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V for Vendetta

He pushed Bengal into a famine in 1943 and blamed the natives. A social history of Winston Churchill’s hate-hate relationship with India — and Indians.

books Updated: Sep 25, 2010 01:40 IST
Ashok Malik

Churchill’s Secret War

Madhusree Mukerjee Tranquebar

Rs 495 pp 352

Madhusree Mukerjee has written a riveting account about a period, an episode and an aspect of India’s near-term past that, unfortunately, has not got the coverage it deserves. At one level, the book is a brutal and yet sensitive account about the horrific tragedy that was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, which killed some three million people. Mukerjee speaks to survivors, victims and witnesses and puts together a fascinating story of survival and misery. She describes the dehumanising nature of mass starvation: “It often took sex to save a girl. Innumerable families in Bengal survived by means of what one social worker, speaking at a meeting in Calcutta in 1944, described as ‘mass prostitution among village women’.”

Yet, amid this catastrophe, the human soul strived to uphold its essential dignity: “Almost everywhere in the world, famished people have resorted to eating human flesh. Amazingly, not a single case of cannibalism was reported during the Bengal famine of 1943, although tens of millions of villagers suffered from acute hunger. The religious lawmaker Manu, writing in about the second century AD, had forbidden Hindus to eat human flesh even for self-preservation — but neither did Muslims resort to it, although they were poorer than Hindus and perished in greater numbers.”

Mukerjee’s narrative is a social history of rural Bengal as it lived, died and survived during the famine. Equally, it is an engrossing study of the colonial politics of the age. This famine was a man-made one. It could have been prevented if the British war cabinet had not decided to stockpile foodgrains in Britain and the Balkans, and indeed everywhere except where Indians could access it. Offers of help, from Canada and America for instance, were brushed aside. Mukerjee pins the blame on one man: Winston Churchill.

The mid-1940s comprised Churchill’s self-proclaimed “finest hour”. They also made up, as Mukerjee records, among his most iniquitous moments. India was pauperised by the war: “Apart from supplying soldiers for some of the toughest combats in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, India was designated to provide the bulk of supplies for those theatres… 40,000 tonnes of grain per month, a tenth of its railway engines and carriages.” At £2 billion, India contributed more to the British war effort than any country, other than Britain itself.

For Churchill it was not enough. He saw himself as the lion hunting rabbits — in this case Indians who bred like rabbits. With his advisors and the distorted wisdom of a Victorian-era racism that should have been long past, Churchill blamed the famine on fecund Indians, invoked both Malthus and social Darwinism, and disparaged India as a society that sat out the war while Britain sacrificed blood and treasure.

A fascinating theme of the book is the contest between Churchill and Leopold Amery, the wartime secretary of state for India. From Harrow to Westminster, Amery was Churchill’s friend and rival. He was more realistic about conditions in India, but prevented from undertaking famine relief by his prime minister’s bloody-minded bullying. As Mukerjee writes: “Churchill told his private secretary that ‘Hindus were a foul race protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due.’” Pullulation, the author tells us, means “rapid breeding”. Thankfully its usage is history, as is Churchill’s view of the natives.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer