The 1943 Bengal Famine is a crying shame hatched by the dark and evil minds of the Winston Churchill-led British Raj in cahoot with the Muslim League to achieve its sinister plan to ‘let millions perish’ in misery without ever raising a slogan or protest
Dr Sudip Kar Purkayastha
It is a shocking national indifference and shame that the 75th Anniversary of the Great Bengal Famine is about to pass by us as silently as it did 75 years ago when nearly 3.5 million people, nearly 6% of the then undivided Bengal’s population, had perished unceremoniously without raising a slogan or protest, having become a hapless victim of what was essentially a dark and sinister political conspiracy. Nowhere in the long span of 74 silent years that rolled by, and even today on the eve of its 75th anniversary, if you will, there has been no national mourning, no reflection or no introspection into why such a monumental atrocity befell a people, who were distinguished for their excellence in social, cultural, and intellectual accomplishments as well as the lessons this horrendous event hold for the collective lives of ours today.
Over 3.5 million people succumbed to the Great Famine India has ever witnessed
The Skeleton of the Famine
Driven by extreme hunger and human misery, hundreds of thousands of rural people sold off their lands, farm implements, and even the thatched roof they had over their heads along with their children, as they trundled from their villages towards towns and cities in search of crumbs of food. Many even had strayed from their family members, as they lost themselves on their way. In Calcutta and other big towns, they even took to begging, some of them had to fight with animals for the leftovers, if any, in street dustbins, before succumbing slowly to starvation and diseases. Disposal of corpses had become a nightmare hell for many in Calcutta itself. The situation was more horrendous in rural areas where animals such as dogs, jackals and vultures had a field day feasting on dead bodies and rotting corpses. There were also several instances of feral and rabid dogs trying to bite off or devour their limbs while they were still fighting to stay alive but too emaciated to stave off the hungry beasts.
Though incredible these stories may sound to us today, none of them can be called an exaggeration. A plethora of media reports and photographs that appeared in leading Bengal dailies of those horrific times bear testimony to these narrations. The Bengal Famine is a monumental shame on the British Raj in India.
The Secondary Causes
If one delves deep into its causes, the famine was less due to shortage of foodstuffs but more due to forbiddingly huge high prices which a third of Bengal’s population was unable to afford. As a matter of fact, right from the start of the twentieth century, Bengal was prone to importing rice – the staple food of her people. The natural calamity of 1942 winter in coastal Bengal and stoppage of rice supply from Japanese-occupied Burma had only aggravated their problem. The only recourse to ward off the natural calamity had been to hike import. But the political regime, in 1934, adopted a disasterously criminal course of action that led to this great tragedy. Intriguingly, the British abetted by the wiley Winston Churchill sought to divert world’s attention away from their misdeeds by highlighting a set of ‘secondary’ causes.
Emaciated bodies of the Grand Bengal Famine of 1942 was engineered by Winston Churchill who unadulterated hatred for everything India is notorious.
The report (1945) of the Famine Inquiry Commission headed by Sir John Woodhead reinforced the validity of such ‘secondary’ causes. After attributing the disproportionately high blame to the natural calamity of flood and cyclone which had affected mainly coastal Bengal, the report dwelt on a host of factors inter alia stoppage of rice supply from Burma, boat control policy, removal of rice from coastal areas, acquisition of farmland for military use, increased defence expenditure, maldistribution, and administrative ineptitude. But the primary cause, which seemed to be the political design on the part of both the British regime and the Muslim League government in Bengal, was not given due consideration.
- Feral and rabid dogs trying to bite off or devour their limbs while they were still fighting to stay alive but too emaciated to drive the hungry beasts away
- No amount of loss of lives seemed too daunting for its leaders. Aligning with the British’s sinister agenda of starving the masses by liberal use of the power of the State offered the prospect of flexing its own political muscle in the perception of the people and its political opponents besides getting long-term British support for its political agenda, Pakistan
- The political class seems to have received help from the intelligentsia, the bulk of whom had resorted shamelessly to rationalising the famine in terms of economic theories
Sinister Agenda of the British Raj
The political intention of the British reflected from measures such as scaling up exports from and reducing imports into the province already grappling with shortage, steadfastly adhering to the theory of ‘no food shortage in Bengal’, preventing the ‘progressive Coalition’ government from carrying out a census of foodstuffs in the province, removing that popular ministry almost by force and installing a communal government at a critical time, refusing to intervene in the working of the corrupt and incompetent League government in the name of ‘provincial autonomy’ and so on. Discerning politician KC Neogy rightly expressed gnawing doubt about the British hand behind the famine in the floor of the Indian Legislative Assembly in November 1943 that the famine was ‘primarily a State Industry and in certain respects bore the hall-mark of genuine British manufacture.’
