sion is to be applaud­ed. So many died to stop one man try­ing to change the world; imag­ine what it would have been like if he had achieved his ambi­tion. But now we have new prob­lems, which could solve all earth­ly mat­ters by a cat­a­stroph­ic nuclear exchange, turn­ing the earth into a burnt out plan­et hurtling away into obliv­ion. Been there done that. I am 93 years old and have peeped into the future. World War II was a pic­nic com­pare with what the next World War would be like.

  4. I like your pre­sen­ta­tion with sig­nif­i­cant quotes set off in shad­ed box­es. This is an ide­al way to height­en visu­al aware­ness and pro­vide ease of read­ing. So much bet­ter for a web page than using quo­ta­tion marks or indentation.

  5. My grand­fa­ther proud­ly served with the Dins in the 27th Divi­sion dur­ing the Great War, or Cogadh Mor as he called it. As not­ed, over a mil­lion Indi­an sol­diers vol­un­teered for WW1 and over two mil­lion for WW2. In the lat­ter, most fought in Africa and lat­er Sici­ly and Italy and the Far East. Dur­ing WW1, Indi­an troops fought in the Balka­ns, Egypt, Pales­tine and Mesopotamia. Churchill nev­er for­got this vast con­tri­bu­tion. The major­i­ty were Sikhs and the Sikh and Gurkha reg­i­ments, as respect­ed and trust­ed as the best High­land or Cana­di­an reg­i­ments. My grand­fa­ther was of the opin­ion that Britain would have lost the First World War with­out Indi­an sup­port before the entry of the USA.

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