Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, by Madhushree Mukherjee Eye-opening, gut-wrenching account of the horrors of famine, of genocide and war-crimes perpetrated on an occupied landBetween 3 and 5 million people died of starvation and famine in Bengal in India in 1943. The drought was a result of nature. The resulting famine and the millions of deaths can be attributed to the policies of the colonial power ruling India – the British, and one person is most culpable in this crime against humanity – Winston Churchill. This scandal is what the author details immaculately, punctuated by impeccable research. Human, economic, political, imperial, racist, and social angles are all brought out in vivid detail. The case against Winston Churchill turns out to be damningly severe, even to the author – “I had no idea the book would end up targeting Churchill to this extent“, but the evidence is as strong as could be.

The book is part history.

It tells of the riches in India and Bengal before the advent of the East India Company and then English rule. This is covered in the Prologue. The bulk of the book then deals with the famine of 1943. Since that was a tumultuous period – in India on account of the independence struggle with Mahatma Gandhi at the forefront, and in the world on account of World War II, we are provided pertinent accounts of key events that had a relevant bearing on the famine. Of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army, of local uprisings in Midnapore and the now mostly forgotten revolutionaries like Sushil Dhara, Ajoy Mukhopadhyaya, and others, of the Japanese conquest of Singapore, Burma, and their landing at the doorstep of India’s eastern borders, of the Denial Policy (really a scorched earth policy). If resources like grains and rice had to be shipped out of India to feed the English armies fighting the war, if grains from India had to be used to ensure that the Englishman’s morale in England did not flag for want of good bread, if soldiers from the Indian army were used to win key Allied battles in the mid-east – these events are recounted with studious attention to references and footnotes.

Starting in May (1942) Amery oversaw the effort to ship from India around 40,000 tons of grain every month, a tenth of its railway engines and carriages, and even railway tracks uprooted from less important train lines. The colony’s entire commercial production of timber, woolen textiles and leather goods, and three-quarters of its steel and cement production would be required for the war. … 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 pounds.” [Page 5]

 

The book is also part character essay.

While there are a multitude of characters who play small and big roles in this tragedy, there are three key players that stand out – Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain during World War II, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, and a physicist Frederick Alexander Lindemann, who was responsible for the government’s scientific decisions and who also headed a Statistics Division, or S branch. Through the author’s narrative and through the written and spoken words and actions of these characters we get to learn what drove these people to act the way they did. Whether it was partly on account of loyalty (in the case of Lindemann), wholly on account of cussedness (Winston Churchill), or the desperate efforts of Amery to alleviate a looming tragedy, there is a substantial amount of material available to the reader to form a well-informed picture of these characters.

“Naturally I [Amery] lost patience and couldn’t help telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s which annoyed him no little. I am by no means sure whether on the subject of India he is really quite sane. … Amery may also have been irked by the reference to moneylenders – a hint that Churchill saw upper-class Indians, in particular Bengali babus, through the same lens as anti-Semites might perceive Jews.” [Pages 236, 237]

The book is part cautionary tale.

If you are an Indian, this book is a must-read because it provides a tragic and brutal reminder of the unmitigated horror that was India’s fate under colonial rule. It opens a chapter of history that has rarely been taught in Indian schools – the real causes of the famine have been painted over with a strong communist brush. For others it is a reminder of what happens when a lack of accountability joins hands with callous disregard for people. Complicating matters was World War II, with the need to feed the vast armies fighting the Axis powers, for which grain and resources were sucked out from India – even as millions starved to death in Bengal. As if this wasn’t enough, further complicating things was Winston Churchill, a die-hard Imperialist and dyed-in-the-wool racist who spiced this with a visceral hatred of India and Indians.

In 1949, a session of the Geneva Convention extended the guidelines for civilized warfare and included a prohibition against starving civilians in occupied territories.

If such provisions protecting civilians had been in place before the war, the Denial Policy and the failure of His Majesty’s Government to relieve the famine could conceivably have been prosecuted as war crimes.” [Pages 274-75]

What this book reveals is that actions can sometimes produce the elaborate and self-serving construction of post-fact justifications. Especially so if the actions require justifications.

In the end, it is not so much racism as the imbalance of power inherent in the Darwinian pyramid that explains why famine could be tolerated in India while bread rationing was regarded as an intolerable restriction in wartime Britain. … The central evil of imperialism is the inability of subject peoples to hold their rulers accountable – and all the rest, even the racism, may flow from that essential powerlessness. … She (Hannah Arendt) argued that racism was a direct consequence of imperialism, which ‘would have necessitated the invention of racism as the only possible “explanation” and excuse for its deeds…’ “[Pages 276-77]

 

The Battle of Plassey (see on Google Maps) was the decisive battle that marked the establishment of British rule in India. Robert Clive, the Englishman in charge of the English soldiers in the battle chose deceit and bribery to win the war and the approbation “Mir Jafar” entered the Indian lexicon, to refer to a traitor who betrays his land to a foreigner. The battle also marked the beginning of the transfer of wealth from India to England. The denudation of the colony’s wealth continued non-stop for almost two hundred years, till there was nothing more left to be looted from India.

