Madhusree Mukerjee’s book, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (Basic Books, New York, 2010), is a deeply moving read.
Her subject is the 1943 famine that ravaged India for over a year, snuffing out the lives of 3 million people. Mukerjee argues that the figure should be adjusted upwards to over 5 million. When thinking about the millions of dead resulting from World War II, many atrocities come to mind: the 6 million Jews killed in the concentration camps, half a million Roma, 20 million Soviet citizens, 8 million Chinese, to name only some examples. Not so well-known, especially to people from the imperialist citadels, are those who suffered and died from what Mukerjee calls the “man-made” famine in India, a human catastrophe that could have been easily prevented if Churchill had not refused to assign available ships from Australia to carry their surplus grain to the Bengal region. This famine gets rarely mentioned in British history.
A former writer/editor for Scientific American and a trained scientist in her own right, Mukerjee’s preoccupation with the question of hunger and famine led her to delve deeply and thoroughly into the archives of the British War Cabinet and the Ministries of War and Transport, the correspondence between the various major British players, and their memoirs during World War II. Much of this material was first made available in the mid-2000s. Among them are Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Secretary of State to India Leopold Amery (who thought that the British Empire should be contiguous and stretch from Cape Town through Cairo, Baghdad and Calcutta to Sydney) and the successive viceroys to India, Lords Linlithgow and Wavell. In an interview, Mukerjee acknowledges that given where her investigation was leading, she knew that if she were not especially careful, she would be torn apart by those who hated her conclusions.
Mukerjee’s prologue provides background to how the British government subjugated India in 1757 and continued robbing it through steep taxation, theft of resources, unequal trade and the exploitation of its people for 200 years under colonial domination until its independence in 1947. Peasants were forced to pay the British East India Company rent for the land they farmed and to turn over a large percentage of the crop yield. The once prosperous exporters in the Bengal region of North-East India (including what is now Bangladesh) became impoverished as British-bound ships loaded with gold, silver, silks and other valuable commodities sailed off to London.
Mukerjee spells out many interpenetrating features that contributed to the famine, contextualising it in the raging world war and the independence movement against Britain then gathering force. Among those factors was the fall of Burma to the Japanese; the hoarding of rice by brokers from Bengal, other Indian provinces and also Ceylon, creating exorbitant prices; Churchill’s intense racism and hatred of Indians and above all, in this reviewer’s opinion, his ruthless determination to preserve the British empire. With the onset of World War II, maintaining the empire’s interests was Churchill’s uppermost goal, and he took decisions around the war effort accordingly. India was already contributing to the war effort on many fronts, from soldiers fighting in the Middle East to sending grain and other exports.
The British army had thousands of troops stationed in India, both British and Indian. The very large Indian army was poorly trained by the British for fear the guns would be turned on them. Feeding the soldiers as well as those involved in industries considered essential to the war effort was considered a priority. This included workers in industries in other colonies like the rubber workers in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). Feeding other civilians didn’t fit into the calculus of the war effort.
The British empire was taking a beating in the South Asian theatre of war. In 1942 the Japanese captured Singapore, then Burma, one of the largest rice exporters to British colonies and the UK itself. Burma provided 15-20 percent of India’s rice consumption. The conquest of Burma also meant that Japan was at India’s doorstep, with the threat of imminent invasion.
The British response, euphemistically-called the “Denial Policy”, was meant to deprive the Japanese of any useful material they might seize in an invasion. All along coastal Bengal, vehicles of any kind (trucks, cars, thousands of bicycles and boats, bullock carts etc.) were requisitioned by the military authorities and rice stocks were destroyed or removed. In addition, 35,000 families lost their homes and livelihoods to military barracks and air strips.
As Mukerjee describes it,
“Boats were the primary form of transport of riverine Bengal. Most villagers were so poor that they either walked or boarded a ferry. Boats took traders to the market, fishers to the sea, potters to their clay pits, and farmers to their plots, which were often marooned between vast swathes of river. “
Even the viceroy’s secretary Leonard Pinnell understood that demolishing boats meant destroying livelihoods. He said
“for anyone who knows the Bengal cultivator it was a completely heart-breaking job.”
