Bengal famine 1943: A worried woman feeding a man Bengal famine 1943: A worried woman feeding a man. Source: PICRYL / in public domain

Lucy Moy-Thomas reviews ‘Three Million’, a BBC World Service documentary on the Bengal famine presented by Kavita Puri

Three Million’ is an oral history of the famine which killed about one in twenty Bengalis during 1942-3. It includes first-hand accounts of the hunger and its causes. The dead and suffering, British citizens of India, are mostly remembered as estimated numbers, not individuals with names and their own stories. There are lessons here for us today, when the British state is turning a blind eye to a genocide even as we see it happening on our mobile phones.

The history of the Bengal famine was written mostly by people who it didn’t affect. A new generation of researchers is finding people who lived through it and are still able to tell their story.  A villager recorded in the Sundarbans at the age of 94 asked, ‘Why are you so late to come to me? I am waiting for so much long time that anyone will come to me and I will tell him the story.’

Many of the interviews are with people who were children then and are now very old. Some, long deceased, were recorded earlier. There are arresting interviews with people who were children of colonial (white, English) families. One remembers walking her dog to the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, where there were dead bodies and vultures eating them ‘It was disgusting, really,’ she says. Another tells of peering through the railings of his grand house at starving people in the street outside. Others remember the strange smell given off by the starving, ‘like pear drops’. The privileged were never short of food. Ninety-eight year-old Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, remembers asking his grandmother if he could give rice to the starving families outside: ‘Half a cigarette tin full’, she said.

Many factors contributed: natural disasters in East Bengal, including a cyclone, tidal waves, flooding and rice-crop disease; these came on top of the Japanese invasion of Burma which stopped rice imports from there to East Bengal. The War Cabinet, chaired by Winston Churchill, was clearly culpable. First, for its ‘denial policy’ against the threatened invasion by the Japanese and second, for responding to alarmed requests for humanitarian assistance with inertia, resistance or totally inadequately quantities. All ships were needed for the war: none were available to bring aid to Bengal. Churchill saw Indians as an inferior race. In his view ‘starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis’ was ‘less serious than that of sturdy Greeks’.

The Japanese took Singapore in February 1942 and started bombing Calcutta in December 1942. The ‘denial policy’ was a scorched-earth plan against the Japanese army by which the British deliberately disrupted rice imports and transport systems, destroying the boats used to distribute food within East Bengal. Rice and other food supplies were requisitioned, including from remote villages, to supply the British, Indian and American troops and ‘priority categories’ clustered in and around Calcutta. Fish was also important in the Bengali diet, but without the boats that had been destroyed, there was no fishing. Shortages grew worse and worse between July 1942 and 1943. Villagers were destitute. People, including children, left their starving families for the city, often dying by the roadsides. Some food relief was offered, but only in exchange for hard, physical work, which the starving were far too weak to do.

Imperial racism

Under wartime censorship, the press was forbidden to use the word ‘famine’. It was the ‘Indian food problem’. BBC news reports avoided the subject. There were official criteria for declaring a famine. Although, by the monsoon season of 1943, all these criteria were met, ‘famine’ was never declared. A Famine Commission was appointed in 1944. The military censor read letters sent to Indian soldiers by families describing the situation at home. They were an ‘avalanche of despair’. He ‘found his task very difficult.’ However, the editor of The Statesman newspaper, published in Calcutta, Delhi and abroad, bravely decided he could no longer conceal the truth. Defying the censor, he published photographs taken on the streets of Calcutta, and wrote editorials documenting the catastrophe he saw all around. At once, the famine could no longer be concealed from the world.

In September 1943, Lord Wavell was appointed Viceroy of India. Unlike his predecessor, he immediately visited Calcutta, including the famine-stricken areas, and was shocked. Committed to humanitarian relief, he brought in food from other Indian regions, had rice taken into remote villages, set up relief hospitals and gruel kitchens. In November 1943, Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India and Burma, speaking in the House of Commons, demanded immediate food imports. Churchill spoke of Indians ‘breeding like rabbits’ and denied the request. He blamed a shortage of shipping. The Normandy Landings were being planned. In February 1944, Wavell demanded the government send over a million tons of food, warning, this was ‘one of the greatest disasters to have befallen any people under British rule, and damage to our reputation is incalculable’. Churchill replied that ‘we simply cannot find the ships’.

Shruti Kapila places the man-made war famine of 1943 among a series of mass-death events, including communal riots, which accompanied the bloody and traumatic birth of independent India. Impoverishment and hunger were part of the colonial legacy. British policy and inaction had contributed to previous famines.

The colonial system was inefficient and sclerotic, says Janam Mukherjee. Undistributed stocks of wheat choked the station at Dhaka. Colonial officers were demoralised. The population did not want them there. The Quit India Movement was growing, demanding an end to British rule in India. The famine was a symptom of a dying colonial system.In April 1944, eighteen months after publication of the Statesman photographs, Wavell’s request for substantial aid was finally granted. It was too late to save millions of starving people. On 8 May 1945, VE Day, the report of the Famine Commission was published, receiving little publicity. In Britain, Churchill’s status as national war hero has allowed a general amnesia about how his racism and indifference to Indian suffering contributed to the Bengali death toll.

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