Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 14
The Bengal Famine of 1943-1944
“In the standard of life they have nothing to spare. The slightest fall from the present standard of life in India means slow starvation, and the actual squeezing out of life, not only of millions but of scores of millions of people, who have come into the world at your invitation and under the shield and protection of British power.”
- Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons (1935) 1
“It therefore seems that, given the necessary controls, the famine could have been averted by wheat imports. By a curious coincidence the amount of the deficit in the province (about 700,000 tons) was almost exactly the amount needed to feed Calcutta (a city of 4 millions consuming on average 1 lb per head per day) for a year.”
- C.B.A. Behrens (1955) 2
“Now he [Churchill] cut down sailings to the Indian Ocean from 100 a month to 40 in order to sustain his Mediterranean campaign. This decision had disastrous consequences. The harvest had failed in Bengal. Imports of food were urgently needed and did not come. A million and a half Indians died of starvation for the sake of a white man’s quarrel in North Africa.”
- A.J.P. Taylor (1965) 3
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
- Winston Churchill to Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India (1942) 4
“No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small Island.”
- Winston Churchill (1954) 5
Churchill’s assertion quoted above is an extraordinary perversion of reality since the total war-time, man-made death toll in India was about ten times greater than the total of such military and civilian deaths in the rest of the British Empire combined. The penultimate horror in our catalogue of British Imperial crimes is the man-made Bengal Famine that had maximal effect in 1943 and 1944 and which had finally largely run its course by 1946.
A variety of estimates of the human toll have been made of which the best documented and most carefully argued is that of Greenough (1982) which calculated 3.5 to 3.8 million as the famine-induced “excess mortality” in the period 1943-1946. 6 However this estimate assumes a constant pre-famine “normal” baseline mortality frequency in the Bengal population in this period independent of major medical advances (antibiotics, cholera and smallpox vaccination and preventative education). Assumption of a small consequent decline in “normal” baseline mortality frequency ameliorated by such medical health advances can yield an excess mortality figure of about 4 million. Depending upon the magnitude of such baseline assumptions, the estimates can go over 5 million. Another estimate of the impact of the famine comes from conservative demographic considerations by Uppall (1984) based on a comparison of population growth in Bengal in 1931-1941 (11 million) and in 1941-1951 (only 3 million as compared to a conservatively calculated expected 13.5 million increase). There is a “demographic deficit” here of over 10 million people. 8 We recall from Chapter 10 that after the 1770 Bengal Famine it took nearly 20 years before the population started to increase again. This effect was attributed to differential famine mortality with children being particularly susceptible. As we will see, children represented the most famine-susceptible group in 1943-1944 as in 1769-1770.
We will now consider the genesis and course of the Bengal Famine of 1943-44. Notwithstanding the extraordinary “holocaust denial” of Churchill quoted above, we should bear in mind that the losses of human life in the Bengal Famine represented about 90% of the total military plus civilian losses of the British Empire during the Second World War. 9
The context of the Second World War
The Bengal Famine occurred against the backdrop of total war being waged by the Allies against the unspeakable barbarism and inhumanity of German and Japanese militarism and imperialism. We will return at the end of this chapter to a more precise moral accountancy but for the moment it is appropriate to note the desperate struggle of Britain and her allies in mid-1942 against the Axis powers in North Africa, Europe, the Pacific, China and indeed on the borders of Bengal. The Second World War began on September 1 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Britain and France declared war against Germany on September 3. The subsequent successive major events 10 are briefly outlined below interspersed (in square brackets) with some events of particular importance to our Indian disquisition.
Hitler-Russian Pact dividing Poland (September 28 1939); German occupation of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France (April-May 1940); Winston Churchill Prime Minister (May 10 1940); German-French Armistice (June 22 1940); Germany-Italy-Japan Three-Power Pact (September 27 1940); United States Lend Lease Act enabling supplies to strategically vital countries (March 11 1941); Soviet-Japan Neutrality Treaty (April 13 1941); Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 22 1941); the Germans swept all before them to Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad (1941-1942); the Atlantic Charter between the USA and Britain declaring aims for a peaceful world (August 14 1941);
[Indian provinces were given autonomy over their food supplies (December 1 1941); Churchill fails to warn F.D. Roosevelt about Pearl Harbor or John Curtin and the Australian Government about the indefensibility of Singapore.]
The Japanese attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and attacked the Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, Hong Kong and Malaya (December 7 1941); US declared war on Japan (December 8 1941); Germany and Italy declared war on the US (December 11 1941); the Japanese successively captured Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies islands of Celebes and Amboina, Rabaul and Pacific islands including New Ireland and the Solomons (December 1941-January 1942); the Japanese took Malaya and Singapore surrendered (February 15 1942);
[of 90,000 Allied soldiers captured at Singapore about 50,000 were Indians];
the Japanese secured the Dutch East Indies and Burma (February - March 1942);
[the Indian Nationalist leaders rejected the postwar autonomy offer of Sir Stafford Cripps, demanding immediate independence (April 11 1942); they were thence imprisoned; Nationalist violence in parts of India including Bengal was suppressed vigorously with several thousand killed, thousands injured, 60,000 detained and 14,000 imprisoned];
The US Navy defeated the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea, thereby preserving Australia (May 7 1942) and at the Battle of Midway, thereby opening up the “island hopping” rolling back of the Japanese (June 4-7 1942); US forces under Eisenhower landed in North Africa (November 8 1942); General Wavell’s forces captured Tobruk and defeated the Italians in North Africa (January-February 1942); the Germans under Rommel counter-attacked but failed to capture Tobruk, were held at El Alamein and pushed back from Tripoli by the British Army under General Bernard Montgomery (April 1942-January 1943);
[Indian forces played a major role in British victories in the Middle East, notably in Syria and North Africa in 1942-1943; misplaced use of Allied planes for massive bombing of German cities in 1942-1943 affected the Battle of the Atlantic with bad consequences for shipping availability for India];
Soviet forces relieved Leningrad and pushed back the Germans (January 1943); the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad (February 2 1943); the Casablanca Conference between Roosevelt and Churchill resolved upon unconditional surrender of the Axis forces (January 14-24 1943);
[Churchill cut Indian Ocean shipping by about half with disastrous consequences for India];
Axis forces were finally defeated in North Africa by Allied forces (May 8-12 1943); US, British and Canadian forces invaded Italy (July 10 1943); the Red Army defeated the Germans in the Battle of Kursk (July-August 1943); Teheran Conference of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill (November 28 1943-January 12 1944); US forces enter Rome (June 4 1944); invasion of Normandy (June 4 1944);
[British and Indian forces won the battle for Imphal and Kohima in Assam and thus opened the way for the recapture of Burma (June 1944)];
Final defeat of the Germans:
The Red Army recaptured Pskov, the last important Russian city in German hands (July 24 1944); Paris was liberated (August 29 1944); the Warsaw revolt was crushed in the absence of Soviet assistance (October 2 1944); Athens was liberated by the Allies (October 13 1944); Belgrade was liberated by the Red Army and Yugoslav forces (October 20 1944); the end of the Greek civil war (January 11 1945); the Yalta conference between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt (February 7-12 1945); Mussolini killed (April 28 1945); Hitler suicided as the Red Army fought for Berlin (May 1 1945); German surrender and Victory in Europe (May 8 1945);
Final defeat of the Japanese:
After a succession of US “island hopping” victories throughout 1944, US General Douglas MacArthur “returned” to Leyte in the Philippines (October 19 1944), Iwo Jima fell (March 17 1945); British and Indian forces under General William Slim, US forces under General R. Stilwell (and thence Lt. General Sultan) and Chinese forces of Chiang Kai Shek defeated the Japanese and ultimately this opened the Burma Road to China (January 18 1945). Massive bombing destroyed Japanese industrial cities (May-August 1945); Hiroshima atomic bombed (August 6 1945); Nagasaki atomic bombed (August 9 1945); Japan offers surrender (August 10); formal Japanese surrender (September 2 1945).
