Friday, April 12, 2019

The Passing of Empire

“It was only too clear that [Churchill] had a complex about India from which he would not and could not be shaken.”

-        William Phillips, personal representative of Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving in India.

India was starving.  The United Kingdom was building a stockpile of food in the Mediterranean for the Greeks and Yugoslavs it hoped one day to liberate; the food was coming on ships from Australia – bypassing a starving India.  India was, of course, part of the United Kingdom.  Churchill was starving British subjects in favor of Britain’s enemies.

India was starving for the benefit of a war between imperialists and fascists; not really a good bargain for Indians.  In the meantime, leaders in both India and Britain were planning for what came next – a likely partition between Hindu and Muslim, resulting in the creation of Pakistan.  Pakistan – which would then be beholden to Britain for its independence – could then be used as a base for future operations against the Soviet Union.

Governor George Cunningham of the North West Frontier Province exulted at the Muslim League’s triumph in local elections.  “It would not, I think, have been possible had not the ground been prepared by the propaganda which we have been doing almost since the war started, most of it on Islamic lines.”

British authorities saw Muslims and Christians as “natural allies,” as they each had a book – unlike the “idolatrous” Hindus. 

Meanwhile, in Bengal, tens of millions of people were starving.  “Bengal is rapidly approaching starvation,” wrote the governor of Bengal to the viceroy on July 2, 1943.  In the meantime, other regions of India were still exporting grains; the export of rice was only stopped on July 23. 

By mid-1943, the number of ships available to the Allies greatly exceeded the numbers required for Allied operations.  American industry by now was running at full force, and demands for the eventual landing in France were still in the future.  Still, shipping was not made available for grains to India.

Offers to make grain available were made by several British allies – and none were accepted.  Grain was available, but the shipping would not be spared.  All the while, Churchill’s sources of anger toward India were building to one large crescendo.  One source of his anger was the significant and growing debt owed by Britain to India due to India’s support of the war.

Churchill wanted to charge India the equivalent of the debt owed for saving her from Japanese invasion; he was quickly reminded that it was India that defended Britain’s Middle East for the first two years of the war.

None of this would be of help to the starving.  The gruel offered at relief kitchens was reduced to four ounces of rice per day per person:

That came to 400 calories, at the low end of the scale on which, at much the same time, inmates at Buchenwald were being fed.

Constant and extended hunger had a cost in community: husbands leaving wives; fathers throwing babies into wells; mothers throwing children into the river, after which they jumped in as well; parents pitted against children for scraps; everyone in the house killed to avoid starvation; suicides soared.

Bodies everywhere, some dead others dying.  Whether dead or dying, all subject to jackals, dogs, and worms.  For young boys, hope was only to be had if someone took notice and cared; for young girls, there was hope in sex.  One survey found that 90 percent of the 30,000 women serving in the military labor corps in eastern Bengal were suffering from venereal disease.

Newspapers in Calcutta wrote horrifying accounts of the moral degeneracy that the famine had induced.  Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters.


By the third week of September, the scene was described as “ghastly.”

…whereas natives “hoarded,” which was at least in principle a penal offense, white men “stockpiled” – which was not only legal but recommended.

The natives began to stockpile the bodies along the palace built by the marquess of Wellesley in the eighteenth century.  It was a grand palace, with twenty acres of gardens and twelve white marble busts of Roman emperors.

The wreath of corpses marked the passing of empire.

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