Bengal Famine, 1943
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Madhusree Mukherjee’s view
When it came out in 2010, ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ created quite a splash internationally with its central hypothesis that Winston Churchill’s racial worldview was largely responsible for the Bengal Famine of 1943, which killed three million. But author MMadhusree Mukherjee was criticised by several people, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Mukherjee, who has answered her critics in a new edition, spoke to Manimugdha S Sharma. Excerpts :
You write that the East India Company’s exploitation of Bengal turned the richest Mughal province into the poorest in five years. Could you elaborate?
There is a lot of evidence regarding that. See the accounts of foreign travellers who visited the Mughal empire, for instance. Bengal was the centre of the world’s cotton export. The world’s finest muslin came from there. Even the poor could eat well there and had grains stored for up to two years. Bengal generated the largest revenue for the Mughal empire. But what happens after the East India Company led by Robert Clive obtains diwani or revenue collection rights from the emperor in 1764? There is rapacious exploitation fuelled by speculation. Tremendous drain of wealth.
During the 18th-century Great Bengal Famine, the Company sent out shiploads of grain from Bengal for its troops in Madras and even stocked up 5,000 tonnes for the Bengal army. How similar was this action to the British response to the Bengal Famine of 1943?
Very similar. Grain was taken from rural areas to feed people in Calcutta. So as millions of rural poor died, the upper and middle classes were by and large not affected. This was in 1770 as well as 1943. In 1943, everything was done in the name of the war effort. The northwestern parts of India from where the fighting troops were recruited by the British were well provided for. In Bengal, however, ruthless exploitation continued coupled with the ‘scorched earth policy’ strongly pursued to deny the Japanese resources if an invasion materialised. No thought was spared for Bengalis.
You write that Churchill thought the Indian Army was useless but potentially dangerous. Why?
Churchill would have liked the Indians had they been willing slaves. But Indians demanded freedom. He couldn’t tolerate that. And Churchill never forgot how Indian sepoys revolted in 1857. The structure of the military was changed after that. It was deployed abroad to fight wars, but at home, it was used to suppress Indians.
In his war memoirs, Churchill blanked out the Indian role in the war. Your thoughts.
Churchill rewrote history to burnish his image and write Britain into the war as the cornerstone of victory. The reality was that Germany was defeated by the Soviet Union. For Indians, the war was horrendous too. In fact, a huge number of American and British troops were stationed here apart from Italian and other POWs. They were all well fed at the expense of the Indians. This kind of exploitation was grotesque.
You were criticised by Amartya Sen for your hypothesis. You countered by saying that he misquoted the rice shortfall estimate of 1.4 million tonnes as 1,40,000 tonnes in his book. Both of you have also argued over ‘entitlement’.
Amartya Sen was careless in using the Famine Commission estimate and letting the error recur in eight reprints. He says that certain groups of people have greater right or entitlement over others to food. I have no deep disagreement with Sen. I accept the idea of entitlement but would like to extend it to a global context, not just a local or national one. The British people had far more entitlement than Indians.
Swagato Ganguly’s assessment
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“I travelled to the riverbank in Dalmau, and waited. The Ganga was swollen with dead bodies.” – Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’
The ‘Nirala’ quote is taken from the Hindi poet’s memoir ‘A Life Misspent’ and recounts events from the Spanish flu of 1918, which took his wife and many members of his family away.
Within living memory there was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, when starving villagers flooded Calcutta and would come to your door with pitiful cries of “phan dao ma … ektu phan dao” (ie, give us a little rice starch – not so much the rice itself, but the starchy gruel that is left over and normally disposed of after cooking it). My grandfather, I’m told, played a role in organising ‘khichdi’ kitchens for the starving. And there were, of course, the Partition riots.
There have been debates about whether the causes of the 1943 Bengal famine were natural or manmade, and the final judgment has to be complex – it was a perfect storm in many ways, to do with natural disasters, wartime exigencies as well as blunders by both the Bengal government and the British Indian government.
There were large-scale natural disasters in southwestern Bengal preceding the famine – a cyclone, tidal waves that killed people and destroyed paddy, and rice crop disease. On the fungal disease that affected rice production in the wake of the cyclone, mycologist SY Padmanabhan notes: “Nothing as devastating … has been recorded in plant pathological literature. The only other instance that bears comparison in loss sustained by a food crop … is the Irish potato famine of 1845.”
A wartime economy had triggered hyper-inflation, outstripping wages and causing land alienation among peasants. The Bengal economy was also burdened with the influx of refugees fleeing the Japanese campaign in Burma, as well as of Allied soldiers. The British undertook an unconscionable “scorched earth policy” in southern districts of Bengal, meant to obstruct a potential Japanese invasion, whereby they requisitioned or destroyed boats, other forms of local transport, and paddy stocks – hindering livelihoods as well as essential movements of supplies.
Bengal continued to export rice to Ceylon even as a food crisis was becoming apparent. Humanitarian aid was ineffective (think migrants fleeing cities due to lack of humanitarian aid). Bengal’s ability to obtain food from other provinces was restricted by inter-provincial barriers on grain trade. Long after the famine broke out, the provincial government of Bengal denied that a famine existed . A lesser known sidelight of the 1943 Bengal famine is that deaths continued even as food supply improved, British soldiers distributed relief and starvation receded towards the end of 1943 – the principal culprit being a new wave of deaths caused by malaria, cholera and dysentery, due to the massive dislocations caused by the famine and unsanitary conditions created.