Genesis of the Bengal Famine
At this point the reader is referred a number of detailed accounts of the Bengal Famine. 11 The Japanese had occupied Burma at the beginning of 1942, Rangoon falling on March 10 1942. This cut off additional rice supplies to Bengal that had come from Burma. While the autumn (August-September harvest) aus rice crop was down a little compared to previous years, the winter (November-December harvest) aman crop was down by about one sixth. A cyclone and tidal wave had affected the coastal western region of Midnapore badly and excessive rain elsewhere in Bengal had led to fungal infection of rice crops, both of these circumstances contributing to the significantly lower aman crop. While there was no catastrophic decline in the amount of rice or other grain available in Bengal, the price of rice edged up slightly during 1942 and by December 1942 the wholesale price of rice in Calcutta had increased to be double that in December 1941. By mid-1943 it had doubled again to be over 4 times greater than the price in December 1941.
A variety of factors contributed to the greatly increased market price of rice but the absolute amount of rice and other grain was not a critical determinant as has been argued from a superficial analysis of the situation. As described above, the loss of rice from Burma and decreased rice production because of cyclonic damage and fungal infestation decreased rice yields but Sen (1981a) has calculated that the 1943 rice supply was actually greater than that in the non-famine year of 1941. Further, the rice plus wheat supply was similarly greater in 1943 than in 1941 as was the per capita supply of food. The explanation for the disaster advanced by Sen (1981a) relates to changes in social “exchange entitlements” and specifically entitlement to rice: while the wages for agricultural labourers remained roughly the same in the 1942-1944 period, the price of rice quadrupled. The famine was a substantially rural phenomenon and if the landless rural poor could not afford to buy rice they simply starved unless they made it to the cities and begged for relief. We should accordingly consider the reasons for the dramatic rise in the price of rice.
Heavy-handed government intervention had caused uncertainty in the rice markets. Disturbances in West Bengal had met with rough responses from the British authorities especially in the Midnapore region that was already recovering from the effects of a cyclone. In April 1942 the government introduced a policy for several months that involved removal of surplus stocks of grain from particular coastal areas of Bengal, ostensibly in order to prevent such stocks falling into the hands of the Japanese if they indeed invaded Bengal from the sea. While this Rice Removal Policy was enforced for only a few months, it would have caused considerable nervousness on the part of grain supply holders and diminished confidence in the rice market.
A further measure that had a big impact on distribution of rice in a waterway-rich country was the Boat Denial Policy that required owners of boats capable of carrying more than 10 people to register them at police stations. Again the ostensible purpose of this edict was to deny a potentially useful resource from the Japanese if they invaded. This order was issued in April 1942 and some 25,000 boats were rapidly removed from use. This had a major impact on fishing (and hence on fish for rice for fishermen, of which more later) and also impeded the movement of sorely needed rice supplies throughout the country. This edict was reversed at the end of March 1944 and the Government agreed to immediately build 5,000 new boats to replace boats destroyed by the Denial Policy and to build 5,000 further boats later. However immense harm had been done to a huge number of people. The impact of this measure can be seen from the tripling of the price of fish in Calcutta by mid-1943 in comparison with the price in December 1941.
Sen (1981a) has described the Bengal famine as a “boom famine” caused by inflationary pressures in a war economy. 12 Calcutta was a major industrial city of the Empire and there was a major war-related economic expansion, an increasing military presence and major military-related construction. In a sense a rich city with money sucked rice out of an increasingly devastated countryside. The industrial workers and soldiers were able to buy rice (assisted in some cases by direct government subsidy). The rural labourer was increasingly excluded from the rice market by price rises. The relatively poor winter rice crop of 1942, panic, speculation and decreased confidence led to hoarding by producers that amplified the effect on market availability of the initial short-fall. Heavy-handed attempts by the Government to free up rice supplies simply had the opposite effect, causing a “freezing” of the rice market in the countryside due to further withholding by suppliers. This withholding would have been stimulated by the evidence of increasing famine distress, noting that many rice producers were not that far away from disaster themselves.
The provincial autonomy granted in late 1941 in relation to grain supplies prevented such supplies coming into Bengal from other provinces and hence bringing down the price of rice. The Government permitted free trade in rice in eastern India in mid-1943 but this then led to considerable price rises in the adjoining states and the policy was reversed. It has been asserted that this “divide and rule” policy of provincial autonomy in relation to food supplies was the crucial administrative mistake in the genesis of the famine. 13 [However after reading Chapter 15 and noting the timing of the administrative decision - the week before the attack on Pearl Harbor - the reader might reasonably hypothesize that this was not necessarily an administrative “mistake” but a deliberate act of policy that had the effect of isolating and crushing a restless and populous province]. The retention of rice supplies by producers added a further complicating factor to the situation. Less rice for market meant less money available for expenditure on services, whether these were for crafts, other manufactures or for labour. This then led to further groups of people being forced into the ranks of the destitute and starving in rural Bengal.
The course and nature of the famine
It should be appreciated that the typical poor Indian agricultural worker or peasant farmer at that time was living close to the edge anyway and a substantial decline in food availability would be quickly translated into physiological distress and thence into dangerous susceptibility to disease. In late 1942 scarcity became apparent in parts of Bengal that became translated into famine involving starvation from about March 1943 onwards. From late 1943 through 1944 starvation as such began to decline but epidemics devastated the starved and weakened population. The mortality was decreased in 1945 but was still very substantial and an excess mortality was still evident in 1946.
There were big differences between the impact of the famine in Calcutta and the countryside. The Government subsidized food for various Government workers (e.g. Port, railway and City workers) and food was also subsidized for industrial workers. Soldiers were of course well fed (this having been a sine qua non of 2 centuries of British occupation). Destitutes flooded into Calcutta and sought relief by begging “rice water” from the cooking of rice by householders. Relief of a kind was offered by charitable organizations and in August 1943 relief was offered by the Government. As discussed further below, the relief was inadequate, this inadequacy being compounded by malabsorption of food. By October 1943 there were about 100,000 destitutes in Calcutta and the Bengal Destitute Persons (Repatriation and Relief) Ordinance passed in that month directed the removal of destitutes from the city to “camps”. When destitutes refused to go they were removed by force. The relief offered was an inadequate gruel that was provided simultaneously at various centres in the City each day to prevent destitutes from having more than one serve. Nevertheless it could be supplemented with scraps or “rice water” and one can understand why destitutes were reluctant to leave the City.
The removal of destitutes from Calcutta to the country fits exactly with the thrust of this disquisition - that the British ruling classes wanted the world to conform to their nice social sensibilities, orderly perception being preferred to the exigencies of reality. In the noblest form of this aberration, men went over the top to their deaths on the Somme or stood to attention as the Titanic went down in the icy Atlantic. In its most ignoble manifestation the starving Calcutta destitutes were removed from the city to die out of sight, out of mind.