With the fall of Burma, not only did India have to get by without the usual tonnage of rice imports, she also supplied rice to those parts of the British Empire that previously received rice exports from Burma. With the scarcity came the hoarding by Indian businessmen who stood to make huge profits when the rice price skyrocketed.
As evidence of impending disaster grew, on several occasions Viceroy Wavell and Secretary to India Amery appealed to Churchill, the War Cabinet and Shipping Ministries, warning them of the impending food crisis. To Amery, Churchill replied, “If food was so scarce, why hadn’t Gandhi died yet” (Gandhi, a leader of the Quit India movement imprisoned along with others seeking independence, was on a hunger strike at the time ). To others, Churchill claimed that there were no boats. Previously German U2 submarines were sinking British supply boats. But by 1942 that problem had ceased once the US began building ships for British use and sending airplanes to protect British convoys against German subs. Rather than not enough ships, there was a surplus of ships that did not have enough cargo to fill them, documents Mukerjee. She argues that this was the critical moment when Churchill could have allocated the shipment of wheat from Australia to India. (Canada and the US also volunteered to provide aid.) It would have made hoarding unprofitable and food accessible to the rural population of Bengal province.
To complicate matters, in October 1942, a major cyclone hit Bengal, flooding the land with salt water, destroying every house and tree on the flatlands adjacent to the sea, sweeping away farm animals and leaving a layer of sand that flattened the rice crop. The moisture caused pest infestation, destroying the meagre amounts of grain that the peasants had acquired. Some local survivors date the famine as starting from this storm.
Cyclone relief was withheld by the British authorities because the population was “infested” with Quit India movement supporters. Instead they went to ferret them out and set fire to those homes still standing and burned any rice that survived the storm.
The famine struck ferociously in rural Bengal. Mukerjee vividly describes its effect, drawing on interviews with survivors. Many suicides, mercy killings and cases of child abandonment took place among families who could no longer bear to see the wild-eyed, starving faces of their children. Mass prostitution by village mothers, wives or daughters with anyone who had grain often saved whole families. Brothels for soldiers were serviced by the starving young girls from the countryside. Many were lured by promises of a real job and then forced into servitude, in much the same way as today women are forced into prostitution around the world.
The streets of Calcutta were flooded with skeletal figures waiting in soup kitchen lines for a thin gruel, which often failed to keep them alive. One agitated mother appealed to relief workers, “Please, take us first” for her baby’s sake, but by the time she finally made it to the front of the queue that was full of others equally desperate, her baby had died. The situation became so serious that people at evening parties attended by the upper classes began discussing remedies. Bodies, dead and nearly-alive, were carted out of the city to keep them out of sight as much as possible. Even the dogs preyed and feasted on those near death. Amidst this tragedy, hotels in Calcutta continued to serve five-course meals to those who could afford them.
Much heroism also occurred in confronting the lack of food, with neighbours or older siblings somehow keeping younger ones alive. Children made up half the refugees flocking to Calcutta. They often appeared alone, with no one knowing what village they came from or what happened to their parents. Babies were left abandoned on hospital doorsteps in hopes they would be saved. One survivor, Gourhori Majhi, recounts how he lived by the grace of one relief worker. He told Mukerjee, “the food served at the relief kitchen was like water. The family had sold its utensils and would accept the soup in cupped leaves, but others would snatch even these out of their hands. The child (Gourhori) was fortunate, though, in that his swollen belly caught the eye of a gentleman with the relief operations, who called him aside. ‘He gave me a few grains of rice and watched me eat them.’ Day after day for months the man had fed him, in secret and a little at a time, so that the body slowly recovered.” Officers reprimanded sympathetic rank and file soldiers (Indian and British) stationed there who gave their rations to the starving.
While the Japanese bombarded the city of Calcutta, they never invaded. The Japanese army was bogged down in China, which proved to be “a tough piece of meat” (as Mao Tsetung said) for the occupiers. Unlike Churchill, who feared unleashing the subjugated Indian soldiers, Mao did not fear mobilising the Chinese masses who saw it in their interests to fight the invading Japanese army, eventually routing it, just as the Soviets masses had broken the back of Hitler’s army.
