“Why Hasn’t Gandhi Died Yet?” Another Churchill Non-quotation

“Why Hasn’t Gandhi Died Yet?” Another Churchill Non-quotation

“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.

More evidence

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

Further reading

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

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