Monday 8 September 2014

The Great Bengal Famine,1943

The important book “Churchill's Secret War. The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II” by Madhusree Mukerjee  (Basic Books, New York, 2010) is an account of the forgotten World War 2  Bengali Holocaust, the man-made, 1942-1945  Bengal Famine  in which 6-7 million Indians were deliberately starved to death by the British under Churchill for strategic reasons in what was one of the greatest atrocities in human history but which has been largely white washed from British history.

Other books have been written about the Bengal Famine  Thus  N.G. Jog's “Churchill's Blind Spot: India ” (New Book Company, Bombay, 1944) in referring to this Bengali Holocaust was the first to refer to a WW2 atrocity as a “holocaust”.  Paul Greenough's “Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: the Famine of 1943-1944” (Oxford University Press, 1982) is a detailed and definitive account of the WW2 Bengal Famine.

Brilliant Bengali film maker Satyajit Ray's film 'Asani Sanket' ( "Distant Thunder") is a profoundly moving account of part of this disaster and concludes with an estimate that 5 million Bengalis perished.

The book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 1998, 2008: ) put the WW2 Bengali Holocaust into a wider context of British racism, imperialism, holocaust commission, holocaust denial and  cultural self-deception. Polya's thesis was that history ignored will be history repeated, and that ignoring  of immense man-made famine disasters in Bengal, notably the 1769-1779 Bengal Famine (10 million dead) and the 1942-1945 Bengal Famine (4 million dead in Bengal, 6-7 million Indians dead in Bengal and contiguous provinces) increases the risk of repetition and, specifically,  in the 21st century  from  man-made famines.

Madhusree Mukerjee systematically successively analyzes the background to the Bengali Holocaust in a prologue that deals with British India and the massive recurrent  man-made famines, commencing with the 1769-1770 Bengal Famine in which 10 million people died due to British greed.  Not quoted is Amaresh Misra's book “War of Civilizations: India AD 1857”  that estimates that 10 million people died in British reprisals for the 1857 Indian rebellion.  While the appalling famine history of British India is outlined, the genocidal aspect is downplayed.

A major contribution of Mukerjjee's book is the  account of the beginning of the Bengal Famine in 1942 with the brutal British suppression of rebellion in West Bengal accompanied by mass killing, mass imprisonment,  burning of houses and villages, seizure of food and other measures that were exacerbated in their impact by a major storm surge event. While the key years of the Bengal Famine were 1943 and 1944, surviving  inhabitants of South West Bengal date the beginning of the famine to late 1942 due to British excesses. Mukerjee provides a logical account of the factors contributing to the huge increase in the price of rice (up to 6-fold) that was the real killer in the Bengal Famine e.g.  cessation of rice imports from Japanese-occupied Burma; hundreds of thousands removed from areas close to Japanese-occupied Burma (instant impoverishment and demand on rice stocks); seizure of rice stocks (Rice Denial to impair Japanese invasion as well as punishment  of rebellious  Bengalis); local deficiencies (due to the 1942 hurricane, fungal infestation and British suppression of Bengali nationalists); the Boat Denial Policy (that ostensibly was meant to delay a Japanese invasion but which condemned millions to death through lack of fishing and food distribution); provincial autonomy of food stocks (a deadly divide and rule policy covered with a veneer of “partial democracy”); mass imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Free India supporters (thereby minimizing democratic Indian political responses to the Bengal Famine); various British encouragements of capitalist hoarding and profiteering; export of grain from India associated with hugely decreased imports of grain; British unresponsiveness in Indian and in London;  lack of shipping in the India Ocean due to Churchillian fiat at Casablanca (especially in 1943); government protection of the food security of soldiers, civil servants and defence industry workers in Calcutta (a major industrial city undergoing a wartime boom and which sucked  food out of a starving but rice-producing countryside); inflation (due to the British running up a huge financial debt to India during WW2 and Government  rice purchases ).

A novel contribution is exposure of the key role in the disaster  of incompetent and racist key Churchill adviser Professor Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) who consistently opposed food relief for starving India while Britain was stocking up with excess food.

Mukerjee makes clear that Churchill's deadly unresponsiveness to the Bengal Famine came from a passionately Anglocentric and imperialist view of the world and his entrenched racism, as is evident from his remark “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people  with a beastly religion” and his view that “they breed like rabbits”. Mukerjee  stated "He [Churchill] is often criticised for bombing German cities but has never before been held directly responsible for the deaths of so many people as in the Bengal famine” (see Ben Sheppard, “Book blames Churchill for Indian famine that killed millions”, The Age, 8 September 2010: ). In reality, many people have been blaming Churchill from the time of the Bengal Famine Indian and a small body of humane European writers have been blaming Churchill from the time of the atrocity onwards. Polya has written and broadcast extensively over 2 decades about Churchill's responsibility for the terrible  Bengal Famine, but this elicited a trenchant response from the Churchill Centre  to an article he wrote for MWC News entitled “Media lying over Churchill's crimes”(MWC News,  18 November, 2008: )

The most shattering part of the book deals with personal accounts of the victims. One cannot possibly comprehend what the starvation to death of 4 million Bengalis or 6-7 million Indians as a whole during World War 2 actually meant. If a person goes without food even for one day, he will realize the pangs of hunger. Dying of starvation by a human usually takes 50-60 days of terrible suffering. And when this happened to 5-6 million people in India in this period, the British can truthfully be accused of generating a Holocaust far bigger than what the Nazis did to the Jews, but they were smart enough to cover their tracks, and that horrendous crime is never spoken of today.

From a dispassionate scientific perspective,  Mukerjee's book is very important because it sets out a detailed and documented account of the Bengali Holocaust in which the British deliberately starved 6-7 million Indians to death over an extended period (1942-1945) despite the pleas of Bengalis, Indians and decent Britishers (notably General Wavell, Viceroy of India). Yet thousands of books about India ,  WW2, and British history fail to even mention the Bengali Holocaust, one of the worst atrocities  in human history.  Historian Sir Martin Gilbert  totally denies these crimes. There is no  mention of the Bengali Holocaust in  Simon Schama's “A History of Britain” (BBC, 2002) or Michael Woods' “The Story of India” (BBC 2007)

Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and other scholars as part of a series entitled “The things we forgot to remember”  (see: ), and Colin Mason in his book  "A Short History of Asia. Stone Age to 2000 AD"  (Macmillan, 2000) slam generations of English historians and writers for whitewashing the Bengal  Famine from history, Mason arguing that the evidence suggests that it was the result of a deliberate “scorched earth policy” by Churchill and the British in the war with Japan.


  1. Dear Justice Katju,

    Regarding your article on Bengal famine

    below is the rebuttal

    I am not a historian hence I do not wish to judge a person without knowing all the facts.


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.