The Bengal famine of 1943, which extinguished as many as three million lives in pre-partition British India, was the last (but hardly the first) such social catastrophe to erupt under the Raj. It has since been closely studied and analyzed—preeminently by the Bengali economist and social thinker Amartya Sen, who as a youngster witnessed firsthand the desperation of starving agricultural laborers with nothing to exchange for a meager bowl of rice. Independent India has shown a hardy indifference to mass malnutrition at the bottom of its social pyramid and has once or twice skated near the edge of famine. But though its population has nearly tripled over six decades, it has avoided anything approaching the failure of 1943. Democratic self-government and freedom of speech, Sen famously concluded, have made the difference, bringing pressure on authorities to make the relatively small shifts of resources and emergency employment opportunities that are usually enough to hold at bay starvation and the ravaging diseases that accompany it. “Famines are, in fact, so easy to prevent,” Sen writes, “that it is amazing that they are allowed to occur at all.”
Madhusree Mukerjee, a younger Bengali who experienced the 1943 famine secondhand through recollections of relatives and neighbors, still stands amazed. She’s eager to personify and corner what Sen carefully calls “the role of human agency” in his catalog of various economic and social ingredients that may make a famine. Her quarry is Winston Churchill. If not the prime mover of the famine, the embattled wartime leader was at least responsible, we’re told, for a series of decisions “that would tilt the balance between life and death for millions.” Put another way, in her opening paragraph, “one primary cause” of the famine was the Briton’s readiness “to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan.”
Mukerjee wants to make readers aware that “apart from the United Kingdom itself, India would become the largest contributor to the empire’s war, providing goods and services worth more than £2 billion.” (Included in this total were the cost of supporting British forces made up largely of Indian sepoys in Iraq as well as on the subcontinent itself, plus credits from the colonial treasury—loans that one day would have to be repaid—to the mother country’s strained exchequer.) On the matter of the famine, her wording may sound a little tricky. “One primary cause” is not the same as “the primary cause” but it comes close enough to provide scaffolding for her accusatory title. Probably it’s true that fewer Bengalis would have died had Churchill approved an emergency request from his own officials in India in July 1943 for shipments of 80,000 tons of wheat a month to Bengal for the rest of the year. Whether his failure to do so amounts to a “secret war” is another question.
At first glance, Mukerjee’s book is…
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