In pre-famine years the average Bengali consumed about 140 kg of rice per year and a bare subsistence rural Bengali about 90 kg per year. It can be calculated that the relief gruel amounted to a diet of only about 30 kg per year. The inadequacy of the diet (complicated by unsatisfactory taste and malabsorption due to disease) was evidenced by the dead and dying littering the City. Survival was greatly enhanced by getting to Calcutta or another big city and females had additional survival options involving sexual exploitation. 14
Sexual exploitation of famine victims
Gross demographic statistics indicate that children were the most vulnerable to this famine but among children and young people there are sex differences consistent with sexual exploitation of famine victims. A nearly two-fold increase in the percent mortality increase of males as compared to females in the age groups of 10-15 and 15-20 has indicated that females had a major additional survival option of sexual submission. Similarly, a greatly decreased ratio of females to males in the 10-15 year age group among destitutes in Calcutta has been interpreted in terms of female prostitution. Such sexual exploitation had to clearly be of very substantial incidence in order to have such a big effect on these demographic statistics and this appalling aspect of the catastrophe is recorded by a number of observers. 15
Greenough (1982) has recorded the testimonies of female famine victims forced into sexual submission or prostitution by famine circumstances. There was a major military presence in Bengal at the time since military campaigns were being conducted against the Japanese in Assam, Burma and the coastal Arakan region south of Chittagong. Service through prostitution in the Military Labour Corps represented a major avenue of survival for single females or women desperate to keep their children alive. The world is now familiar with the massive system of enforced prostitution involving “comfort women” for the Japanese Army during the Second World War. In war-time Bengal such large-scale sexual submission was enforced by the exigencies of survival in a devastating famine. Greenough (1982) reproduces an account of a mother forced into prostitution with the Military Labour Corps in order to keep herself and her child alive. After withdrawing for obvious reasons, she returns to “service” but succumbs to disease. 16 So much for the “honour of the regiment”.
Bhowani Sen (1945) describes the impact on families and women:
“The whole life of the people was disrupted. Parents were forced to throw their children and babies on the roadside in the hope that somebody might pick them up and feed them. Husbands were forced to leave their wives and the whole family at the mercy of events. Women were forced to sell themselves and enter brothels. Out of the 125,000 destitutes who came to Calcutta, it is estimated that quite about 30,000 young women joined brothels to be able to continue their breathing.” 17
Jog (1944) described the disaster as follows:
“an unprecedented famine in Bengal gathered about two million people to their forefathers, drove countless more to utter destitution, sent innumerable women to brothels and sapped the very life-force of the province for generations to come.” 18
The abuse of scores of thousands of enslaved “comfort women” by Japanese soldiers in the conquered lands of the Second World War has been recently well documented. 19 The similar abuse of Bengali women on a similar scale during that conflict is a well-kept secret in the English-speaking world. The contempt with which the Bengalis were regarded by some Allied soldiers is revealed by the account of an appalled American officer who had to stop his soldiers amusing themselves (in rail transit through starving Bengal to Assam) by using paddy field peasants (“wogs” in their parlance) and their livestock as target practice. 20
The biological and social realities of mass starvation
The mortality in this famine was initially largely due to explicit starvation. Infants with no milk from starving mothers simply starved. Adult men had greater freedom to roam more widely for food. Infants and mothers were necessarily more constrained. Accordingly children represented the major group of victims in 1943/44 as in 1769/70. The death through starvation of 1943 gave way to death through disease in 1944 onwards as cholera and malaria had a devastating impact on a starving, weakened population.
The famine had big differential effects on social groups involved in different occupations. The worst affected by the famine were fishermen and transport workers. In order of decreasing suffering the occupations have been ranked thus by Greenough (1982): fishermen, transport workers, agricultural labourers, other agricultural workers, non-agricultural labourers, raft workers, tradespeople, professional and other service providers, non-cultivating owners, part peasant-part labourers and peasant farmers and share-croppers. The latter people, being directly involved in the production of rice, were the least affected by the famine but were certainly not immune from the disaster.
The enforced removal of boats through the Boat Denial Policy meant denial of food in the form of fish and of rice in exchange for fish or transport services. The famine had a catastrophic effect on people dependent on boats for subsistence. [My wife’s paternal grandfather (dada) Kasim may have originally worked as a boatman on the Hooghly River in Bengal before he went as an indentured labourer to Fiji, where he worked on boats on the Rewa River. One presumes that those of his remaining clan dependent on boating and fishing for survival would have been very vulnerable in the Bengal Famine]. With the rural economy crippled, transport workers suffered from loss of business as did other people providing services in the countryside. One class of labourers, the Namasudras, numbered 3 million in Bengal and suffered 1 million dead. 21
The great Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray made an immensely moving film, Distant Thunder, that describes the Bengal Famine from the perspective of an educated man, a pandit, and his wife in a rural village environment. The husband provided medical, educational and religious services to the neighbourhood in return for money or food. Like other service providers such as labourers, hair-dressers and tradesmen, he was dependent on adequate return for service and critically affected by the price of rice and indeed the actual availability of rice. As the drama unfolds we see scarcity, disease, compassion of the husband and his wife for an old man and the husband’s guilt at having been fed at a rich man’s house far removed from his home and his hungry wife. We see the rising collective anger and violence of the hungry towards the rich hoarder, the woman driven to the shame of prostitution, the women driven to collecting weeds and snails and their increasing vulnerability in a society that is collapsing. The wife turns to husking paddy for survival. I am moved as I recall a tragic vignette: a dying girl finally expires with a little parcel of food at her finger tips in all the lushness and beauty of a tropical field and a waif creeps out to take the unneeded food. The film ends as the old man from many kilometers away now returns with a whole band of his destitute kinsfolk. The famished wife turns to her husband who says that they must now share what they have with 10 rather than 2 people - it is actually 11 with a baby coming. The film ends, against a backdrop of the silhouettes of hobbling, starving people, with the words: “Over 5 million died of starvation and epidemics in Bengal in what has come to be known as the man-made famine of 1943.” 22
The level of violence associated with this distress was to all account surprisingly low. Calcutta was well supplied with food and destitutes died in the streets in sight of bountiful markets. Theft of grain in the fields clearly occurred and seizure of harvested food by desperate men also happened. Greenough (1982) and Ghosh (1944) in particular have provided graphic records of the impact of the famine on individuals. The individual tragedies are innumerable: Hindu pandits forced to accept conditions inconsistent with the purity dictates of their Brahminic station; women and girls forced into prostitution; desperate men murder the rich man who shoots at them; a dying mother tells of her return to prostitution with the Military Labour Corps in a vain attempt to save her child; mothers murder their children to stop their suffering; parents give their children away; agonizing deaths, alone and unsupported by the roadsides, in the streets or in the lush fields of the Bengal countryside. The mass of dead and dying was a feast for vultures and dogs in 1943/44 as in 1769/70. Awful accounts tell of people too weak to resist being eaten alive. Bodies were left to rot by roadsides and in fields, there often not being enough able-bodied men to bury or otherwise sensibly dispose of the dead. Reporters graphically describe the sight of masses of dead bodies and the stench of rotting corpses. 23
British administrators and the disaster
An extraordinary feature of the Bengal Famine was that a famine was not actually declared under the terms of the Famine Codes, apparently on the basis that invoking the famine codes would have meant being committed to the expenditure involved in doing something about it. Thus Sir T. Rutherford wrote to Viceroy Linlithgow explaining that he had not declared a famine to avoid the obligations set down in the regulations. 24 Amartya Sen, a leading scholar in the analysis of famines in general and of famines in Bengal in particular, concludes that this omission may well have been largely responsible for the immense loss of life in this famine. 25
The net importation of grain into India in the 6 financial years up to and including the beginning of the famine is instructive (millions of tons in parentheses): 37/38 (+ 0.624), 38/39 (+ 1.044), 39/40 (+ 2.221), 40/41 (+ 0.993), 41/42 (+ 0.431) and 42/43 (- 0.361). A similar picture is seen for net imports of rice into India (millions of tons in parentheses): 37/38 (+ 1.165), 38/39 (+ 1.235), 39/40 (+ 2.139), 40/41 (+ 1.097), 41/42 (+ 0.723) and 42/43 (- 0.259). Thus in the financial year that saw the commencement of the worst famine in India in 2 centuries the British authorities oversaw a massive net export of grains and rice from an increasingly impoverished country. This situation no doubt contributed to the price of grain and rice in Bengal during the famine and the ability of other parts of India to make a contribution when the provincial autonomy in this respect was over-ridden in a restricted region for a limited time during the emergency.
