Posted on: July 10, 2020 Posted by: Max Coleman Comments: 0

Taken by Sunil Janah, a photographer of the famine


The Bengal Famine began in 1942 and raged throughout 1943 and early 1944 killing about three million people. The devastation to the land, the people and the society lasted generations afterwards. This is a brief article on the British involvement in this crisis.

By 1942, the Japanese had occupied the British colony of Burma and the invasion of India seemed imminent. Bengal bordered India and within it was the vital industrial hub of Calcutta, which needed protecting at all costs. The British, who ruled India at this time, decided that the best way to do this would be to implement a ‘denial policy’ – a less incendiary way of describing a ‘scorched earth’ policy – in order to deny the Japanese of any resources upon invasion. 66,000 boats were confiscated or destroyed, and thousands of tons of grain and rice were confiscated by unsupervised government agents who in some instances were reported to have thrown it into the water or set it on fire. 

Bengal is a region that thrives on the many tributaries and rivers that dissect the land – to take away their boats was to take away their livelihoods, accessibility to the market and destroy the rural economy. Gandhi proclaimed, “to deprive the people in East Bengal of their boats is like cutting off a vital limb.” Not only had their limited sustenance been confiscated, but so had their ability to earn. Grain and rice were redistributed to the essential wartime workers and soldiers in Calcutta, but the non-essential rural Bengalis were abandoned to starve.

Typical counterarguments of elitist British historians who like to portray the British Empire as a benign institution and Winston Churchill as a beacon of valiance and heroism have argued that the cyclone of 1942, the poor harvest and the cut-off of rice imports from Burma were the sole reasons for the famine. Although these contributed to the problem, the British policy of denial not only left the rural population without food or jobs, but it also upset the traditional market causing widespread hoarding and prices to skyrocket. The problem was not the unavailability of food but the inaccessibility to it.

Throughout 1943, a dire famine was devastating the province of Bengal. Thousands of starving and destitute people made their way to Calcutta from the rural provinces in search of the smallest scraps of food. People fought over the starchy wastewater that rice was cooked in. Women were forced to sell their children and young girls were forced to sell themselves. A wartime survey found that sixty-two out of a hundred young girls gave starvation as their motivation to join a brothel. 

In the countryside, whole villages had become extinct. Reporters stated that in some rural areas there was no sign of human habitation anywhere. A telling sign of the area’s abandonment and the government’s indifference to their suffering was the skeletons that littered the landscape. The Viceroy Wavell stated the Bengal Famine was “one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule and damage to our reputation both among Indians and foreigners in India is incalculable.” Their concern was not for the millions of starving Indians, but for the reputation of the Empire.

As I alluded to earlier, the problem was not the lack of food but the poor’s inaccessibility to it. An American reporter for Life magazine reported in November 1943 that rich Indians and Europeans were eating five course meals.  At the same time, it was reported that there were around 100,000 starving and destitute people in Calcutta. The rural Bengali was left without food, a livelihood and transport because they were not essential to the war effort, but instead an unnecessary form of collateral to Britain’s wider war effort.

The British response to the famine that became progressively worse throughout 1943 was not to provide immediate relief to the desperate but instead to censor and cover-up the extent of the problem. Draconian wartime censorship laws made it illegal to publicise famine and even banned public meetings to discuss aid and relief for the victims. In February 1943, the Viceroy wrote that they regarded “the situation more seriously than might be supposed from their communications to the general public.” They were left to suffer in silence in order for the British to maintain their glowing wartime image.

Although the British government in India continuously wrote to Parliament requesting emergency relief, Winston Churchill would respond with indignance. He maintained that it was their fault for ‘breeding like rabbits’. He insisted that the excess stocks of grain that were held throughout the Empire were to be used elsewhere. Boats full of grain from Australia bypassed the millions of starving Indians and landed in southeastern Europe ready for its liberation. Starving Indians were denied grain because Churchill felt it would be more useful to be stored in Europe in case there was a lack of food in the future.

Why was there such indifference to the deaths of millions in India? Firstly, the racial paradigms of the Empire placed greater importance on the lives of the white man – Churchill said himself that Indians are “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Secondly, Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement in 1942 in an effort to gain independence from the British Empire. Churchill’s utter contempt for the Indian people was compounded by their sheer ‘audacity’ to want independence from the ‘Great British Empire’. The lack of relief was not merely gross negligence, but a punishment for desiring self-rule.

 It was not until late August 1943 that the famine was publicised. This was due to newspaper publications and communist artists and photographers who saw that the plight of starving Bengalis and other unfortunate Indians were not anyone’s priority, or even concern. One of these artists was Chittaprosad Bhattacharya who created a work of sketches (pictured) and stories of his trips around the rural districts called Hungry Bengal. The British Government destroyed 5000 copies, with only one surviving. Despite the British commitment to denying the Bengalis any recognition of their suffering, these publications received worldwide attention and spurred global relief efforts. 

However, by this time millions had already perished, Bengali people had their humanity, dignity and health stripped from them by a devastating man-made famine. The scars of famine would impact the area for generations to come and the already tortured society would suffer the further devastating impacts of millions of more deaths during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

Not only is it important to recognise this history in order to remember those that perished as a result of wider colonial manipulations, but also because British history is often glamourised and cherry picked. Winston Churchill is a glaring example of this. Yes, he was integral to British morale and decision making during the War, but throughout his political career he was a key proponent in entrenching colonial oppression and white supremacy throughout the British Empire. In order to move forward, it is paramount that we educate ourselves on the realities of our collective histories.

For more information on this subject I highly recommend Madhusree Mukerjee’s work Churchill’s Secret War

Similarly my dissertation discusses the connection between World War Two, the famine and the Calcutta Riots of 1946 that would all make Partition an inevitability:

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/max-coleman-733a9b18a_war-famine-and-riots-the-abandonment-of-activity-6678307013115600896-lMDM

By Max Coleman

Max Coleman
Author: Max Coleman

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