Clive built his victory on the sturdy and repeatedly proven foundation of bribery. And bribe he did Siraj-ud-daula’s general Mir Jafar, who became the new nawab.

“As arranged, Mir Jafar paid the East India Company 2.2 million pounds and its officers and troops 1.2 million pounds, of which Clive took a lion’s share. Two hundred barges carrying the first installment of the Company’s booty set off from the capital city of Murshidabad on July 3 1757, accompanied down the Ganga (or Ganges) river by the trumpeting of a British military band.” [Page xvi]

Tales of India’s wealth are scarcely exaggerations. Till the middle of the eighteenth century, India had been the richest country since the beginning of recorded history.

In late 1665 … Francois Bernier arrived in Bengal to find a vast, populous delta, its myriad channels lined with vibrant towns and cities interspersed with fields of rice, sugar, corn, vegetables, mustard and sesame. He declared it ‘the finest and most fruitful country in the world’. Foreign merchants worked the wholesale markets, offering to buy produce in exchange for silver. They could not trade goods with the native businessman, because Bengal was in need of virtually nothing. … Bengali merchants … ate from gold plates and wore intricately wrought brocade clothing and gem-studded gold jewelry.” [Pages xiv, xv]

Such riches and prosperity of Indians and of the Bengalis was bound to attract envy. After the plunder of Bengal had continued for decades, the land denuded of resources, and its citizenry beggared, a necessary re-writing of history began, along with the obligatory disparaging and belittling of Indians.

… influential scholars such as James Mill argued that poverty rather than wealth was India’s intrinsic and unvarying condition. Hindu legal codes contained guidelines for helping ordinary people through ‘seasons of calamity,’ and Mill pointed to the existence of such regulations as evidence that ‘a state of poverty and wretchedness, as far as the great body of the people are concerned, must have prevailed in India’ in the past, just as in the present.” [Pages xxiv, xxv]

… Mills and others believed Hindus to be endowed with distinct characteristics, at the core of which lay effeminacy and its corollary, dishonesty. … Over time, educated Indians came to internalize such distinctions between Hindus and Muslims – although the illiterate continued to worship at one another’s shrines.” [Page xxv]

English men and women, many of them based in Calcutta, penned furious attacks on the babu (often spelling it baboo to suggest a link with the primate). Mill had declared that ‘the Hindu, like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave,’ and the popular historian Thomas Babington Macualay had dwelt on the emasculation of Bengalis, who’d ‘found the little finger of the Company thicker than the loins’ of the prince Sirasj-ud-daula.” [Page xxviii]

… American writer Katherine Mayo in Mother India, a 1927 travelogue that described Hindu males as pedophiles enervated by excessive sex. … This book, the outcome of a tour organized by British intelligence, would so captivate Winston Churchill that he would pass it around among friends.” [Page xxx]

 

But surely, one could argue, that the advent of the Industrial Revolution would have rendered Indian manufacturing uncompetitive, un-viable, and uneconomical anyway. After all, the Industrial Revolution was a European, and British artifact, a critical pillar on which their world domination would come to rest. The looting of India, while unfortunate, cannot alone explain why India became so impoverished and why England became so prosperous. Well, it turns out the facts suggest otherwise. England’s Industrial Revolution was financed by the loot from India, and the imperial power worked assiduously to exclude Indian industry from competing with England’s manufacturing. And oh yes, much of the advancements in political freedoms in England were also financed by the plunder of India.

General Robert Clive’s victory in 1757 had drastically altered India’s economic relationship with the United Kingdom.’Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all authorities agree that the “industrial revolution:, the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760,’ wrote nineteenth-century American historian Brooks Adams. The tribute from India, which amounted to almost a third of Britain’s national savings for the last three decades of the eighteenth century, financed trading, networks, serving as lubricant for the new economic engine. It also enabled suddenly wealth merchants to wrest power from the monarchy and stabilize the British parliamentary system …Ironically, the lack of liberty in the colonies subsidized the increasing political freedom in the United Kingdom.

Its head start in industrialization meant that ‘for nearly fifty years Great Britain stood without a competitor,’ Adams continued.” [Pages 48, 49]

… while its own economy industrialized, the United Kingdom had sheltered it from Indian imports, especially textiles. The new spinning machines were initially banned in the colony, and by around 1800 Indian cotton and silk products were either banned in Britain or subject to import duties of 30 to 80 percent. ‘[H]ad not such prohibitory duties and decrees existed, the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have been stopped in their outset, and could scarcely have been again set in motion, even by the power of steam,’ remarked historian Horace Hayman Wilson.” [Page 49]

… historian Dietmar Rothermund … found that each mile of railway track cost Indian taxpayers 10,000 rupees for annual debt service, at a time when their average income varied from 20 to 30 rupees a year.” [Page 51]

Whereas the colony and the colonizer probably had the same level of prosperity in the mid-eighteenth century (with Bengal having been richer than this average), by the end of the Victorian era the per capita income in the United Kingdom was twenty times than in India.” [Page 52]

A striking feature of the book is the ability to bring to life, so to say, what the famine meant to millions of Indians. Since this book is about the Bengal famine of 1943, the success in making visceral the horrors of the famine is what elevates this book above an academic polemic.