It is important to consider the conditions underlying this famine. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, India (population about 400 million) could largely feed herself with a short-fall of about 1 million tons of grain (representing only about 2% of the total requirement) that was met by an excess of imports over grain exports. This level of existence involved chronic undernourishment of a large proportion of the population, which accordingly did not have the literal or metaphorical fat to surmount a major famine of the Bengal famine kind without major loss. The above figures demonstrate the sheer callousness of the administering authorities in permitting net imports to steadily decline from the minimal requirement to a substantial net export by mid-War. 26
It is of interest to note that in major past famines in Bengal the same obscenity occurred. In the 1770 famine that killed 10 million people a ban was temporarily placed on exports of grain from Bengal but with the typical laissez-faire of the times the ban was ignored and the ban was indeed rescinded in mid-November of that year. It was asserted that “as much grain was exported from lower parts of Bengal as would have fed the number who perished for a whole year.” In the famine of 1866 that killed over a million and devastated Orissa (750,000 dead), exports of rice continued during the famine period at only a modestly decreased level (30% down on the pre-famine 1864/65 level). In the famine of 1873-74, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, Sir George Campbell (a decent and good man), pleaded unsuccessfully for a cessation of exports which continued at near-maximal levels. A similar near-maximal export of rice from India occurred during the appalling famine decade from 1892 to 1901 that saw some of the worst general famine conditions in India in general. 27
The opinion of the British Raj Foodgrains Policy Committee in 1943 is instructive in relation to the loss of imports - it considered that, the absolute deficit aside, it “seriously affects the sense of security generally”. As we have seen it was the loss of that sense of security that lead to hoarding, consequent catastrophic price rises in Bengal and hence to the disaster in rural Bengal. 28
That the disaster would be of a huge magnitude was eventually apparent to Viceroy Linlithgow who felt able to predict losses of the order of a million people in mid-1943. Nevertheless Linlithgow and the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, felt unable to respond effectively to the emergency. They were quite happy, however, to interfere with the provincial government of Bengal. Sir John Herbert was replaced by a stand-in Governor of Bengal, Sir T. Rutherford, who in October 1943 was still uncertain about the extent of shortages but offered a short-fall figure of 655,000 tons, a figure to be revised upwards by Linlithgow to 1 million tons. It was Sir T. Rutherford who wrote to the Viceroy explaining that a famine had not been declared to avoid the relief obligations set down by the Famine Codes. One may be presuming too much to assume that the unfolding disaster and the incompetence of the administration led to the replacement of Linlithgow in October 1943 by General Wavell of North Africa fame. The Australian R.G. Casey came from the same theatre in January to become Governor of Bengal. The view of Bhattacharya (1967) on the famine and the changeover is instructive:
[there was an ] increase in the British India Army from 175,000 to more than 2 million ... But the war effort involving mounting expenditure and the pursuit of a policy of the scorched earth in Bengal culminated in the outbreak of a severe famine there in 1943 which the administration of Linlithgow failed to tackle and he was soon relieved by his successor, Lord Wavell, who brought his military experience and push to bear on the situation.” 29
Unlike his predecessor, Wavell immediately visited Bengal and took the immediate step to recovery of ensuring that Calcutta would be supplied by the rest of India and not by starving rural Bengal. The army was deployed for famine relief. In Bengal under Casey there was a major program of cholera innoculations and smallpox vaccination that involved millions of people. The Boat Denial Policy was reversed at the end of March 1944 enabling surviving fishermen and boatmen to resume their occupations. Nevertheless the juggernaut of starvation, social collapse and disease had been set in motion and the death toll would only slightly decline in 1944. There would still be a substantial excess mortality in 1945 and 1946, even if one assumes that the medical and preventative measures taken had no effect on the underlying “normal” pre-famine mortality rate. 30
Wavell was a decent, concerned and vigorous man and he pleaded continually (but unsuccessfully) with Churchill for 1 million tons of grain for 1944 to ensure that the price of food declined and to ward against further disasters in Bengal and elsewhere in India. Churchill was unmoved, his hatred for India and Indians combining with cold-blooded strategic considerations to hold him to a course that from early 1942 onwards had deprived India of minimal food requisites in the name of maximizing supplies to the North African campaign and thence for the Italian theatre and Normandy. Nevertheless Wavell’s persistence paid off and he was able to squeeze commitments for 450,000 tons of grain out of the British Government in his first year in office, the Chiefs of Staff (if not Churchill) recognizing the importance of India as a base for military operations. Churchill began to regret Wavell’s appointment before he even left England for India, Wavell having merely expressed some concern over food for India and the desirability of at least talking to the Congress leaders. While our concern here is with Wavell in relation to the Bengal famine, it is also important to note that he was involved in the time-tabling of Indian Independence and the decision for Partition (which he did not desire) was actually taken by the Indian leadership before he left India for England.
Wavell’s diaries 31 give a fascinating insight into exchanges of the high and mighty in this awful time. He accepted the position of Viceroy of India in June 1943. His entries relating to India’s British rulers before he had left England are very revealing. Wavell differed from Churchill in style and morality over India. Wavell was a conservative empire man like Churchill but was concerned to have sensible dialogue with the Indian politicians in order to assist the war effort and was also most concerned about the food problems. Churchill had hatred and contempt for India and Indians.
On July 3 1943 Wavell attended a Cabinet meeting on Palestine occasioned by increasing Arab-Jewish tension. Churchill was a confirmed Zionist. Wavell, struck by the complete absence of support for the Arab point of view, defended their rights pledged under the Balfour Agreement and argued that the Jews were likely to win any conflict and that the Arabs needed protection. Churchill countered that the Arabs had done nothing to help in the war. Wavell rejoined that Ibn Saud was friendly, that his country could have harmed Britain and that “the Jews, as a race, had not helped us” - an extraordinary assertion that leaves one nonplussed and in the circumstances raises the suspicion that Wavell might have felt to some extent about Jews as Churchill felt about Indians. We will return to the Jewish-Arab-Muslim-Indian connection in Chapter 15 of this book.