In the backdrop of the complexities of the war situation, the struggle for independence from Britain escalated. The Indian National Congress led by Nehru and Gandhi were part of the backbone of the Quit India movement. The Congress was willing to trade Indian independence in exchange for supporting the British war against Japan. While Gandhi wanted to keep the movement against the British non-violent, his position would have meant dragging the Indian people even deeper into the war – one in which British aims were to keep Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and other colonies.
Nevertheless, the independence leaders were arrested and thousands imprisoned for what was considered to be impeding the war effort. “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” Churchill famously declared.
In 1940, the British War Cabinet had stated that “if conflict with Congress should arise, it should appear as an outcome of war necessity rather than as a political quarrel unrelated to the war.” Mukerjee says that the rise of the independence struggle led Churchill to hate Indians more than ever. But actually, Churchill understood what was objectively at stake. A strong independence movement was a threat to the British empire and India was one of many rebelling colonies wrestling for independence from the colonizers.
The intensity developing in the independence struggle was met by the police killing insurgents and burning down homes and possessions, including the remaining grain that the peasants still had, and gang-raping women. In some rural areas, the insurgents organised the peasants to prevent grain from being sent to businessmen hoarders in Calcutta and were met with a hail of police bullets. As part of the divide and conquer approach of the British and Churchill, the police encouraged Muslims from different villages to join them in looting better-off Hindu homes.
To prove her point, Mukerjee cites many statistics from a broad range of sources about food shipments through the war years, the number of boats available for shipping, and the changed situation in 1943 when the famine became virulent. While acknowledging many contributory factors, she exposes Churchill’s monstrous lie that no ships were available when there was a glut of ships available, sailing around with half-empty hulls.
Churchill pit the Muslim League against the National Congress, fanning religious fury and other rivalries, encouraging them to insist on the creation of a separate state for Muslims (today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh). With the Congress leaders in prison, the Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah (who had promised support for the British war effort in exchange for British recognition of his Muslim League as the only organisation representing Indian Muslims) commanded the political stage in India. Appealing to Muslim nationalism, the idea of creating a Muslim state inflamed passions and encouraged bloodletting between Muslim and Hindus. Again, ever watchful for the interests of empire, Churchill thought that the creation of Pakistan would make that state beholden to the UK, thus enabling Britain to keep a foothold in the South Asian region.
While even today polls in the UK hail Winston Churchill as a great statesman, perhaps the greatest ever, many people remain unaware of his war crimes. Yet Churchill never hid his desire to keep the British Empire intact. Many of his statements openly state his strongest motivations. In the Spanish Civil War, at first Churchill sided with the fascist General Franco against the Republicans, but he overcame those gut feelings in the interest of the British empire. Hugh Thomas’ book The Spanish Civil War (Harper & Row, 1961) quotes Churchill: “Franco has all the right on his side because he loves his country. Also Franco is defending Europe from the communist danger – if you wish to put it in those terms. But I, I am English, and I prefer the triumph of the wrong cause. I prefer that the other side wins, because Franco could be an upset or a threat to British interests.”
Churchill had a “bull-dog” grasp of what was best for the interests of British monopoly capital, both at home and in the colonies and neo-colonies where superexploitation built up the wealth of the empire. The economic and social relations embodied in capitalism requires brutal forms of exploitation and oppression of the people and colonies it subjugates in its effort to ever expand. For profit and empire, there is no horror or crime that a statesman for a capitalist-imperialist empire will not commit.
The armies of all the imperialist powers criss-crossed the globe in a war over how it would be divided up between them. The significance of this book’s title, Churchill’s Secret War, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that Britain was both using India to wage war against Japan and at the same time waging a no less deadly conflict against the Indian people, who were the booty both sides in World War II sought.
Despicable and criminal as it was, Churchill’s racism no doubt spared him of any anguish over the deaths of millions of subjects to Her Majesty, the Queen of England. From the viewpoint of the interests of British imperialism, a famine in India just didn’t matter.
The days when European powers enjoyed direct and open government over colonies may be over, but imperialism as an economic and political system in which a handful of countries dominate and bleed the world is still in force. While today is not marked by a war between the imperialists, their invasions, occupations and other armed actions in the name of “humanitarian” ideals and “democracy” are driven by the same kind of interests, even if in different circumstances than those that Churchill so viciously embodied.