When Churchill starved India

Today, as Britain seeks diplomatic links with India and as Churchill is championed as a hero of multiculturalism, Madhusree Mukerjee’s shocking account of the exploits of the Empire is well worth reading.

James Woudhuysen

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Britain’s conduct in the Indian subcontinent has largely disappeared from memory – at least in Britain.

Soon after British prime minister David Cameron had pleased his hosts during a visit to India earlier this year by contending that some in Pakistan were ‘looking both ways’ over the question of the Taliban, it was discovered that his great-great-grandfather took part in the bloody suppression of the Indian Mutiny, which began in 1857. The Sunday Times simply reported the news with the tongue-in-cheek headline ‘By jingo, PM’s family killed for the empire’.

Still less do India’s travails in the Second World War get any serious attention. On the publication of Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, a reasonably sympathetic report in the Daily Telegraph matter-of-factly declared that ‘in India’ Winston Churchill ‘has been blamed for allowing more than a million people to die of starvation’. Not for the first time were facts about India turned into just one Indian’s (faintly suspect) point of view.

Madhusree Mukerjee, however, writes with all the authority and clarity one might expect from someone who has served on the board of editors of Scientific American. Even for those who know a little of what happened in Calcutta and Bengal between 1939 and 1945, her chronicle has a true capacity to shock and enlighten.

Churchill’s racism toward Indians, especially Hindus, is no longer news, such has been the tide of revisionist thinking that began with the historian John Charmley’s 1993 book Churchill: The end of glory – A Political Biography. Nevertheless, the scale of British perfidy towards the 400 million people of India, and the scale of the famine that befell Bengal in 1943, are recounted by Mukerjee with such blistering coolness that one is left reeling. The fact that today, these things should be so badly forgotten, or treated as a surprising revelation, also gives pause for thought.

India’s job in the 1940s, as far as the British were concerned, was to ward off the Soviets from Afghanistan, to join in the defeat of the Germans in the Middle East and Africa, and, after Pearl Harbour, to join in the defeat of the Japanese. But there was another job Britain did, too: it removed India’s best troops from India, so that no nationalist mutiny there could be successful. Added to this, as Mukerjee makes clear, the colony’s entire output of timber, woollen textiles and leather goods, as well as three quarters of its steel and cement, were diverted to the defence of the British Empire. India was, next to Britain, the largest contributor to the Empire’s war.

Minutes from Britain’s War Cabinet in February 1940 record that Churchill regarded the ‘feud’ between Hindus and Muslims ‘as the bulwark of British rule in India’. The more Britain built up IOUs to India, the more Churchill came to favour partitioning India and creating Pakistan. The liberal-leaning Conservative elder statesman Leopold Amery (who had drafted the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising Jews a homeland in Palestine) was, as Churchill’s secretary of state for India, more cautious than his boss. On the other hand, Lord Cherwell, the Anglophile German scientist and War Cabinet member F A Lindemann, could massage any statistic to reinforce Churchill in the view that emaciated Indians were in fact thoroughly greedy in asking for food supplies (indeed, Cherwell also singled out the working-class areas of Dresden for bombing with incendiaries). But even Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, who became viceroy at the end of October 1943 and who often opposed Churchill’s policy of starving the Indians, at the same time felt that they had reached, at best, the ‘tiresome’ age of adolescence. Even if, as a one-time friend of Lawrence of Arabia, he could also see the merit of supporting what for him were martial Muslims over conniving and more populous Hindus.

Nobody from Britain comes out of this book well! Nobody, that is, apart from a communist soldier, Clive Branson, and, in a few brief passages, the British Labour Party. Still, while Mukerjee describes the Labour left firebrand Sir Richard Stafford Cripps, sent to New Delhi in March 1942 by Britain’s wartime coalition to negotiate with the Indian National Congress party, as ‘a socialist committed to the cause of Indian emancipation’, she is forced within a page to note that Cripps, following instructions from London, told Congress to implement a ‘Denial Policy’ on the coasts of Bengal. This was a scorched Earth gambit of confiscating all forms of transport from Indians, lest they be captured by advancing Japanese.

Denied boats, the main form of transport around Bengal, its inhabitants were also robbed of their livelihoods. They were also denied rice, and their local industries were demolished. But after the Battle of Midway on 4-6 June 1942, and the destruction of many Japanese aircraft carriers, the British Raj shifted its sights, Mukerjee writes, ‘from a Japanese threat to India to a Congress uprising within India’.

The Labour Party joined with the Tories in this perspective. Occasionally, and rather fashionably, invoking today’s liberal Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in her economic treatment of India’s wartime plight, Mukerjee likewise shows herself far too credulous of Labour’s posture on Indian independence. True, her book is about Churchill and India, not Labour and India – but a little more on his partners in office would have been very valuable.

Mukerjee isn’t too strong, either, on the Depression’s effect on India, or in fully explaining, in the penultimate chapter, the exact dynamics of Britain’s responsibility for the Hindu-Muslim massacres that preceded and accompanied partition in August 1947. These weaknesses, however, do not prevent her book from being a brilliant, unsparing indictment.

Estimates differ on how many died of famine in Bengal during and after 1943, not least because, as Mukherjee laconically observes, ‘deaths from malnutrition were undoubtedly occurring even in so-called normal years’. But three million is probably the best estimate. How did this happen?

As Indian manufactures and produce gained ready markets in the war-torn Empire, Her Majesty’s Government turned away from its historic policy of confiscating India’s product and land revenues and of charging interest on everything. Instead, with Britain promising only to pay its debts to India after the war, India’s rulers veered toward printing more and more money. After a cyclone struck on 16 October 1942, the price of rice jumped, but then inflation went from bad to worse. In January 1943 Churchill brought most of the Empire ships in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic in order to shore up food and raw materials for Britain. Just 40 were left near India, and most of them were turned towards helping the invasion of French colonies in North Africa.

Kenya, Tanganyika and British Somaliland suffered famine. By the following month, the Bengal government’s Department of Civil Supplies instructed its agents to buy rice at any price and to store it for use by the Indian army and Calcutta. Soon enough, rural Bengal was experiencing morning prices and evening prices. Thus, ‘panicked purchases’, Mukherjee writes, ‘precipitated famine right away, and everywhere’. Hoarding was rife – though when whites did it, it was known only as ‘stockpiling’. Imports from Burma were prevented by Japan. Disaster struck.

During the famine an epidemic of malaria took hold. In time, people became so weak that they could not resist the British. Thousands of nationalists were anyway behind bars. From then on, the British government, egged on by Cherwell, raised stocks of food, in part to give Britain a get-out-of-bankruptcy card once hungry Europe was eventually liberated.

The policy was deliberate, but it was not just a tactic forced out of Britain’s war needs. Churchill valued India so much, and hated Indian nationalists so much, that he fully wanted to starve them to death. Word was put about that Bengalis would sooner starve to death than eat wheat – despite the fact that wheat was one of the ancient crops of Bengal. Australia had wheat for India nearly loaded on boats, and other dominions offered to help, too. But even though perhaps just a dozen ships would have made all the difference, London turned all offers down. Among other reasons, it did not want the embarrassment of admitting to famine, and so letting America interfere with India.

The callousness is hard to believe. All the more vital is our need to remember it today, when Britain, though now diminished, would like to play with India once more.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

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