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Hungry Bengal demonstrates the central role of imperialism and racism in creating the wartime Bengal famine which killed millions and divided the country, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh


Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal, War, Famine and the End of Empire (Hurst & Company 2015), xiii, 329pp

The Bengal famine of 1943, which killed at least three million people, is probably best known in the West as the exemplar in Amartya Sen’s famous argument that famine is a socially-constructed phenomenon. As he argued in Poverty and Famines;

‘Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough to eat. While the latter can be the cause of the former, it is but one of many possible causes.’i

Specifically in the case of the Bengal famine, Sen maintained that people starved because food-price inflation meant that they could not afford to eat, rather than that there was just no food available. This has been disputed, with later writers pointing to the cyclone which hit the Midnapore district of Bengal in October 1942 as a natural cause of food shortages. There is no doubt that the cyclone was a natural disaster of epic proportions, killing two and a half million people and destroying over 1,000 square miles of rice paddy land, but the causes of the famine are more complex than the post-Sen verdict would imply.

Mukherjee takes a Sen-esque view of what lay behind the Bengal famine, but goes further than Sen to set it in its economic and political context. It is noticeable, he points out, that while there are any number of works looking at the political economy of the Great Depression, or German hyperinflation as a prelude to the Second World War, few comparable studies exist of countries outside the West.

‘Why is it that the economy is seen as so central to the socio-political dynamics of North America or Europe, whereas it is most often “culture” that is turned to in the analysis of non-Western societies?’

His analysis of the Bengal famine is an attempt to rectify this ‘oversight’, to show it not only as a human tragedy, but as ‘a complex web of events deeply entangled in the history of South Asia’ (p.7).

Mukherjee’s starting point was not originally the famine, but the Kolkata Riots of 1946. Otherwise known as the Great Kolkata Killings, the riots were five days (or longer, according to eyewitness accounts) of what is usually regarded as inter-communal fighting and looting between Hindu and Muslim mobs. Several thousand people died, at least 100,000 lost their homes and much of the city was destroyed. This was urban violence on a scale unknown in India and a direct precursor to Partition in 1947. Researching the riots, Mukherjee found that ‘at the frayed end of each and every lead that I followed, I was repeatedly confronted with famine’ (p.19). Thus, his work on the riots became a comprehensive analysis of how the famine, and the British imperial rule which lay behind it, created social and political conditions in which such violence could occur.

The first point to recognise is that famine had always been a hallmark of British rule in India. The East India Company was granted the exclusive right to collect tax revenues from Bengal from 1765. These land revenues were the main source of the Company’s profits, so their maximisation was vital for the Company’s bottom line. The revenues extracted from Bengal in 1765-6 were more than double that collected for the Mughal Emperors in 1762-3, and the rate of exploitation continued to increase.ii It is small wonder that in 1769 famine broke out in Bengal, killing a third of the population in 1769-1770.

To this famine, and the 25 other officially-recorded famines in India under British colonial rule, the British attitude was generally one of indifference, unless their revenues were affected. As a 1868 analysis of the 1769-1770 Bengal famine put it, ‘Bengal was regarded by the British public in the light of a vast warehouse … That a numerous native population existed, they were aware: but this they considered an accidental circumstance.’ (p.28) The British leaders in the twentieth century had attitudes towards the Indian people not very dissimilar to those of their East India Company predecessors. In September 1942, Churchill, incensed by the Quit India movement for Indian independence, said to his Secretary of State, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion” (p.71). The effects of these views could be seen at a local level: the official in charge of relief efforts after the Midnapore cyclone was told when he asked about relief supplies that he should simply go down to the market as no supplies would be forthcoming. These attitudes towards starving Indians did not only limit relief for famine but allowed the British in the 1940s to create the conditions for famine to develop, in pursuit of their twin aims of winning the war and holding on to the Empire.

