“The final judgement on British Rule in India”
India still had to face the greatest disaster to befall the country in the 20th century: The Bengal Famine of 1943-44. This was the product of food shortages brought about by the war. Imports of food grains from Burma were cut off by the Japanese occupation and the system of distribution for domestic supplies broke down. For the peasantry, a large number of whom lived at or below subsistence level at the best of times, the consequences were catastrophic. In Bengal, the price of rice rose from 7.5 rupees (Rs) a maund in November 1942 to Rs29.7 in May 1943 and by October that year to as much as Rs80 in some places. The poor could not afford to feed themselves and began to starve. Tens of thousands trekked to Calcutta, only to die on the city streets. The British administration in the words of one historian responded with a “callous disregard of its duties in handling the famine”. Not only were no steps taken to provide against famine, but India continued exporting food grains to Iran at the rate of 3000 tons a month through 1942. The result was a terrible death toll from starvation and disease in 1943-44 that totalled more than 3.5 million men, women and children. This was as Nehru put it, “the final judgement on British Rule in India”.
When Lord Wavell succeeded Linlithgow as viceroy, he was appalled at how little had been done to provide famine relief. Part of the problem was Churchill, “who seemed to regard famine relief as ‘appeasement’ of the Congress”. On one occasion, when presented with the details of the crisis in Bengal, Churchill commented “on Indians breeding like rabbits”. As far as he was concerned “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks”, a sentiment with which Amery concurred. Wavell himself informed London the famine “was one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule”. It was, he warned, doing “incalculable” damage “to our reputation”. The government was unmoved. Later, when he was attending a cabinet meeting in London (April 1945), Wavell had brought home to him “the very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when the starvation is in Europe” rather than India. When Holland needs food “ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”. The previous September, Lord Mountbatten, the British commander in chief in South East Asia, had made available 10% of his shipping allocation to carry food to India. Churchill had responded by cutting his allocation by 10%.
Churchill’s attitude was quite explicitly racist. He told Amery “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion.” On another occasion he insisted that they were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans”. Amery was bemused by his “curious hatred of India” and concluded that he was “really not quite normal on the subject”. Indeed, Amery was not sure “whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane”. Provoked beyond endurance by Churchill’s bigotry, Amery on one occasion said “I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s”. Amery, it is worth reminding the reader, was not a liberal or progressive, but a hard- nosed right wing imperialist. And it was not just to Amery that Churchill made his feelings clear. In February 1945 he told his private secretary, John Colville, that “the Hindus were a foul race… and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them”. Somewhat predictably, Churchill’s part in the failure of famine relief in Bengal, one of the greatest cries in the war, is not something that his innumerable biographers have been concerned to explore. This is really quite disgraceful. Let us leave the last word on Churchill with N B Bonjaree, the district magistrate who had loyally helped suppress the Quit India revolt. In memoirs he writes bitterly of how in the Viceroy broadcast of 13th May 1945 Churchill had thanked Australia, Canada, and New Zealand for their contribution to the war effort, but could not bring himself to mention India “although she provided more in men and material than the rest put together”.
Text by John Newsinger
From The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (Bookmark Publications, 2006)
By North Utsire