On July 17 1943 at a Cabinet meeting Churchill complained bitterly about the fact that Britain owed India 800 million pounds. Wavell asserts “He hates India and everything to do with it” and records that Secretary of State for India Amery pushed him a note saying that Churchill “knows as much of the Indian problem as George III did of the American colonists”. Wavell records that “Winston drew harrowing picture of British workmen in rags struggling to pay rich mill-owners, and wanted to charge India the equivalent of our debt to her for saving her from Japanese invasion.” Wavell’s only contribution was to point out India’s defence of Britain in the Middle East theatre (where Indian troops had figured prominently in the action).
On August 1 1943 Wavell has a walk and conversation with Amery and they discuss the failure of the British to mix with the Indians: “Amery thought that intermarriage might have been no bad thing, and that the ban we put on the Indian Princes marrying English women was wrong.” Wavell thought that Hindu and Moslem customs rather than colour had been involved.
On September 14 1943 Wavell records the preparation of a paper for a Cabinet Sub-Committee in which they propose discussions to bring Indian leaders of the Centre into a government willing to support the war effort. On September 24 Wavell dines with the King and the Queen. “H.M. again referred to undue length of Viceroy’s telegrams and told me to make them shorter.” At a Cabinet meeting on food for India Churchill spoke scathingly of Indian inefficiency, the supply of 150,000 tons of grain from Iraq and the need for reserves in the Middle East for Greece and the Balkans. Wavell disapproves in his diary of the preference for Greeks and liberated countries as opposed to Indians. He commented on the major Indian war effort at the meeting.
On September 29 1943 the India Paper was restructured to a much vaguer proposition. On September 30 1943 Wavell discusses India with William Phillips (American representative in India 1942-1943) who said that the “P.M. had a blind spot about India, was most unreasonable and “riding for a fall” over it”. Mountbatten supported Wavell’s position. On October 6 there was a Government dinner for Wavell. Churchill was so annoyed with the India Paper that he almost refused to come. He told Wavell he could not possibly accept it but nevertheless praised Wavell in his speech and eulogised Britain’s record in India. At the Cabinet meeting on October 7 the “bogey” of Gandhi was raised, Eden spoke as if Wavell was proposing to “enthrone Gandhi” and Churchill had a tirade about Congress and the potential for the politicizing of the Indian Army.
On October 15 1943 in Cairo on his way out to India, Wavell inspected Indian troops and spoke to Casey about food. Casey said Australia had had a bad wheat harvest, Canada could just supply U.S. and British deficiencies and that the Argentinians had burnt their surplus of 2 million tons as fuel on the railways in the absence of coal, of which there was a world shortage.
On March 24 1944 Wavell records a British Government (H.M.G.) offer of 250,000 tons of wheat for 1944 and a further 150,000 tons of wheat if India will export 150,000 tons of rice. The Secretary of State for India suggested that he announce the import of 400,000 tons of wheat and conceal the export of 150,000 tons of rice. Wavell writes in his journal: “I shall certainly do nothing so dishonest or stupid”, notes the refusal of H.M.G. to approach the Americans for shipping and refers to his position that 1 million tons is the minimum needed.
On April 14/15 1944 Wavell is visited by Louis Mountbatten (M.B.), Commander in Chief for South East Asia, who is optimistic about clearing the Japanese out of Assam. An explosion and fire in the Bombay docks had destroyed shipping and 50,000 tons of food. He comments on the tough time that M.B. is having with the “Japs, the P.M. and the Americans” and that he “has lost that first fine, careless confidence that caused my predecessor to call him the Boy Champion.” M.B. nevertheless tells a very funny story about the visit of the ultra-orthodox Maharajah of Benares to the Maharaja of Rampur. “Benares” believes that a cow should be the first object he sees each day but the guest rooms are on an upper floor. “Rampu” gets a crane from a local sugar factory and rigs up a platform to ensure that “a rather astonished cow was elevated every morning to His Highness’ bedroom window.”
On June 4 1944 Wavell refers to Roosevelt refusing a request by the P.M. for shipping. On June 24 1944 he refers to a wire to the S. of S. asking for a decision on food imports and comments on a conversation with George Giffard about American denigration of British efforts and how they mutually concluded that “we were a very great nation, greater than the Americans.” On June 26 1944 Wavell is very chuffed to have got a promise from H.M.G. to ship a further 200,000 tons in the next 3 months, with more to be considered: “I have extracted 450,000 tons since the War Cabinet regretted that nothing could be done.” Gandhi had been very ill and on July 5 1944 Wavell writes: “Winston sent me a peevish telegram to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet. He has never answered my telegram about food.”
On July 22 1944 Wavell is told about a secret conference in Cairo in May in which everyone, civil and military, had opposed the H.M.G. decision for Partition of Palestine. Wavell is peeved because India has 90 million Moslems with strong feelings about Palestine and H.M.G. has not informed him. On August 15 1944 Wavell alludes to his differences with Churchill and Cabinet that he had set out in a very frank letter to the Secretary of State dealing with his desire for a courteous reply to a letter from Gandhi, application of “Section 93” in Bengal (resumption of British administration) and his requests for food imports. In the event Cabinet ignores his plea and forces him to send a “rude” and “arrogant” reply to Gandhi. On August 22 Wavell says “Cabinet has destroyed at one blow my reputation for fairness and good temper in my correspondence with Gandhi” and speculates that it was indeed probably the P.M.’s intention to weaken his usefulness in dealing with the Congress.
On August 31 1944 Wavell consults with Casey about forgoing “Section 93” British interference with the Bengal Provincial Government and Congress worries about his interference - a cartoon in the Hindustan Times shows Wavell as an octopus with a governor’s head at the end of each tentacle. However Congress paranoia about Wavell is more than matched by Churchill’s paranoia about Congress. On September 7 1944 M.B. comes up to Simla and indicates that the “P.M. was as intractable as ever about India” and seemed to regard food for India as “appeasement” of Congress. Only the strategic sense of the Chiefs of Staff had ensured food for India as a stable operational base. Wavell suspected that there was more shipping available than claimed and comments on medical scarcities and its relief. An extraordinary insight into Churchill is given: “P.M. was quite furious about Gandhi’s release and subsequent activities, and in fact quite impossible about India. Leo Amery [Secretary of State for India], who does stand up to him, had accused the P.M. of a “Hitler like attitude” to India, and had got a first class rocket.”
In a communication to the P.M. summarizing his term (October 25 1944) Wavell frankly refers to the neglect of India by H.M.G. He agrees with the P.M. that encouragement of Indian independence 25 years before was “misplaced liberal sentimentality” that has nevertheless had permanent political consequences that cannot be ignored. Wavell is concerned with the neglect of India at a meeting of Dominion Premiers, the presence of only 40 members at the big India debate in the Commons and how, despite the lessons of the Bengal Famine, he has had to fight to secure food imports to prevent food prices soaring again as they had in 1943. Wavell was finally replaced as Viceroy of India by Lord Mountbatten in 1947. From his journal entries we can see his determination to prevent a repetition of the Bengal Famine in the face of hostility from Churchill. Wavell died in 1950 and was buried in the same city as Jane Austen - not in Winchester Cathedral where she lies, but in the chantry cloister of Winchester College, which he had attended as a boy.
