The Bengal famine: Churchill’s real darkest hour

New evidence confirms British leader’s role in murdering millions of Bengalis.

Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor has likened Churchill to Hitler.

Sohini C

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This article is reproduced from the South China Morning Post of 12 April 2019, with thanks.

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Soil sampling from the period of the second world war was reported in a science journal, concluding that the Bengali famine of the 1940s was caused only by ‘complete policy failure’, and it’s not the only evidence out there. But last year, a Churchill biopic glorifying the former British PM was nominated for top honours at the Oscars.

When a team of researchers in India and the US led by Professor Vimal Mishra reconstructed the soil samples for Bengal in 1943, a period in which three million Bengalis died from famine, they found moisture levels in the soil were more than the normal. For five other periods of famine, from 1870 to 2016, Mishra and his colleagues found evidence of drought in the soil samples they created, using meteorological data. But the 1943 famine was due to ‘complete policy failure’, they write.

The study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, the India Meteorology Department and the University of California in Los Angeles, was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in February. It’s the latest evidence in a body of empirical research indicting second world war hero Sir Winston Churchill for the murder of three million Bengalis in the Indian subcontinent in 1943.

As the prime minister of Britain from 1940-45, Churchill was responsible for the administration of India, which gained freedom from the British in 1947. This means Churchill is guilty of the same crime that Adolf Hitler – his enemy in the second world war – is: genocide.

The official figure for those killed in the holocaust from 1933-45 is twelve million. Churchill presided over the deaths of at least three million in 1943. If such horrific crimes can be compared, the incidence of Churchill’s mass murder is far higher than Hitler’s.

The term genocide was coined by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a jewish man who fled the holocaust, by combining the Greek word ‘genus’, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin word ‘cide’, meaning killing. It refers to the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group. It means targeted killing, and this is as true of Churchill as it is of Hitler, who sent jews, communists, the Roma and homosexual people to death, among others. In Churchill’s case, it was the death of Indian colonial subjects whom he did not care about

In Britain, war rations from 1940 included butter, ham and bacon, and later, tea, cheese and margarine. In Bengal, people died begging for the starch made when boiling rice. These were the stories I grew up hearing as a Bengali; these stories haunt every meal I still eat.

Before Mishra et al’s paper, there was the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s book, Poverty and Famines. Here, he argued that famine resulted from people not ‘getting’ enough to eat, not from not ‘having’ enough to eat. The difference between the verbs ‘get’ and ‘have’ points to the responsibility of the British colonial government.

Sen actually lived through the Bengal famine himself; he was nine years old in 1943. Poverty and Famines is the work for which he is believed to have won the Nobel prize for economics in 1998.

In 2010, journalist and writer Madhusree Mukherjee published Churchill’s Secret War, in which she provided documentary evidence pointing to Churchill’s direct culpability, using papers from the British war transport office and the diary of the former prime minister’s close friend and scientific advisor, Lord Cherwell.

The famine was caused by a policy decision, taken by the Churchill government in Britain, to stockpile grain for the British during the war. Even in 1943, the year Britain officially declared famine in India, Churchill exported 70,000 tonnes of rice to Britain, Mukherjee writes in her book. The prime minister was also told by the British secretary of state for India, Leopold Amery, that rotting corpses lined the streets of Kolkata.

“I hate Indians,” Churchill told Amery. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” And at a war cabinet meeting, he said the famine was Indians’ fault for “breeding like rabbits”.

Writer, former United Nations diplomat and Indian politician Shashi Tharoor writes in his book Inglorious Empire that Churchill scribbled the words, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” on the margins of a report.

The historian Janam Mukherjee writes in his book Hungry Bengal that reports of famine from the Bengal countryside were heard from 1940 – months after Churchill took over as prime minister of Britain.

Nevertheless, Churchill made the decision to push for victory in the war with the Axis forces, not compromise. For this reason, grain and other food stocks were diverted to Britain.

Aside from the scholarly work, there is the sketchbook by the late artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharyya, also titled Hungry Bengal. This is a compilation of his impressions of rural Bengal as he travelled to see the devastation wrought by the 1943 famine.

When it was published that year, the British government seized all copies and burnt them. If anything, this is a testament to the importance of this work. In 2011, an art gallery based in Delhi located the original copy of Bhattacharyya’s work with his niece in Kolkata and put together a retrospective of his work.

Despite all this evidence – in scholarly research and in art – a film lionising Churchill was nominated for the best film prize at the 2018 Oscars. Gary Oldman won the Oscar for best actor, one of the top prizes at the Academy Awards, for his portrayal of the British war criminal. There was, in fact, another film on the mass murderer called Churchill in 2017.

The new soil science research pointing to Churchill’s culpability is welcome. It adds to the already solid body of evidence against the criminal. The question is, how much evidence will it take for the west to admit that their war hero is a mass murderer who thrilled in killing millions?