…this episode in Indian history will surely become the Golden Age as time passes, when the British gave them peace and order, and there was justice for the poor, and all men were shielded from outside dangers. The Golden Age.
- Winston Churchill
Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, by Madhusree Mukerjee
In the seventeenth century – before Britain got her hands on it – Bengal was described by physician François Bernier as “the finest and most fruitful country in the world.” An embellishment, perhaps, but he found markets brimming with rice, sugar, corn, vegetables, mustard, and sesame; fish and meat were plentiful; vibrant towns and cities were interspersed with lush farmland.
Once the British East India Company got its hands on Bengal, with its estimated annual gain of £1,650,000 per year, it was quickly to become one of the world’s poorest.
By 1769, Bengal had no gold, silver, or other valuables left. A group of Armenian merchants – whose trade in the region long preceded that of the British – petitioned the Calcutta Council, complaining that the lack of currency had brought virtually all business to a halt, so that “not only a general bankruptcy is to be feared, but a real famine, in the midst of wealth and plenty.”
Shortly thereafter, it is estimated that about one-third of the people of Bengal – numbering 10 million – perished. Weather played a role, but the region had dealt with such situations before. British rule was new:
In the first years of the rule of the British East India Company, the total land tax income was doubled and most of this revenue flowed out of the country. As the famine approached its height in April 1770, the Company announced that the land tax for the following year was to be increased by a further 10 percent.
Yeah, that would help.
The historian William Dalrymple has called Robert Clive [Commander-in-Chief of British India] an "unstable sociopath" due to these harmful policies and actions that resulted in famines and atrocities towards local native Indians and peasants. Changes caused by Clive to the revenue system and existing agricultural practices to maximize profits for the company partially led to the famine of 1770.
Famines were interspersed with contributions of men and wealth in support of the British Empire – Afghanistan, the Middle East, and World War One; rebellions and massacres.
Returning to Mukerjee’s book and the events leading up to and during World War II: in March 1942, the Japanese smashed the Empire’s defenses and occupied Burma. Rice imports to India’s poor were cut off. British authorities reacted with a scorched-earth policy: rice was removed from Bengal; transport facilities such as barges were transferred away from the region. In case of further advances, the enemy was deprived of these resources; the people of Bengal were deprived of these resources in the meantime.
Further, food and grains were transferred out of India in support of other parts of the Empire – primarily the home island, but also in stores for the purpose of feeding the not-yet-defeated-but-as-of-now-still-enemy populations of the Balkans and Italy. In exchange, India received notes – promises to pay. Slowly, Britain was becoming a substantial debtor in favor of India. All the while, necessary food and supplies were leaving the region.
In the war, where was the potential of freedom for the Indian people? Britain on the one hand, the Japanese on the other. It was a fight that offered no meaningful gain to the population, only cost.
We are introduced to Frederick Lindemann – better known as Lord Cherwell; born in Germany, he later came to Britain. He was an important advisor to Churchill during the war – perhaps his pre-eminent advisor; Churchill appointed him as the British government's leading scientific adviser. For some idea of his character:
He advocated the "area" bombing or "strategic bombing" of German cities and civilian homes during the Second World War by falsely stating data to Winston Churchill from a study on the psychological impact of Germany's Birmingham Blitz and Hull Blitz on the local populations.
Per Mukerjee, Cherwell was so deeply racist that the presence of any black person evoked “physical revulsion.” When it came to India, his recommendations to Churchill almost always prevailed.
The Bengal famine of 1943 was a major famine of the Bengal province in British India during World War II. An estimated 2.1–3 million, out of a population of 60.3 million, died of starvation, or of malaria and other diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions and lack of health care. Millions were impoverished as the crisis overwhelmed large segments of the economy and social fabric. Historians have frequently characterised the famine as "man-made", asserting that wartime colonial policies created and then exacerbated the crisis. A minority view holds that the famine arose from natural causes.
The British Empire led by Churchill, through action and inaction, was the primary driver in this famine. There were dozens of opportunities to take action to relieve the suffering or to not cause the suffering in the first place, and in virtually every instance Churchill chose to do precisely the opposite.
Mukerjee will provide the details.