The view of the Bengal famine as a natural event caused by harvest failure presupposes a predominant subsistence-agricultural system. Peasants grow their own food and if they are unable to grow enough to feed themselves until the next harvest, they starve. In fact, as Mukherjee shows, rural Bengalis were part of a market system, in which increased commercialisation was making them more and more indebted throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and increasingly on the edge of starvation. The Second World War then made what was already a difficult situation dramatically worse.

British attempts to engage Bengalis with war propaganda were not markedly successful, with many regarding the vulnerability of the British Empire with satisfaction. Mukherjee quotes a contemporary rhyme still remembered by many of his interviewees:


Bom phelechhe Japani

Bomar maidhe keute sap

British bole bapre-bap!


A bomb was dropped by the Japanese

In the bomb is a cobra snake

The British shout “For Heaven’s sake!” (p.38)

While Bengalis were not generally enthused about the war effort, however, the war effort saw them as particularly important. With the fall of Burma and Singapore in 1942, Kolkata was on the frontline and both a key strategic point and industrial centre.

The immediate effect of the war was to drive up food prices: rice, for example, went up by a third between 1939 and 1940 and had increased by 75% by December 1941. These price pressures in Bengal were made worse by 1942 by the export of large amounts of rice to western India and the Middle East and the requisitioning of supplies to feed troops, at the same time as the region was receiving large numbers of refugees fleeing from the Japanese in Burma. When the Japanese started bombing Kolkata in December 1942, this was then a catalyst for wealthier Kolkatan individuals to flee to the countryside, where their increased purchasing power would contribute to food price inflation, and for businesses to leave. At the same time, British preparations for a Japanese invasion included the deliberate destruction of food supplies and the means of its production. Under the Denial policy, all the ‘surplus’ rice was seized by the government and means of transport, including the boats on which Bengal’s fishing communities depended, were destroyed so that they could not be used by any invading Japanese army.

By 1943, with the streets of Kolkata filling up with desperate ‘beggars’ from the countryside, and severe shortages in goods from clothes to kerosene as well as food, the British priority was to keep the essential industries in Kolkata going, ‘requisitioning hard’ from the countryside in order to feed the city. This undoubtedly worsened the already terrible situation in the countryside, but the British had mostly little interest in relief efforts, with Churchill, as was reported, ‘[coming] very near saying that we could not let Indian starvation interfere with operations’ in April 1943 (p.187). Since, however, the sight of people starving to death on the streets would be rather damaging to the morale of the numerous troops passing through Kolkata, they were rounded up to camps, where the level of rations was often so insufficient that a medical observer said ‘all the time [you are] slowly starving [them] to extinction’ (p.135). In December 1943, the Secretary of State for India was able to assure the House of Commons that the ‘sick destitutes’ had been cleansed from the streets of Kolkata and that the situation was under control, although in fact starvation went on until well into 1945.

The government blamed individual hoarding for the food price increases, with the Minister in Bengal declaring in April 1943, ‘I am determined to use all power of Government to see that prices are brought down and see that these hoards are disgorged’ (p.108). As Mukherjee points out, however, there is evidence that the most meaningful hoarding was being done by major corporations and by the government itself. When rations for industrial workers in Kolkata were introduced in January 1944, much of the rice supplied was rotten. Since rice can be stored for up to a year without deterioration, this implies that the government, and the companies it was using for the ration supplies, had had it for some time. In other words,

‘that vast stores of now rotten rice were being unloaded on the market in the first months of 1944 is damning evidence that rice was, in fact, rotting in government and corporate warehouses as millions starved.’ (p.180)

A common trope of the Bengal famine is that the victims ‘died without a murmur’ (p.12), but in fact there was considerable resistance, to the expropriation of resources as part of the Denial programme, to the forcible rounding-up of the starving and destitute on the streets of Kolkata, and to the withholding of life-saving food from the rural population. That the people of Bengal were not in fact passive victims of starvation provides some of the context for the Kolkata riots of 1946, as does the importance of the right of residence in Kolkata. As Mukherjee points out:

‘Questions of who “belonged” in Calcutta [sic] and who did not, who was to be granted residence and who removed, who was “essential” and who disposable, had all been central to patrolling the urban space of Calcutta since the onset of the war. Famine only heightened the stakes and ensured that these same questions would continue to breed contention and violence for many years to come’ (p.138).

