Indian amnesia? “Dunkirk, the War, and the Amnesia of the Empire,” by Yasmin Khan. New York Times, 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 above 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 & Churchill—an 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. See also the Indian historian Zareer Masani: “Last Word on the Bengal Famine,” 2021.
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.
After the British left the government contained famines (1967, 1973, 1979, and 1987 in Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Gujarat respectively). That is greatly to India’s credit. Of course there was no global war going on. There were no Japanese submarines torpedoing cargo ships in the Bay of Bengal.
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 the Second World War, 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.
It is worth adding that the Indian Army was professional and volunteer, made up of those who chose it as a career, unlike conscripts from Britain who had no choice.
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….
Nearly three 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.