31 famines in 120 years of British Raj, the last one killed 4 million people in 1943

18th Aug 2017
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Seven decades down the timeline, Indians hail the famine victims as unsung heroes of a different history. Bengal, however, paid the price for colonialist’s whims and couldn't survive the pangs of hunger and malnutrition.

Famine stricken people during the famine of 1876-78. Image Credit: Wallace Hooper

Every year on Independence Day, the nation prepares itself to show gratitude to the heroes who feature in its checkered history of colonisation. This year too is no different. However, after 70 years of independence, it is important to remember a crucial event in Indian history that is far from romantic and remains too horrific, grisly and politically sensitive to be excavated and reexamined. Nonetheless, the Bengal famine of 1943 is an oft-discussed national catastrophe — an example of the politico-media complex that has always been functional c/overtly in history.

In the context of the Bengal famine, the role Great Britain played in precipitating the catastrophe has been controversial. Winston Churchill, driven by his Eurocentric zealotry, is perceived by economists and historians as the key figure who wreaked havoc on the people of Bengal, but he perhaps escapes the blame capably. John Hickman in Orwellian Rectification: Popular Churchill Biographies and the 1943 Bengal Famine, says,

While Western historians are likely to want to associate communist leaders with mass atrocity, they are probably more hesitant to implicate a figure strongly associated with Western civilisation, and one of the heroes of World War II, by addressing his own role in comparable nastiness.
Approximately 4 million people died in 1943 in Bengal Province of British India due to famine. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Yet, Churchill remains accountable for the famine due to his tactics that Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy of India, had considered "negligent, hostile and contemptuous." In fact, the various measures that were taken in the face of the famine were malicious and totally responsible for the holocaust that killed 4 million people and dealt a colossal blow on its agrarian population, leaving it traumatised for decades.

In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were 31 serious famines in the 120 years of British rule compared with 17 famines in the 2,000 years before British rule. Having known this reality, it is imperative for us to take a quick look at the visible causes of the famine.

In “Post-Mortem on the Bengal Famine” Sydney D Bailey writes, “it is apparent that a food shortage existed due to crop failure, cyclone. Crop disease and absence of Burma imports, but a combination of circumstances converted a shortage into a famine.” Journalist and author Madhusree Mukherjee in her book Churchill’s Secret War creates a complete picture of the famine and rationalises the silent blitzkrieg that followed Britain’s warped state policies; despite having a substantial harvest in 1942, massive areas of the Indo-Gangetic plain were hit by famine the next year, the worst being Bengal.


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According to the Woodhead Commission, famine and subsequent epidemics killed over 1.5 million of Indians in this part of the country, though the digits vary in records. The British government, otherwise proclaiming that the Bengal famine “was conducted for the benefit of the governed”, diverted food grains supply to Greece and Yugoslavia, which Churchill thought, was more important than the starving population of Bengal.

In the process of reviewing Madhushree Mukherjee’s book, Shashi Tharoor writes,

Some of India's grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same hardship; Australian wheat sailed past Indian cities (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food.

Besides this “speculation, hoarding and black-market activity were widespread. Frequently the grain traders refused to operate within the limits of the statutory maximum price…A section of the public continued to make enormous profits while others starved. Corruption was widespread.” The Bengal famine took dire dimensions following Churchill’s “Scorched Earth Policy”: notoriously known as the Denial Policy, it instated that no ships or small vessels would be allowed in the vicinity of Bengal, so that Japanese soldiers could not encroach on that part of the Indian land. The ships and boats of Bengal were all destroyed.

Even Bengal’s hoards of rice crops (also sent out to Europe and Britain) were seized and destroyed to deter Japanese soldiers from thinking of this location as a possibility for camping. With a shortage of kerosene across the province (Bengal) that made cooking and consumption of rice much more difficult, along with the shortage of lentil, sugar coal and matches, Bengal’s durbhikkho (famine) became unprecedented while the colonising master watched a slow-moving film of utter destruction. It also remains a baffling reality that when ‘bread rationing’ was considered a vice in wartime Britain, self-contradictory and obviously criminal.

Even as Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, and Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, soon to be appointed the new viceroy of India, are deliberating how to ship more food to the colony. But the irascible Prime Minister Winston Churchill is coming in their way.” Bengal famine could not be prevented by the colonialist representatives, despite their effort to convince Churchill.

With a shortage of kerosene, lentil, sugar, coal and matches- cooking and consumption of rice became difficult. Image Credit: Kalyani Bhattacharyee and Manoj Sarbadhikar.

Famines in pre-independent India were less natural and more man-made. Churchill had perceived Indians to “breed like rabbits” and still growing strong as “Gandhi hasn’t died as yet.” This substantiates the belief that it was Churchill’s national pedigree that saved his reputation after his apparently heroic role in the Second World War, despite his tyrannical treatment of Indians.

But seven decades down the timeline, Indians hail the famine victims as unsung heroes of a different history. They may not have survived the pangs of hunger and malnutrition, but they managed to remain ironically sensationalised as fatalities that paid for the colonialist’s whims. Their death points at the selfishness and brutality that imperialism has been all about.


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