The cause of the Kolkata riots is usually regarded as communal resentments between Kolkata’s majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities. The flashpoint, a day of direct action, effectively a general strike, called by the Muslim League campaigning for Pakistan, was certainly a communal issue and there were numerous instances of communal violence in the days that followed. Mukherjee points out, however, that many of the most famous incidents were clearly not Hindu-Muslim violence, such as for example the looting of a Hindu wine shop by a mob who were presumably not observant Muslims. Many of the targets in the fighting in fact seem to relate to the shortages of the famine years. Clothes shops and clothing factories and warehouses for example were particularly hit by looting, presumably in reaction to the severe dearth of clothing which had seen many of the poorest go practically naked.

There was clearly a significant territorial aspect to the fighting. The first fighting broke out as Muslims marched through Hindu paras (small, tightly-knit neighbourhoods) on their way to occupy the Maidan, the city’s major public space, thus solidifying Hindu perceptions ‘that their territory and economic freedom were being “invaded” by Muslims’ (p.215). The subsequent violence often centred around attempts to take paras inhabited by communities in the minority in that part of the city, so Hindu paras in majority Muslim areas and Muslim paras surrounded by Hindus. This focus on taking territory convincingly had its origins in the importance of territory and residence in Kolkata during the famine.

While this territorial fighting occurred along communal lines, Mukherjee shows that the primary motivations for much of the violence were in fact not so much communal as class based. In Kolkata, the Muslim community were largely working class, whereas ‘middle class’ was often understood as a synonym for Hindu. It is clear that Hindu resentment of Muslim invaders in their space has its roots in class-based antagonism of middle-class communities in straightened conditions against those who they fear will take their small amount of privilege from them. For many in the Muslim community, the riots were also an opportunity to act on specific grievances against class enemies.

Mukherjee cites the example of the attack by five hundred khalasis (Muslim boatmen from eastern Bengal) on various warehouses and boats along the Hooghly River. The khalasis had been largely deprived of their livelihoods when the Denial policy destroyed the boats on which they worked, but while many of them went on to do casual work on the docks, they were denied the formal recognition which would have entitled them to rations as Kolkata workers. The boats they attacked were not crewed by any khalasis, which further indicates that discriminatory labour practices by the boat owners, rather than their communal identities, were the issue here.

The famous attacks by Muslim workers against the Marwari mills and factories follow the same pattern. The Marwaris were resented as hoarders and as controllers of the cloth industry. As major employers of priority workers, who were therefore guaranteed food, their hiring practices could mean the difference between life and death, so their refusal to hire Muslim workers meant that they were hated among Kolkata’s Muslim community. While communal identity was not unimportant, the class logic of these attacks was clearly the determining factor.

The Kolkata riots of 1946 were the spark for violent riots elsewhere in India, in particular in the Punjab in 1947, which led to a million deaths and ten million people permanently ‘de-territorialised’. Mukherjee’s presentation of the riots as arising from the Bengal famine is a convincing one, reflecting as it clearly does the memories of those who lived through both. Mukherjee remarks on how both the riots and the famine were remembered overwhelmingly for their sounds: for the cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) and ‘Bande Matram’ (Bow to the Mother Goddess) rising from the paras in 1946 and ‘Ma, phan dao’ (Mother, give us your rice starch) from the streets in 1943. This oral memory carries with it an important lesson, that ‘whenever there is civil war, ethnic violence, communal riots … look for the hunger that preceded it, and it is more often than not very easily found’ (p.250). It only remains to add: look for the Western imperial interests behind that hunger, for they too will be easy to find.


i A Sen, Poverty and Famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation (Oxford 1981), p.1

ii Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (London 2002), pp.300-301.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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