The record of history
The Bengal Famine of 1943-1944, for all of its absence from general public perception, is a well-documented event and without being exhaustive I have briefly catalogued below some of the historical sources:
1. Contemporary newspapers and public records: The famine was described by the Bengali and Indian press at the time and indeed by the press, notably by the Manchester Guardian and the Calcutta Statesman. 32 The normal bureaucratic processes of the Raj and the British Empire in general ensured a thorough record of all kinds of germane matters. The biographies, autobiographies, correspondence or other memoirs of relevant great men (such as Churchill, Mountbatten, Amery and Wavell) 33 or of lesser, albeit distinguished, men (such as Casey) 34 inevitably had to turn to one of the most extraordinary events of that time. The matter was debated in the House of Commons, albeit to a miniscule audience. 35 In the end there was an official Famine Commission that analyzed the event and enormously under-estimated the carnage. 36
2. Diaries and memoirs: People connected with the famine in various capacities recorded their impressions. Viceroy Wavell’s published diaries record his attempts to secure additional supplies of grain for India and Bengal in particular. 37 R.G. Casey (later Lord Casey) has recorded his perception of the famine, dismissing the assertion that it was “man-made” (it was a simple shortage of food in his opinion) and grossly under-estimating the carnage (in his opinion only 1 million may have died).38 Jog (1944) records the outrage of Senator James M. Mead of New York who visited India in 1943. In the words of Jog:
“[Mead] was shocked that at the time when thousands of shivering people lay on the sidewalks of Calcutta, the authorities were still devoting precious space in freight cars to race horses en route for the Calcutta Gold Cup! India made him angrier than anything else he saw during his 45,000-mile trip.” 39
The Calcutta Gold Cup in 1943 and the British war-time dilemma of resources for war or starving millions, respectively, recall the obscenity of the Great Durbar at Delhi in 1900 at a time of immense famine 40 and Viceroy Lord Curzon’s resolution then that famine relief would not be permitted to cut into military expenditure. 41
3. Specific contemporary histories: A major analysis of the famine involving the destitutes of Calcutta was conducted and prepared for publication by Das in 1944 and indeed the bulk of this material was submitted to the Famine Inquiry Commission in 1944. This extraordinary work could not be published until 1949. 41 Ghosh published an account of famines in Bengal (1770-1943) in 1944. 42 The succinct but potent book by Jog (1944), Churchill’s Blind-spot:India, had to deal in part with the dreadful famine and British unresponsiveness. Jog was among the first to apply the term “holocaust” to an event of man-made mass death in World War 2 in applying this descriptive to the Bengal Famine. 43 The Report of the Famine Commission (1946) 44 and the account by Bhowani Sen (1945) 45 are further key documents. Other contemporary accounts and novels relate to this event, and the reader is referred to Villager (1945) and to Das (1949) for photographs of famine victims that recall images of the inmates of Nazi death camps. 46
4. Further specific accounts of the Bengal Famine: Accounts of the Bengal Famine are included in a variety of works in addition to those of Ghosh (1944) and Das (1949) and the list of the most comprehensive treatises includes Bhatia (1991), Drèze & Sen (1989), Sen (1981a,b), Greenough (1982), Uppal (1984) and Villager (1945). 47 However a variety of other works mention or otherwise deal, albeit briefly, with the Bengal Famine from a number of different specific perspectives. 48
5. Histories of India: It is difficult to imagine a history of India ignoring what was one of the most awful events in the history of India and indeed of mankind. Indeed a wide range of Indian histories dealing with modern times refer to the Bengal Famine. 49 However inevitably we find the malignant effects of the historiographical malaise anglaise and a number of histories dealing with India of this period this period somehow failed to notice this horrendous event, Britain’s Auschwitz. 50
6. Related histories: A number of historical accounts dealing with related events such as the war in Burma and elsewhere in South East Asia and the major players involved inevitably have to refer at least in passing to the famine.51 Thus an account of the life of Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the Axis collaborationist Indian National Army, refers to his offer of 100,000 tons of rice for the Bengalis (an offer which was ignored by the British). [It is noteworthy that Bose’s German “handler” participated in the plot against Hitler and a film of his strangulation by piano wire was made for the pleasure of the Fuehrer.] 52 Nevertheless it is disturbing to find related histories and other histories that for whatever reason overlook the sustained suffering and death of millions in the region. 53 [Again, the reader is cautioned that “experimental error” by the author may have inadvertently resulted in missing brief or non-indexed references to the disaster. Further, such absences in themselves may merely reflect the general value “First World” society as a whole places upon such “Third World” victims. As we will see in Chapter 17, a “moral responsiveness test” applied recently to the media and the intellectual and political leadership of Australia in relation to the Bengal Famine yielded minimal response.]
7. Histories of Britain and the British Empire: The Americans are an earnestly moralistic lot (thank goodness) and remain all too conscious of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (even if many feel that these nuclear cataclysms were necessary evils). It is almost inconceivable that a history of the American people up to the post-war era would ignore these events. What is the perception in the English-speaking world of the man-made Bengal Famine - an event that swept away an incomprehensible 25 times as many people? I dare say that British historiography can account an almost zero perception of these events as one of its greatest Austenizing triumphs. A large number of British histories - including classics of G.M. Trevelyan (1952) and H.G.Wells (1951) - completely ignore the Bengal Famine and even any mention of famine in Bengal at all. 54
G.M. Trevelyan, like his inhumane grandfather Charles Trevelyan of Irish famine and Indian notoriety, is simply beyond the comprehension of ethical primitives such as myself. G.M. Trevelyan is the British Austenizer par excellence in relation to the glories of the 18th century, the Irish famine and 2 centuries of famine in India. His History of England (1952) virtually ignores the actuality of the Irish Famine and totally ignores any famine in India at all, whether in 1770, the 19th century or in 1943. 55 Humphrey Trevelyan, great-nephew of C.E. Trevelyan, served in India and in his account of his sojourn almost completely fails to notice the Bengal Famine of 1943. This holocaust simply appears in his account of his subsequent sojourn in Washington as a joke:
“As the end of the war came near, visitors from India flooded in ... [including] a mission to obtain aid for Bengal famine relief, led inappropriately by a globular politician who had clearly never missed a meal in his life.” 56
Humphrey Trevelyan went on to become the British Ambassador to Egypt and this somewhat unobservant fellow who had overlooked the demise of about 4 million Bengalis was amazed when he saw British warplanes overflying Cairo during the collusive Suez invasion of 1956.
