The Bengal Famine of 1943-44 must rank as the greatest disaster in the subcontinent in the 20th century. Nearly 4 million Indians died because of an artificial famine created by the British government, and yet it gets little more than a passing mention in Indian history books.
What is remarkable about the scale of the disaster is its time span. World War II was at its peak and the Germans were rampaging across Europe, targeting Jews, Slavs and the Roma for extermination. It took Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts 12 years to round up and murder 6 million Jews, but their Teutonic cousins, the British, managed to kill almost 4 million Indians in just over a year, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill cheering from the sidelines.
Australian biochemist Dr Gideon Polya has called the Bengal Famine a “manmade holocaust” because Churchill’s policies were directly responsible for the disaster. Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of food grain from India to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in the areas comprising present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh.
Author Madhusree Mukerjee tracked down some of the survivors and paints a chilling picture of the effects of hunger and deprivation. In Churchill’s Secret War, she writes: “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”
“No one had the strength to perform rites,” a survivor tells Mukerjee. “Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages.” The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. “Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,” writes Mukerjee.
Mani Bhaumik, the first to get a PhD from the IITs and whose invention of excimer surgery enabled Lasik eye surgery, has the famine etched in his memory. His grandmother starved to death because she used to give him a portion of her food.
By 1943 hordes of starving people were flooding into Calcutta, most dying on the streets. The sight of well-fed white British soldiers amidst this apocalyptic landscape was “the final judgement on British rule in India”, said the Anglophile Jawaharlal Nehru.
Churchill could easily have prevented the famine. Even a few shipments of food grain would have helped, but the British prime minister adamantly turned down appeals from two successive Viceroys, his own Secretary of State for India and even the President of the US .
Subhas Chandra Bose, who was then fighting on the side of the Axis forces, offered to send rice from Myanmar, but the British censors did not even allow his offer to be reported.
Churchill was totally remorseless in diverting food to the British troops and Greek civilians. To him, “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis (was) less serious than sturdy Greeks”, a sentiment with which Secretary of State for India and Burma, Leopold Amery, concurred.
Amery was an arch-colonialist and yet he denounced Churchill’s “Hitler-like attitude”. Urgently beseeched by Amery and the then Viceroy Archibald Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.
Wavell informed London that the famine “was one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule”. He said when Holland needs food, “ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”.