“Why Hasn’t Gandhi Died Yet?” is excerpted from an article for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the unabridged text including endnotes, please click here. To subscribe to articles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is never given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Mr. Gandhi: another myth exploded
For many years Churchill’s view of India has been distorted, quoted out of context or based on hearsay. The Prime Minister’s attitude toward Mohandas Gandhi is part of this demonology. Now Hira Jungkow, an Indian student at the London School of Economics, has blown away another lie—one of the more despicable. It is that Churchill wished Gandhi dead as a casualty of the 1943 Bengal Famine. Mr. Gandhi certainly raised Churchill’s hackles on many occasions. But wishing he would starve to death is not in the record.
In a 2021 interview with one of Churchill’s foremost defenders, Andrew Roberts, The New Yorker raised this old canard: “It is just striking to read about Churchill being alerted to the massive number of deaths of Indians in territory that his government ruled, and asking questions like why Gandhi hadn’t died—which he hoped for—if things were so bad.” (The bad things were food shortages and famine in Bengal.)
Research however indicates Churchill didn’t say that. And what he did say was not in context of the Bengal Famine. After reading the New Yorker interview, Mr. Jungkow did the research and published his findings, which are summarized and amplified below. Why didn’t The New Yorker?
Why Gandhi hadn’t died yet
In September 1943 Churchill appointed Field Marshal Archibald Wavell Viceroy of India. Arthur Herman noted the irony: Churchill, long blamed for ignoring it, had appointed the very man “who would halt the famine in its tracks.”
Wavell’s and Churchill’s actions to ease the famine are explained elsewhere. We focus here only on the specific misrepresentation of Churchill in two frequently quoted books. Both cite Wavell’s diary from July 1944: “Winston sent me a peevish telegram to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet! He has never answered my telegram about food.”
Wavell did write this, but it was not a quote—and fairly peevish itself. Why don’t the critics publish what Churchill actually said? Here it is:
Surely Mr. Gandhi has made a most remarkable recovery, as he is already able to take an active part in politics. How does this square with the medical reports upon which his release on grounds of ill-health was agreed to by us? In one of these we were told that he would not be able to take any part in politics again.
Wavell replied that Gandhi was released from detention because it was thought he was near death, but he “can hardly be said to have resumed an active part in politics yet.” Wavell added: “His release has not worsened [the] situation on the whole and I am clear it was right and justified.” Churchill did not contest this, and the correspondence ended.
“He has never answered my telegram about food”
Mr. Jungkow did not investigate Wavell’s complaint that Churchill hadn’t answered him about food, but that has a qualification too. Published documents reveal that Wavell’s requests for food mainly went to Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India. It is odd that Amery, often described as India’s sympathizer, did so little himself to ease the Famine. It was a lot less than Churchill and Wavell. And Amery’s diaries, laced with nasty Churchill hearsay about Indians, are full of Amery’s (but not Churchill’s) racial pejoratives.
This misrepresentation is peculiar in its timing: July 1944, when the Famine was easing. In January Bengal received 130,000 tons of Iraqi barley, 80,000 tons of Australian wheat (with 100,000 more to come), 10,000 from Canada. Wavell wanted more, so on 14 February, Churchill called an emergency meeting of the War Cabinet. Could they find more grain without wrecking plans for D-Day? In April, Churchill declared that “his sympathy was great for the sufferings of the people of India.” The War Cabinet referred him to Roosevelt. No, said the President. D-Day and the Pacific had stretched U.S. shipping too thin.
Churchill kept at it, wrote Zareer Masani. “By the end of 1944 Wavell’s much-requested one million additional tons had been secured from Australia and the allied South East Asia Command…” Churchill’s actual words to Wavell referred to Mr. Gandhi’s “fasts to death,” not the Famine.
Lots of blame to go round
Another prominent figure never questioned for ignoring the famine is Gandhi himself. “For all his reputation as a humanitarian,” wrote Arthur Herman,
Gandhi did remarkably little about the emergency. The issue barely comes up in his letters, except as another grievance against the Raj. Yet in peacetime throughout the 20th century, 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.” Gandhi felt free to conduct his private “fast unto death” even as the rest of India starved.
Leo Amery, however little he’d done to help, was still full of advice as the famine ended. Acknowledging “His Majesty’s Government’s help over food grains,” he advised Churchill: “…you may say that you cried wolf unnecessarily to [Roosevelt], and you may wish to send him a personal telegram explaining that the additional 200,000 tons has only been found by a drastic cutting down of our military maintenance provision….”
Churchill was not willing to carry Amery’s bleat to the President. “I do not propose to send a personal telegram on this,” he wrote on Amery’s note. Will you be so kind as to explain the matter to the State Department, quoting my personal [appeal] to the President as the key?” It would appear that Amery, like Wavell, expected the Prime Minister to attend every detail of the famine problem personally.
Printed War Cabinet Paper, note by the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence [WSC] on “India” (9 October 1943) with a copy of a “Directive to the Viceroy Designate” [Lord Wavell] by WSC (8 October). Subjects of the directive include the need for India to be a “safe and fertile base” for the British and United States offensive against Japan in 1944; famine in India and the need to make every effort to deal with local shortages, stop grain hoarding and ensure a fair distribution of food between town and country; the gap between rich and poor needing examination; that [Wavell] should make every effort to ease tension between Hindus and Muslims and encourage them to work together, as a democratic government can not work without equality.
Wavell’s main aims should be to defend the frontiers of India, appease communal differences, rally all sections of society to support the war effort, and maintain the best possible standard of living for the largest number of people; and the British Government’s commitment to establishing a self-governing India as part of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations. —Notes by the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge
Arthur Herman, “Absent Churchill, the Bengal Famine Would Have Been Worse,” 2017
Zareer Masani, “Churchill and the Genocide Myth: Last Word on the Bengal Famine,” 2021
Richard M. Langworth, “Hearsay Doesn’t Count: The Truth about Churchill’s ‘Racist Epithets,’” 2020