A Man-Made Famine
There are natural disasters, which kill millions of people. And then there are those which are man-made, which could have been entirely avoided. This was one of them. It was a tragedy of monstrous proportions. And it killed more than three million people, but that is a conservative estimate. Some say, five million died. In 1943, during the Second World War, Bengal was hit with a terrible famine – a shortage of food so severe that it killed people.
A starving family, victims of the Bengal famine, arrives in Calcutta in search of food. (Photo: Getty Images)
There has been a lot of controversy about whether there was actually a shortage of food, or whether there was a problem with its distibution and hoarding in the black market by wealthy traders. A manager of railway traffic at Dacca, in fact, asked Calcutta to stop sending more food, because it was piling up and not being transported further.
A lot of this mismanagement – including the breakdown of transportation and communication – had to do with the Second World War. In the beginning of her book, The Raj at War, historian Yasmin Khan writes, "Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British empire did".
From the front page of the Hindustan Times dated 1 November, 1942. (Photo: HT Archives)
Apprehending possible invasion, rice stocks and boats in coastal Bengal were destroyed. After the Japanese occupied Burma, the British stopped supplying food to the region. The War was their priority – and they were more concerned with keeping their own and their soldiers fed. But Bengali soldiers fighting the War received letters from home: "What is the use of coming on leave to starve..."
With starvation came diseases – in a time and place that faced an acute paucity of medicines and lack of hospitals. Starving families left their land and fled to the streets of Calcutta, hoping to find something to eat, even as the city’s night-life continued unabated.
It was only when Archibald Wavell, the new Viceroy, shaken by "one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under the British rule" wrote urgent letters that the famine was brought under control. Wavell also rightly conjectured that the "damage to our [British] reputation... is incalculable".
When Gandhi emerged from prison in 1944, he was deeply shaken by the famine and determined to ensure swaraj.
Dilli Chalo, Jai Hind!
Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon were imprisoned and tried at the Salimgarh fort, within the Red Fort Complex in Delhi. Today, their uniforms, photographs, a diary and the chargesheet issued against them lie in a museum here.
(From left to right): Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal, Major General Shah Nawaz Khan and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon – officers of Bose’s Indian National Army, were tried at the Red Fort for their role in the War. They were hailed as patriots by the masses and were released in 1946, amid scenes of great jubilation. (Photos: Raj K Raj; Location: Swatantrata Sangram Sanghralaya and Swantratata Senani Museum Red Fort, Delhi)
Their crime: fighting for the Axis powers as part of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), which was waging a war against the British. They had joined Japanese forces in the Second World War. They – and thousands of INA men – were captured by the British.
Nehru was part of the team of lawyers defending Khan, Sahgal and Dhillon at a trial held at the Red Fort in 1945. (That the trial was held here was a horrible decision in itself – because after the First War of Independence in 1857, even though the British had razed a part of the magnificent fort and built military barracks, the Red Fort was still seen as a symbol of India’s lost glorious past).
Kailash Nath Katju, Tej Bahadur Sapru and Jawaharlal Nehru, seen here at the Red Fort for the INA trial, defended the accused. (Photos: Raj K Raj; Location: Swatantrata Sangram Sanghralaya and Swantratata Senani Museum Red Fort, Delhi)
The INA trial roused people even in remote villages. For the first time, stories about the bravery and patriotism of Bose’s men were told without the censorship of the War. By the time the trial began, the three were seen as ‘Patriots Not Traitors’. The trial itself was almost electrifying – because the accused belonged to three different religions: a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh. And so it touched a chord and united discordant communities in solidarity against the Raj.
The Congress used the trials to build nationwide solidarity. The leaders who had disagreed with Bose, the INA’s role in the War and the use of violence, also championed the officers as heroes. They (correctly) hoped that this would rouse the people.
Shoulder badges and insignia of soldiers of the Indian National Army. (Photos: Raj K Raj; Location: Swatantrata Sangram Sanghralaya and Swantratata Senani Museum Red Fort, Delhi)
In fact, British military commanders had feared that if the three had not been released, there could have been a mutiny in parts of India.
In January 1946, when the trio was released after being held for three months, the streets in Old Delhi were lined with hundreds of thousands of people cheering for them. People fed them sweets, took their autographs – and masses across the country celebrated the victory. The judgement was seen as a blow against the Raj.
The Sun Sets On The Empire
The Indian Independence Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by British Prime Minister Clement Attlee on July 4, 1947. It was passed by the House of Commons on July 15 and the House of Lords the next day as the Indian Independence Act. It received Royal Assent on July 18. Under the Act, the king of England ceased to be the “Emperor of India”.
The first page of the Indian Independence Act 1947, which detailed how India would become independent. (Photo: National Archives of India, New Delhi)
It also made India and Pakistan two separate dominions – “As from the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent Dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan”. It laid down provisions for Partition, stating that princely states would be free to join either dominion.
The Act authorised the Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for a free state.
‘Tryst With Destiny’ Speech At Parliament House
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity with some pride.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivering the “Tryst with Destiny” speech on the eve of Independence – the midnight of 14 August 1947 – at the Parliament in Delhi. (Photo: Getty Images)
The speech of the first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru on the eve of Independence is undoubtedly one of the greatest speeches in the world.
The Constituent Assembly met on August 14 in the afternoon, and continued the session till midnight. It was decided that Nehru would commence his speech a few minutes before the clock struck 12. And when it did, after 200 years of exploitative British rule, India would be free, finally.
There is a subtext to the speech. When Nehru begins with a pledge for freedom, which will be redeemed “not wholly or in full measure” he is referring to Partition. The words “the greatest man of our generation ... the architect of this freedom, the father of our nation” in the speech refer to Gandhi. And the “pains that continue even now” is the disharmony between Hindus and Muslims.
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From HT Brunch, August 9
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