A street in Calcutta littered with rotting dead bodies and vultures feeding of rotten body parts
Now new research into the declassified documents of the British government are offering concrete evidence that the political actions of the regime on Bengal famine were indeed intentional. This was epitomized by the refusal of the Churchill cabinet to accept any offers of help for famine victims from other countries like USA and Canada citing flimsy excuses. Even a few ships unloading foodstuffs in Indian ports could have hit the speculators and profiteers hard to bring down the price aroynd save millions of lives.
The unconditional offer of 1 million ton of rice (as the first installment) from Burma by Subhas Chandra Bose in August 1943 was also suppressed by Churchill. The British intention was diabolical. To let millions of Bengalis die. Denying any offers of voluntary help to hundreds and thousands of people starving to death was only part of a planned ‘genocide’.
The role of the Muslim League
In comparison to the role of the British which has attracted research interests, the role of the Muslim League led by Sir Nazimuddin with regard to the famine has mysteriously remained un-investigated. This has been kept under a veil of secrecy by politicians and academics with vested interests. The logic used to discourage any enquiry into this has been to asky why a party supposed to protect the interests of the Muslim community would preside over a programme of mass annihilation, which would have included Muslims too? Therefore, before scrutinizing the actions of the League ministry, an understanding of that paradox would be called for.
A feral dog biting off body parts off a rotting corpse
The All India Muslim League was in direct competition with Krishak Praja Party, a secular regional party led by Fazlul Huq for loyalty of the Muslims in the province. It made the League angry, insecure and vengeful that Fazlul Huq was weaned away from its fold by two nationalist leaders viz., Sarat Bose and Syamaprasad Mookerjee into forming the Progressive Coalition ministry in December 1941, which had led to collapse of its own ministry. The cause of Pakistan had also suffered. Thus, after Governor Herbert brought its Ministry back to office in April 1943, the party seemed desperate and ruthless in its aim to suppress its political opponents, bulldoze the masses to abject submission, drive Muslim Huq’s Muslims back to its own fold, and reinforce the demand for Pakistan with all the strength at its command. No amount of loss of lives seemed too daunting for its leaders. Aligning with the British’s sinister agenda of starving the masses by liberal use of the power of the State offered the prospect of flexing its own political muscle in the perception of the people and its political opponents besides getting long-term British support for its political agenda, especially Pakistan.
British Raj & the Muslim League
An examination of the events since April 1943 shows that the League government acted in perfect tandem with the British government in India and Her Majesty in London. This had begun with the ‘stance’ it adopted and steadfastly adhered to their stand that ‘Bengal did not have any food shortage. The problem was one of hoarding and maldistribution.’ The Secretary of State Leo Amery and Bengal’s Civil Supplies Minister HS Suhrawardy echoed each other in London and Calcutta. Amery held everyone from the cultivators upwards responsible for hoarding, Suhrawardy not only supported this doctrine but also went for house to house search in the name of Food Drive, while keeping the press gagged.
A cartoon illustrating the ‘achievements’ of the British Raj during the famine
The League Ministry made elaborate misuse of Defence of India Rules to create a reign of terror in scaring ordinary people selling away whatever little they held for rainy days, which were promptly lapped up by the private agents appointed by the League Ministry. The mischief was also seen while removing the ‘denial rice’ i.e., rice in the coastal areas by using tricks of cajolery and threats. These agents went with alacrity into buying and removing rice from scarcity areas to Calcutta and other cities and towns. The quota and the rate at which they were allowed to buy were kept confidential by the government. The outcome was that rice quickly vanished from the rural areas and moved to the urban places.
The food drive targeted the common man but left the hoarders and profiteers practically untouched. The black market operated with impunity under the nose of the Bengal government. The price went through the roof, way beyond the capacity of 2 crore of poor and low middle classes, who were left with no option but to starve.
What aroused great suspicion about the intention of the League ministry was its relentless attempts to keep people of Bengal in delusion by dishing out false promises. Its claim that Bengal did not have food shortage had deprived the people of certain allocation of food grains which was already promised by the central government to its predecessor government. In consultation with the government of India, it wasted precious time to prove this claim statistically, even when people were dying across the province. The Civil Supplies Minister, in particular, went on making false promises about the stock in hand and the foodstuffs about to arrive, in the process twisting lives out of millions of innocent gullible people.
A despot with impunity
But the most damning evidence of the League’s intention was its abuse of Defence of India Rules to prevent the news of the famine spreading outside Bengal. This was blocking the possibility of outside help reaching the victims. By taking away the food from the reach of the common man, gagging the press and preventing any humanitarian aid to the starving millions, the League government had created a deadly situation. Whatever help still managed to trickle in, often remained lying idle at ports, depots or warehouses on the pretext of logistical difficulties in sending them across to distressed areas. The relief measures on ground were paltry and that too, highly communalized.