Of H.G. Wells we have some evidence of human warmth in his enthusiastic sexual debauchery and one can only speculate about possibly not unconnected racial or psychosexual misperceptions on the part of the great man. Certainly, in retrospect, H.G. Wells had a certain ideological unevennness that could accommodate socialism and social justice on the one hand and ambivalence towards the working class on the other. 57 In his Outline of History (heavily biased towards an Anglocentric picture of the world), H.G. Wells ignores both the 1770 and 1943 Bengal Famines and yet devotes 3 dozen of 100 dozen pages of this work to a prejudiced diatribe against Islam, Islamic culture and the Prophet Mohammed. (It should be noted that while this was a Hindu plus Muslim Holocaust, most of the victims were Muslims and it can indeed be described as a “Muslim Holocaust”). Perhaps he had a problem with “the East”, and since he also ignores the horrendous Ukrainian Famine of 1928-1933 one might further suppose that he also subscribed to the view that “Asia begins east of Vienna”. However while ignoring the Bengal Famines and the Ukrainian Famine, H.G. Wells does wax strong about the ghastly post-revolutionary famine in Russia at the beginning of the twenties. 58
One would like to credit those historians of Britain and the British Empire who grace their pages with a mention of “famine in Bengal” in at least a few words. However I have had great trouble discovering such historians. One hopes that a list of such Oskar Schindlers of British History could be generated by more dogged researchers. Apart from the 1961 edition of the generalist Encyclopaedia Britannica (but not the 1977 and 1979 editions) and Taylor (1965), English History 1914-1945 (that mentions the Bengal famine in the quotation given at the beginning of this chapter), I have found no works dealing specifically and comprehensively with the general history of Britain and the British Empire that mention the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944. 59 This apparent total absence of such reportage of such a major event in British history - as perceived from analysis of one of the best academic libraries “in the Southern Hemisphere” (as we say in the Antipodes) - is surely one of the most extraordinary examples of Austenizing that can be offered in this book.
British historiography stands condemned for the effective deletion from British history of one of the most immense disasters in the British realm and indeed in human history. One can only speculate on the socio-economic basis of this extraordinary aberration. While Holocaust Denial is a criminal offence in Germany, 60 it is clear that postwar Japan has yet to come to grips with the ghastly realities of its 20th century military imperialist phase. 61 As an Anglo-Celtic, Australian anglophile I feel ashamed that our culture has chosen a path of deliberately blotting out the reality of war-time Bengal. We have chosen to “walk by on the other side”, a position for a sophisticated and liberal culture that bodes ill for the coming world of the 21st century.
8. General histories of the World: One can glibly rationalize the British coyness in relation to their dark past as stemming from national pride and a perfectly natural desire to not wash dirty linen in public or reveal such an enormous collection of literal skeletons in the cupboard. In support of this we see that the Bengal Famine surfaces in general histories. Nevertheless of a sample of 30 more general histories dealing with Twentieth Century history, 62 only 9 mention the Bengal Famine, namely Cook (1991), Embree (1988), Encyclopaedia Britannica (1961), Grun (1975), Howat & Taylor (1973), Rosenberger & Tobin (1945) [Keesing’s Contemporary Archives (1943-1945)], Spear (1968), Taylor (1965) and Trager (1979).
9. Histories of World War 2 and of Winston Churchill: The Bengal Famine was a major event of World War 2 by any reasonable standard and may well have consumed as many people as died in combat in that conflict. It is reasonable to expect that it might merit some mention in such histories including those specifically dealing with the life of Winston Churchill in view of his intimate connection with the genesis and duration of the Bengal Famine as clearly recorded by Wavell (and others). Unfortunately we look largely in vain and there is an all too long list of such histories of World War 2 or of Winston Churchill that are silent on the death of millions of Bengalis. Of a selection of 38 histories dealing relatively specifically with World War II, only 9 even briefly mention this major event, namely Behrens (1955), Calvocoressi et al. (1972), Encyclopaedia Britannica (1961), Dear & Foot (1995), Kitchen (1990), Renouvin (1969), Romanus & Sunderland (1956), Taylor (1965) and Weinberg (1994). However, while not mentioning the Bengal Famine, Macmillan (1967) notes how he was mistakenly congratulated by Giraud in June 1943 for appointment as Viceroy of India and the importance of the Muslim world (as perceived by the actual appointee, Wavell): “No doubt the experience which I had been able to gain on “la question mussulmane” in North Africa during the last five months had served me well. I disclaimed this high honour was to come to me.” It should be noted that nearly all of these works mention the Jewish Holocaust. 63
Of a selection of 25 historical works specifically dealing with Winston Churchill 64 in only 2 is mention made of the Bengal Famine, namely in Jog (1944) and in the analysis of S. Gopal in the collection of essays edited by Blake and Louis (1994) (both of these works being hostile towards Churchill and written by Indians).
The most extraordinary example is Churchill (1954), the 6 volume History of the Second World War. This was published over the period 1948-1954, noting that Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Despite the fact that Churchill was intimately involved in life and death decisions that ultimately meant death for millions of Bengalis, there is total silence on the matter. Nevertheless there is an intriguing, inexplicit letter from the Viceroy of India Linlithgow in Churchill’s treatise that may be germane in the sense that it probably is referring to 1942 anti-British violence and we will consider this in Chapter 15. The following quotations from Churchill (1954) are potent “from the horse’s mouth” assertions that impinge on the matter. However while the Bengal Famine is not revealed, these passages are very revealing about Churchill and his attitude towards his Indian victims:
“The President ... cautioned Stalin against bringing up the problem of India with Churchill and Stalin agreed that this was undoubtedly a sore subject. Roosevelt said that reform in India should begin from the bottom, and Stalin replied that reform from the bottom would mean revolution.” (Volume V, p306).
“I feel that you cannot have looked into the extraordinary consequences of our coming out of this war owing India a bigger debt, after having defended her, than we owed the United States at the end of the last war. Your note does not seem at all to take into consideration these frightful consequences.” (Volume V, p625).
“I was also glad to record that although the British Empire had now entered the sixth year of the war it was still keeping its position, with a total population, including the Dominions and Colonies, of only seventy million white people. Our effort in Europe, measured by divisions in the field, was about equal to that of the United States. This was as it should be, and I was proud that we could claim equal partnership with our great ally.” (Volume VI, pp132-133). 65
Churchill’s silence on the Famine even during war-time provoked this comment from Jog (1944):
“Though he has scrupulously avoided referring to it, Churchill will nevertheless have to admit that the situation went slightly out of hand in the latter half of 1943, when an unprecedented famine in Bengal gathered about two million people to their forefathers, drove countless more to utter destitution, sent innumerable women to brothels and sapped the very life-force of the province for generations to come. The famine of 1943 has thrown into shade even its terrible predecessor of 1770, about which Macaulay [read by Churchill] wrote in such flesh-creeping phrases in his essay on Robert Clive. Churchill must surely be remembering the latter, even if he has had no time to attend to the former due to his numerous preoccupations.” 66
Of the few general histories of World War 2 that do refer to famine in India or more specifically to the Bengal famine, of particular interest to our account of the Bengal famine is a very detailed work by C.A Behrens, Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War (1955) that is referred to by Taylor (1965) in his English History 1914-1945 quoted above. Drastic reductions in the amount of shipping in the Indian Ocean in 1943 enabled supply of Britain and forces in North Africa at the expense of famine relief for India. In her opinion the North African priority condemned any deficit area of India to starvation. 67
In Chapter 15 of this book we will explore the connections between Bengal and the Holocaust in Europe, the role of Churchill in the Bengal Famine and his secretiveness not only about Bengal but in relation to other major events of World War 2 with which he was intimately involved namely the attack on Pearl Harbour and the fall of Singapore. This will lead us to consider the importance of correct scientific advice to government and the major decisions facing world governments in relation to population growth and global warming.
