The Bengal Famine of 1942-43 is a forgotten tale of British India. While other atrocities of the British Raj on freedom-fighters fill our school text books, this disastrous tragedy, that killed over 3 million people, fails to find mention in many of the history books. May be, it has something to do with lives of civilians, or mere peasants, who had no role in the Freedom Struggle.
While England adores its World War II hero Winston Churchill, who saved Europe from the Nazis, the country goes mum when the famine is referred to. Churchill’s opposition to Nazism is just a patriotic facade to cover his extreme colonial mindset and racist attitude.
The sweeping famine of Bengal occurred simultaneously with the German-inflicted genocide in Europe. While Churchill formulated policies to free Britain from the clutches of Hitler’s superior race propaganda, he turned his back towards the natives of India, who were turning into living skeletons.
It was the imperial policies formed under Churchill that led to the death of over 3 million people in Bengal which comprised the current West Bengal, Odhisha, Bihar and Bangladesh. True, the crop of 1942 turned out bad due to a cyclone, but it was the arrogance of the PM that pushed so many people towards death. India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This amount was enough to sustain nearly 4 lakh people for a year.
Besides, the Quit India Movement launched in 1942, irked Churchill, and as a revenge-seeking measure, he chose to overlook the catastrophe in Bengal. He rather preferred sending rice and wheat to the Imperial Indian Army fighting on behalf of the British Empire in World War II.
Meanwhile famine-struck people streamed into Calcutta, begging the relatively well-off section for the starchy water of boiled rice. Churchill casually diverted international medical and food supplies to the well-supplied soldiers stationed in Europe, which was actually meant for the starved.
When Burma (now Myanmar) was defeated, England got nervous that India could be the next target. Churchill pushed the Denial Policy to deliberately keep food stocks low in Bengal. The logic was simple; if the Japanese forces arrived, they would be hit by lack of food. Fearing invasion, the water route was made redundant too by destroying boats. So people from Bengal who were dependent on sea businesses, had nothing to fall back upon, not even a possible escape route to beat starvation.
While shrunken people breathed their last on the streets of Calcutta, all that Churchill did was sneer and scoff. He infamously said, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.” He was happy that nature was “merrily” downsizing the Indian population.
He cared two hoots about the thousands of starving people, who had taken to eating grass and vines to fend off hunger. Churchill shamelessly professed his hatred, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Their main offence: they were not white-skinned.
The government led by Churchill turned down an urgent request from Leopold Amery (the Indian secretary of state) and Archibald Wavell (the Viceroy of India) to stop exporting food from Bengal, as thousands were dying of hunger. Churchill retorted, “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
Mahatma Gandhi had initiated the Quit India Movement in 1942, and it was gaining momentum. For Churchill, who believed the natives (of India) should be grateful for being under the Imperial Crown, it was big slap across his face. This outburst was a perverse manifestation of revenge.
When British officers pleaded Churchill to mitigate the food crisis, he blamed shortage of ships to bring food into Bengal. Of course he lied through his teeth; ships carrying wheat from Australia would pass by India and sail to Europe. As imports thinned, inflation touched the sky. People who were already reeling under starvation, could not afford the inflation.
The famine ended at the end of 1943, when survivors harvested their rice crop. Author Madhusree Mukerjee, who met a handful of Bengal Famine survivors, wrote in her book Churchill’s Secret War: “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains… People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”
This was what prosperous Bengal was reduced too by the British Raj: a state of ghoulish-looking deprived people, dying on the streets like stray animals.