What was it like to have no real food in the house, day after day for more than a year? … One stage of starvation appears to be a kind of physical torment – not nausea, not pain, but a violent craving. The things that famine victims have been known to ingest demonstrate that the suffering of acute hunger easily beats the misery of nausea. A schoolteacher in Mohisadal (Wikipedia entry) reported seeing children picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggar’s diarrheal discharge. … Almost everywhere in the world, famished people have resorted to eating human flesh. Amazingly, not a single case of cannibalism was reported during the Bengal famine of 1943, although tens of millions of villagers suffered from acute hunger. The religious lawmaker Manu, writing about it in the second century A.D, had forbidden Hindus to eat human flesh even for self-preservation – but neither did Muslims resort to it, although they were poorer than Hindus and perished in greater numbers. Chances are that Manu’s text and other scriptures merely codified a prehistoric taboo that still persists in rural Bengal.” [Page 167-8]

Nor did the vast majority of people eat dogs, cats, or other creatures forbidden by custom, but that was probably because the starving was too debilitated to catch any prey. … Instead, it was humans who became prey. By a roadside near Dacca (see on Google Maps), a nun found a groaning woman, her ravaged eye-sockets full of maggots: they had consumed her eyes while she had lain there, too weak to move away. ‘It was not an uncommon sight in Contai (see on Google Maps) to see dogs and vultures waiting beside dying children for their share of human flesh,’ commented another observer.” [Page 169]

Despite the horrific ways in which they met their ends, those Bengalis who perished of hunger in the villages did so in obscurity, all but unnoticed by the national and international press.” [Page 169]

But an Indian who had tried to steal a head of lettuce, apparently from the vegetable patch of a European residence, was wounded by a bullet, which led to a sergeant major to opine, ‘Pity it didn’t kill the bastard. One out of 400 million wouldn’t be missed, Shoot the bloody lot of them.’” [Page 170]

Once again the prime minister (Churchill) crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, consuming meals such as this one described by his personal secretary: ‘Oysters, consommé, turbot, roast turkey, ice with cantaloupe melon, Stilton cheese and a great variety of fruit, petit fours, etc.; the whole washed down by champagne (Mum 1929) and a very remarkable Liebfraumilch [sweet German white wine], followed by some 1870 brandy.’” [Page 239]

 

That millions were starving and dying was unfortunate in itself. There really was no reason to make a fuss about it, nor let news of this natural calamity let out to the wide world. After all, that would not bring the dead back to life, would it?

Starting in the summer of 1943, The Statesman began to publish editorials excoriating the government for the spreading famine. … Until Stephens (chief editor of The Statesman) publicized it, the calamity in Bengal had been unknown to most of India and utterly unheard about it in the rest of the world. In a bid to keep the news from leaking out, the Government of India had allegedly destroyed all but one of five thousand printed copies of Hungry Bengal, a collection of sketches and reportage on the Midnapore (see on Google Maps) famine – but it could not suppress The Statesman. In New Delhi, storefronts displayed the pictures of famine victims, and in Washington the State Department circulated them among policymakers.” [Page 176]

 

What had happened had happened. There was really no need to get hysterical about the deaths of millions. Especially if the ones writing the history had been culpable for the genocide.

In 1947, Winston Churchill hired a team of researchers and ghostwriters to formulate the definitive history of World War II. As historian David Reynolds has detailed, the treatise was in actuality a memoir of epic proportions, one in which fact often fell victim to selective memory. When Churchill read out loud parts of the history he was writing, Lord Moran, who remembered the events differently, would wonder, ‘Could it be that he had come to believe what he wanted to believe?’ The Bengal famine received but fleeting mention, in a document that happened to make it into an appendix. Despite their distortions, the six massive volumes became the primary reference for a generation of historians – which may explain why the famine is almost totally absent from the tens of thousands of tomes since written about the war.” [Page 268]

 

So, was the famine of 1943 the only one? No. Famines had been a staple of colonial rule in India. While famines had occurred, periodically, in India over the millennia, they became more severe and more frequent under colonial rule.

By 1769, Bengal had no gold, silver, or other valuables left. … Then the rains failed. … Recognizing that the cost of rice would go up, the British officers and their Indian agents, who enjoyed a monopoly on trading rice, bought up all that they could, often forcing peasants to part with the grain they had kept for planting. The British East India Company dispatched a shipload of grain for its forces in Madras, stocked up 5,000 tons for local troops, and fearing that revenues would fall short, urged ‘rigour’ in tax collection.

‘All through the stifling summer of 1770 the people went on dying,’ Hunter recounted. ‘The husbandmen sold their cattle; they sold their implements of agriculture; they devoured their seed-grain; they sold their sons and daughters, till at length no buyer of children could be found; they ate the leaves of trees and the grass of the field’… A third of the people of Bengal, numbering about 10 million, perished. “[Page xix]

You can buy the paperback edition book from Amazon, the Kindle e-book version, from Flipkart.

 

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.