Did Winston Churchill Kill 4 Million Indians?

Deep into the Second World War, the province of Bengal in British India was struck by a devastating famine Starvation and resulting disease combined to kill up to 4 million people – nearly a tenth of Bengal’s population

At the time, the Indian and British governments blamed provincial governments for failing to deal with the crisis More recently, personal correspondence from wartime Britain suggests the real person to blame for all these deaths, is Prime Minister Winston Churchill The famine was devastating First-hand accounts reveal how people clamoured for the starch water in which rice had been boiled They were reduced to eating leaves and grass

The dead piled up in streets and villages because the living were too weak to cremate them Parents would throw their children into rivers and wells to spare them a slow, painful death Others committed suicide to escape the torment The survivors were either lucky enough to find work in Calcutta, or earned food by prostituting themselves The people of Bengal depended on grain crops, especially wheat and rice, to survive

In late 1942 a cyclone hit the region, destroying a huge amount of planted grain and triggering an outbreak of fungus that laid waste to yet more crops As a result, going into 1943, food stocks in Bengal were far lower than normal Still, those 4 million people could have been saved by a timely supply of food from elsewhere In 2011 journalist Madhusree Mukerjee uncovered documents which suggest the death toll reached such horrific heights because the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the man in charge of its vast Empire, refused to help them Mukerjee points out that, before the famine even loomed, Winston Churchill’s policies directly contributed towards it

In 1942, Japan took control of Burma, Bengal’s next door neighbour To stave off the threat of a Japanese invasion, the British stationed a significant army presence in the region They evicted about 180,000 farmers and seized 175,000 acres of farmland for the army base They also seized all boats in the region and banned shipping, despite the fact that a significant proportion of Bengal’s food supply came from trade in the Bay region Furthermore, Churchill enacted a Denial Policy in the region – better known as scorched earth

Rice crops and stores of grain were deliberately destroyed by the army, just in case the Japanese invaded Nevertheless, India still exported 70,000 tons of rice for the British war effort in the first half of 1943, just as the famine was taking hold This was enough to feed 400,000 people for a year Britain, on the other hand, increased its stockpile of food and raw materials to 185 million tons

Its population had 14 million fewer people than Bengal’s Sir Archibald Wavell and the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, requested food be shipped to India to relieve the famine Churchill bluntly refused He also refused offers of help from Canada and the United States of America Australian supply ships sailed right past India and into Europe

Churchill wouldn’t let them divert into Bengal to provide food for the starving masses News and pictures of the famine were censored in Britain, so the British public knew nothing about it A sketch book depicting the famine was banned by the British Churchill’s reasoning was simple: “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks” Churchill’s racist disregard for India is well documented

He despised Gandhi and infamously called Hindus “a beastly people with a beastly religion” Regarding the 1943 crisis in Bengal, he said, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits” Yet despite this undeniable prejudice, British-controlled India was no stranger to famine crises The Indian Famine Codes were designed for just such a situation First, the government had to ensure there was enough food available in Bengal, then they had to give it to the people affected by famine

However, the official Famine Inquiry Commission found that the Bengalese government deliberately overestimated the amount of food produced in the 1942 harvest For political reasons, and from systemic bureaucratic ineptitude, they calculated there was actually too much food for people to starve Consequently they did not bother to store enough spare food in case of a crisis The situation was further complicated by the devolved democracy of India’s provinces, which discouraged provinces from exporting food to each other To make matters worse, Viceroy Linlithgow, the Governor-General of India, believed the shortage of food was purely down to greedy Bengalese traders hoarding grain

The provincial governments agreed with him When the famine hit in mid-1943, every level of the government was neither able nor willing to feed the people of Bengal But in August 1943, The Statesman newspaper broke censorship rules to publish photos of the famine victims The images shocked the world and action was taken Viceroy Linlithgow was replaced by Sir Archibald Wavell in October

He and Leopold Amery said India needed 1 million tons of grain In the first nine months of 1944, Churchill arranged for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India He also asked President Roosevelt for another 50,000 tons – but Roosevelt was unable to divert ships to India Luckily for Bengal, the harvest of December 1943 was enough to end the famine, along with the belated supplies from abroad Churchill’s family and defenders claim he was not responsible for the famine

They say he did his best in a difficult situation, understandably prioritising the European arena of war over the Indian famine They put the blame on the Indian government for failing to plan for and alleviate the crisis, even though they had an established procedure for doing so Yet documents prove Churchill was unashamedly callous towards India His friends wrote about his racism Madhusree Mukerjee notes that India was well on its way to independence at this point in history

Therefore Churchill didn’t see the point in helping people who didn’t want to be part of the British Empire India gained independence in 1947 Over 25 million Indian soldiers fought for the Allies during World War Two Historians agree that Indian resources were essential to Britain enduring the massive conflict

The question is, whether the almost 4 million lives lost during the 1943 famine, were a necessary price for victory

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