The League ministry carried out its agenda with impunity as it seemed sure that the Linlithgow government at the centre won’t interfere with what it was doing. Its morale was further boosted with support of both the Communist Party of India and the European Party. Bengal province turned into a killing field with the poor were simply left to die, and that too, silently without embarrassing the powers that be! It was not a surprise that nearly 3.5 million people had died in less than a year.
His voice boomed
However, while most political forces of Bengal had collaborated or overlooked this grave national tragedy, Syamaprasad Mookerjee fought like a crusader for the famine victims of Bengal. He not only pioneered in organising relief and thus encouraged others to follow suit, but also, more importantly, pierced the veil of conspiracy by bringing the famine to the attention of rest of India and world at large to make the continuation of this programme of mass annihilation impossible. As the Indian Annual Register 1946 (Vol 2) aptly wrote: ‘He it was whose voice rang throughout the country calling attention to the conditions of famine that threatened to decimate Bengal.’ Needless to say, but for his spirited intervention and crusade against both the British regime and Muslim League government in Bengal, the casualty would have been much higher. While condemning the peculiar tendency of the League government of not allowing information about the famine go out of Bengal, the Register noted further: ‘…when the history of this peculiar reluctance of the Government came to be written, the credit of weakening its rigour will go to Dr Mukherjee.’
Vicious impact on society
Death statistics, however formidable, cannot drive home the enormity of the damages that was inflicted on Bengal’s social life. A substantial section of the rural population was, forever, evicted out of their villages which for centuries had nourished their lives, thoughts and culture. In course of ‘wandering’ tens of thousands of famine-struck families were separated and members of the family lost touch with each other permanently. In cities and in villages non-availability of food hit the basic values of the starving people tearing asunder the family bond.
The fact that the affluent sections of the society could afford prices in the black market and thus can live a normal life, only aggravated social tension. Communal discrimination in the matter of distribution of relief by the government further fragmented the people along religious lines.
It may be argued that the Bengali society which had been the beneficiary of the proverbial nineteenth century renaissance beginning with Raja Rammohan Ray in (1785-1833) and carried through the legacies of such illustrious statesmen as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and to which Late GG Gokhale had paid that glorious compliment ‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks it tomorrow’, was made to stumble on its face by this vicious man-made famine of 1943. The blows it received all through its body were severe and had begun to change some of its basic orientations. As Kalicharan Ghosh aptly observed, in his book viz., ‘Famines in Bengal’: ‘The famine of 1943 leaves its deepest and longest scar on human society While the marks of every other form of injury will disappear with the passage of a few years, it will take many long decades to rehabilitate the social order that has been shaken to the very foundation.’ Unfortunately, for Bengal, that was not to be. It was beset with another great man-made calamity in the form of partition, in less than 4 years’ time thence.
One plausible way to come out of the psychological trauma was through collective ‘catharsis’. It was here that the litterateurs, creative persons, artists, academia and intellectuals could have played an important role. Unfortunately, this did not happen, may be due to their inability to counter the pressure of the vested political interests.
In this connection, a comparison of the Bengal famine 1943 with the great famine of Ukraine in 1932-33, brings the differences in approaches of the two peoples in sharp relief.. Both famines were outcome of political conspiracy. If the League regime lent willing co-operation to the Imperial British regime in starving 3.5 million people to death in Bengal, the loyalist regime of Ukraine wrought havoc with the lives of nearly 5 million Ukrainians at the dictate of the Stalin government. However, while the people of Ukraine- child, young or old, men or women- have never ever forgotten this tragedy, consistently called it as ‘genocide’, and been insisting upon the United Nations to declare it as such, the people of Bengal has been surprisingly and blissfully forgetful about the great political conspiracy that had tormented and killed few millions of their ancestors in most inhuman and humiliating manner. This was demonstrated most pitiably and perceptibly by the near-complete silence of the society at large on the 75th anniversary of this monumental tragedy.
Need to face the reality
Lack of sensitivity and unwillingness to fix accountability to the guilty may be traced to the compulsion of the so-called ‘secular politics’. In this regard, the political class seems to have received help from the intelligentsia, the bulk of whom had resorted shamelessly to rationalising the famine in terms of economic theories and making light of the gigantic loss of human lives and irreparable damage to the social fabric of Bengal as a kind of unavoidable calamity.
But does running away from facts or refusing to learn from history really benefit a nation or a race? The degeneration of Bengal economically, socially and culturally from its peak position in India strongly suggest the harmful consequences that may arise by overlooking facts of life, however bitter they be. If researches bring out the role of the colonial British regime in the Bengal famine and the British people are prepared to discuss the issue, isn’t it time for us to find out the exact role political parties played to perpetrate this grave tragedy and learn from our own mistakes?