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Did Churchill Let Them Starve?

Popperfoto/Getty Images
Winston Churchill in India, 1896

In his 1981 study, Poverty and Famines, Amartya Sen notes that the code was never invoked in rural Bengal. The province’s British governor dispatched a clinical assessment to Whitehall. Hunger in the hinterland, he said,

does not constitute grave menace to peace or tranquility of Bengal or any part thereof, for sufferers are entirely submissive and emergency threatens, not maintenance of law and order, but public health and economic stability.

Under the circumstances, this seems to have been received in London not as a blood-chilling bulletin but common-sense reassurance.

Madhusree Mukerjee not only writes well, she writes from a point of view that most Bengalis and many Indians would share. The British for her are not allies; with few exceptions, they’re bumbling colonial oppressors whose reserves of compassion are in perpetual deficit. Nor are the Japanese portrayed as the “enemy,” especially after the Bengali nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose allies himself with them, proclaiming the formation of an Indian National Army that eventually sends thousands of Indian soldiers recruited in prisoner-of-war camps in Southeast Asia into combat alongside the Japanese in Burma where many of them are killed, thinking they are fighting to liberate India. However unsuccessful it proved to be, Bose’s martial performance—a relief for many from the wet blanket of Gandhian nonviolence—made him a hero on a national scale.

Sometimes Mukerjee has to press down hard to force the pieces of her jigsaw into spaces where they don’t easily fit; but in offering a contrasting, if not an alternative narrative, she highlights limitations in the one with which most of us grew up. If the deaths of three million Bengalis can be seen as an unfortunate byproduct of hard choices made by well-intentioned, reasonable men in wartime, then we’re also confronted with a horror that deserves to rank with the bombings of Dresden and Nagasaki.

That is what Mukerjee comes close to accomplishing in her wrenching summary of the sufferings of actual victims: mothers who put their children up for sale, then their own bodies, as starvation loomed. She writes of packs of dogs loping through ravaged villages preying on infants, the enfeebled, and the aged while they still breathed. “Despite the horrific ways in which they met their ends, those Bengalis who perished of hunger in the villages did so in obscurity,” she says, “all but unnoticed by the national and international press.”

Only when skeletal refugees from the countryside started showing up in large numbers to beg—and not infrequently die—on the sidewalks of Calcutta did images of the catastrophe begin to catch the attention of the world beyond Bengal. Local officials responded by seeking to remove the spectacle, rounding up the sufferers under a hastily enacted set of regulations called the Bengal Destitute Persons Ordinance and trucking them to the outskirts of the city in order to hide them from view and thereby sustain the morale of all those deemed vital to the war effort.

In Sen’s account, attempts by British officials to calculate the extent of the food shortage was “a search in the dark for a black cat which wasn’t there.” What the officials faced was not a shortage of food but an economic blowout, a breakdown of price and wage mechanisms that made ordinary commerce possible. The point of emergency wheat shipments would have been to enable direct relief to the starving, which, even without imports, would have been possible earlier if the British had understood what they were facing and if they had sufficiently cared. By the time famine deaths started to peak at the end of 1943, Bengal was bringing in a bumper winter rice harvest. Even that was not a solution; deaths attributable to famine—now accompanied by cholera, malaria, and smallpox—continued at a high level throughout 1944.

Mukerjee has a tendency to indulge in magical thinking to belabor a point: for instance, she writes that the famine might have been prevented or deferred if the 1942 winter rice harvest “had been distributed evenly”; or that if the export to Ceylon and the Middle East of 71,000 tons of rice in early 1943 had been halted, that would have been enough to keep “390,000 people alive for a full year.” The essence of the problem was that there was no mechanism for distributing food grains evenly; that, rather than any imagined shortfall, was the only logical basis of the appeals for emergency relief. “No matter how famine is caused,” Sen wrote in Poverty and Famines, “methods of breaking it call for a large supply of food in the public distribution system.” Put another way, the failure and callousness of colonial administration were the best arguments for emergency relief, but they were arguments the colonial authorities didn’t want to make to the war cabinet; and the war cabinet, headed by a die-hard imperialist, didn’t want to hear them.

There’s a sizable academic literature on the Great Bengal Famine, as it’s called, and, of course, a much more extensive consideration of it in Bengali literature. Madhusree Mukerjee’s treatment appears to be the only account addressed to general readers in English, and while it’s possible to argue that she overstates the cost in lives of Churchill’s reflexive animus toward Gandhi and Hindus, her book should be welcomed as a serious attempt to deal in all its aspects with a neglected catastrophe in an era of catastrophes piled grotesquely one on top of another.

Twenty-three years later the same dismal tale was played out to a notably different conclusion. Famine threatened in the state of Bihar, which neighbors West Bengal (the Indian rump state left over from partition). The British had packed up and gone but the Americans were now on the scene and they had a legislative instrument known as Public Law 480 that allowed them to sell surplus wheat from the US farm belt for Indian rupees. Every month in the winter of 1966–1967, Indian and American officials in New Delhi calculated how much American wheat would be needed to stave off famine in Bihar; and every month, their requests sat on the desk of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who cared for Indira Gandhi, then in her first year as premier, only slightly more than Winston Churchill cared for the Mahatma.

Like Churchill, Johnson was convinced that India had the means to deal with the crisis on its own, if only it would try. So he delayed the shipments for weeks on end as senators from the Midwest wrung their hands over the fate of Bihar and correspondents in New Delhi, egged on by Ambassador Chester Bowles, sent alarming reports about the rising risk of famine. (I know because I was one of them.) Whether this was pique or tough love on Johnson’s part, Mrs. Gandhi was so insulted by being forced, month after month, into the role of supplicant that she was soon talking of self-reliance as a national imperative. Bihar was very hungry in the summer of 1967 but relatively few people starved and India never again went begging for surplus food.


The Bengal Famine February 24, 2011

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