Churchill and 3M Famine Deaths in Bengal in 1943

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 11/23/2010 12:07:00 AM
It's the debate that just won't go away: being a wartime prime minister, was Winston Churchill culpable in the death of 3 million Bengali subjects of the British Empire in 1943? A new book by Madhusree Mukerjee suggests the answer is in the affirmative. TIME has a book review of Churchill's Secret War:
In 1943, some 3 million brown-skinned subjects of the Raj died in the Bengal famine, one of history's worst. Mukerjee delves into official documents and oral accounts of survivors to paint a horrifying portrait of how Churchill, as part of the Western war effort, ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia. And he did so with a churlishness that cannot be excused on grounds of policy: Churchill's only response to a telegram from the government in Delhi about people perishing in the famine was to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet.

As Mukerjee's accounts demonstrate, some of India's grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same hardship; Australian wheat sailed past Indian cities (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. And because the British government paid inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies, grain became unaffordable for ordinary Indians. Lord Wavell, appointed Viceroy of India that fateful year, considered the Churchill government's attitude to India "negligent, hostile and contemptuous..."

Mukerjee's prose is all the more devastating because she refuses to voice the outrage most readers will feel on reading her exhaustively researched, footnoted facts. The way in which Britain's wartime financial arrangements and requisitioning of Indian supplies laid the ground for famine; the exchanges between the essentially decent Amery and the bumptious Churchill; the racism of Churchill's odious aide, paymaster general Lord Cherwell, who denied India famine relief and recommended most of the logistical decisions that were to cost so many lives — all are described in a compelling narrative.
Naturally, the Churchill Centre would most strenuously demur:
We asked author [of Gandi & Churchill Arthur] Herman to elaborate. He writes: “The idea that Churchill was in any way ‘responsible’ or ‘caused’ the Bengal famine is of course absurd. The real cause was the fall of Burma to the Japanese, which cut off India's main supply of rice imports when domestic sources fell short, which they did in Eastern Bengal after a devastating cyclone in mid-October 1942. It is true that Churchill opposed diverting food supplies and transports from other theaters to India to cover the shortfall: this was wartime. Some of his angry remarks to Amery don't read very nicely in retrospect. However, anyone who has been through the relevant documents reprinted in The [India] Transfer of Power volumes knows the facts:

"Churchill was concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe taking place there, and he pushed for whatever famine relief efforts India itself could provide; they simply weren't adequate. Something like three million people died in Bengal and other parts of southern India as a result. We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilized the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn't occurred to anyone, apparently).”

The salient facts are that despite his initial expressions about Gandhi, Churchill did attempt to alleviate the famine. As William Manchester wrote, Churchill “always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity.” (The Last Lion, Boston: 1982, I: 843-44).

The Unconsidered Factor: World War II

If the famine had occurred in peacetime, it would have been dealt with effectively and quickly by the Raj, as so often in the past. At worst, Churchill’s failure was not sending more aid—in the midst of fighting a war for survival. And the war, of course, is what Churchill’s slanderers avoid considering.
The fog of war still clouds this moment in history.