An Australian view of a Holocaust
This could be considered a form of “colonial cringe”, but many Australians would feel that they lack the sangfroid and ruthlessness of those in the “metropolitan” Old World. Further, Australians regard their country as the land of the “fair go” and that human decency and responsiveness are more evident in the mores of a less stratified and less class-ridden society such as that found in Australia. Be that as it may, the response of an on-the-spot Australian diplomat to the Bengal Famine is of interest in relation to our unquenched (if probably seriously misplaced) hope for future social responsiveness to such matters. The reader is referred to detailed accounts of Richard Casey’s experiences in war-time Bengal as a Governor of the famine-wracked province 68, the most recent of these being the excellent biography of Casey’s wife Maie by Langmore (1997). However this work deals with the indisputable Bengal Famine in 2 disputable sentences - 40 words for 4 million victims - but has a running innuendo throughout the work about the arguable and unknowable, namely the alleged homosexual passion of Maie Casey and its possible physical consummation. [Reviews indicating the differential treatment given to horrendous reality as compared to surmised and unknowable minutiae were ignored by Anglo media - a testament to the continuing unresponsiveness of our dominant Anglo culture].
After stints in Washington and the Middle East, Richard Casey (later Lord Casey) was offered the job of Governor of Bengal by Churchill in November 1943. Casey was sworn in on January 22, 1944. Casey records his indifferent welcome and his initial impressions:
“I could not have had a worse Press before I arrived. They protested to high heaven against an Australian being sent to govern them, “Have we become a colony of Australia?” - “How are we to endure the humiliation of a Governor from a country that prohibits Indians from entering it?” 69
“The province was grossly over-populated, with an out-of-date system of administration and a microscopically small and over-tired staff. It had just been through a very bad famine, and there was no reserve of food. The health of the people was very bad.” 70
Casey was justifiably proud of the massive preventative medical programs in Bengal in 1944-1945:
“In the course of 1944 and 1945 over 54,000,000 individuals were vaccinated against smallpox, and 27,000,000 inoculated against cholera, a total of over 81,000,000 treatments against one or other of these diseases out of a total population of 65,000,000. I doubt whether an effort in preventative medicine on this scale had ever been made before in any country.” 71
Nevertheless Casey had a self-recorded attitude to the Bengal Famine that minimizes the holocaust. Thus he declares:
“When I arrived in Bengal [January 1944] the famine of 1943 was only just over, and the November 1943 rice crop had been quite good, so that the outlook for 1944 was reasonably good, although, of course, there were no reserves of rice.” 72
In reality the death rate in 1944 was much the same as in 1943, albeit for different reasons (starvation-induced disease susceptibility as opposed to explicit starvation). 73 Casey’s estimate of a death toll of “probably 1,000,000 over and above the normal mortality - about a 50% increase in the normal death-rate” 74 is at the lower end of estimates and about 14% of the likely actuality. 75
Casey’s final verdict is incorrect in substance and completely absolves the rulers for the devastation of the ruled:
“Many people have sought to make political capital out of the Bengal famine of 1943. It was said that the famine was man-made. This is untrue. Even had there been no hoarding and black-marketing, there would have been a grievous famine in 1943 simply because there was not nearly enough rice to go round. Hoarding and black-marketing merely intensified the shortage.” 76
Casey’s written accounts of his Indian experiences minimize the Bengal Famine but he was clearly sufficiently moved by his experiences in Bengal to write bluntly to Wavell in 1945, expressing a judgement he was to later deliberately omit from his account of the exchange:
“the Empire has cause for shame in the fact that, in Bengal at least, after a century and a half of British rule, we can point to no achievement worth the name in any direction.” 77
The minimizing, softening, blunting and erasing - this Austenizing - of historical reality by even well-intentioned “decent chaps” such as Richard (later Lord) Casey has made the Bengal Famine the Forgotten Holocaust of the Twentieth Century. The world remains well aware of the Japanese use of prisoner of war and other slave labour on the Burma-Siam railway in the same region through the testament of survivors 78, films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai 79 and the commitment of the survivors and their compatriots to the memory of the fallen. The wartime Bengal Famine (and indeed the previous similar horrors of British-occupied Bengal) have disappeared from public perception and from our history books. Those members of the global village likely to have glimpsed the realities of wartime Bengal would be mostly specialist Indian and economic historians, those interested in the sociology and economics of famine, people who have read novels based on the disaster such as Amritlal Nagar’s Hunger: A Novel 80 and those “serious film” lovers familiar with Satyajit Ray’s moving film Distant Thunder. 81
It is unacceptable that an event of such a magnitude as the war-time Bengal Famine could occur over such a prolonged period, meet with resolute unresponsiveness and then be essentially blotted out of public perception for ever. If we compare the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe with the “Forgotten Holocaust” of Bengal - events that occurred at about the same time - we see that both events occurred over a period of several years and the world resolutely failed to respond to either tragedy. However in the aftermath of the Jewish Holocaust there has been sustained public documentation and public trials of a small number of those responsible. A large number of war criminals involved in the Holocaust escaped justice through a well-organized process of escape from Europe and assisted emigration to the Americas and Australia involving elements of American intelligence. Aarons & Loftus (1997) have documented this outrageous process as well as the related smuggling of Nazi money and close American and British corporate links with Nazi Germany. 82 Nevertheless the trials and punishment of a few have had an educative effect in relation to social moral responsiveness. The world has got the message from the survivors and those who will never forget: “Never again.” The Forgotten Holocaust of Bengal was substantively ignored while it was happening, has been effectively erased from public perception and there has been no perceived accountability.
Arising out of the extraordinary lack of perception of the war-time Bengal Famine and of profound concern is the widespread and morally detached expectation that catastrophic famine will be the lot of the Bengalis and other people of the Third World in the coming century. How can we sit back and regard our fellow human beings in this way? Knowing that more than half the victims of such events are children, how can we walk by on the other side?
The words of “Villager” (ca 1945) are salutary:
“Public opinion must never be allowed to forget the tragedy that was enacted in Bengal in 1943 unless and until action has been taken to make a recurrence impossible. After the capitulation of Germany in May, 1945, considerable publicity was given through the press, the radio and the cinema to the conditions that existed in the German Concentration Camps. Expressions of horror that such conditions could exist in the twentieth century reverberated around the world. The conditions under which the respectable, inoffensive, decent, law-abiding citizens of Bengal died in 1943 were equally bad, if not worse. It was no uncommon thing to hear reports from widely separated parts of the province of bodies being attacked and devoured by vultures, dogs and jackals even before life was extinct.” 83
We will now see how Winston Churchill, ruler of the British Empire, was involved in the tragic fate of millions of his humblest subjects.
According to Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Wellcome Institute, University College London, the death toll in the Bengal Famine totalled 6-7 million in Bengal and the adjoining provinces of Bihar, Assam and Orissa in 1943-1945. 84 Colin Mason and others have suggested that the Bengal Famine was as a result of a deliberate British scorched earth policy. 85 Further histories have referred, albeit briefly, to the WW2 Bengal Famine 86 but there are a number of further exceptions found 87 (e.g. leading UK historian Simon Schama recently wrote about the 18th century Great Bengal Famine and 19th century famines in British India but ignored the WW2 Bengal Famine in his 3-volume “A History of Britain”). Leading Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey failed to mention the WW2 Bengal Famine in his recent history of the 20th century 88 and failed to mention any Indian or Bengal famines or even Bengal at all in his recent “Short” and “Very Short” histories of the world except for identical references to Bangladesh “later Bangladesh became a third nation” and to the (largely fictional) Black Hole of Calcutta incident: “In June 1757 [sic], one of the blackest months in Britain’s colonial history, more than 100 of its soldiers died while imprisoned in the Black Hole of Calcutta”. 89