Britain rose as an economic giant in the early 20th century at the
cost of millions in the 1942-43 Bengal famine as, instead of
sending emergency food shipments, prime minister Winston Churchill
built stockpiles for post-war Europe, says Germany-based
journalist-writer Madhusree Mukerjee.
"I wanted to understand poverty which is very complicated. I
decided to study the great Bengal famine because famine is about
scarcity of food, which is the heart of the vicious cycle of
poverty," Mukerjee told IANS in an interview here.
Her new book, "Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the
Ravaging of India During World War II", looks at a series of
decisions by the British leader from 1940 to 1944 that directly
and inevitably led to deaths during the famine.
The streets of eastern Indian cities were crowded with corpses -
of people who died hungry - yet Churchill used the wheat and ships
at his disposal to feed post-war Britain and Europe.
The second book of Mukerjee was launched this month by Westland-Tranquebar.
"I had no idea if I would have anything new to say, but the famine
is integral to the British experience in India. I realised that
there were questions that had not been asked or addressed. For
instance, how India fitted into the World War strategy drawn up by
Britain," she added.
The Bengal famine had been thoroughly studied and researchers,
including economist Amartya Sen, opined that if relief had been
sent, it could have been mitigated, Mukerjee said.
"Two American historians told me that it was a pointless thing to
ask about the shipping situation of that time when the general
assumption was that relief would not have been possible to send,"
the writer said.
"It was a world war and one could not expect resources for India.
So, I started researching the whole question of shipping during
the Bengal famine," she added.
The famine - which was felt mostly in Bengal and the adjacent
eastern states - was a calamity foretold.
Historian William Hunter observed in 1874 that in Bengal, if the
price of rice after the winter harvest was twice that in a normal
year, it foretold a famine and a price three times the normal
later in the year indicated that it had already set in. The
prophecy came true in 1941 and 1942 during World War II.
In 1941, Bengal had imported 296,000 tonnes of grain and in 1942,
it had exported 185,000 tonnes to feed the Allied soldiers
fighting outside - and that set off inflation.
"There were certain policies - some related to supplies and tools
for war that predated Churchill - that placed enormous pressure on
the Indian economy and led to an inflation," Mukerjee said.
"Before the war, India imported 1-2 million tonnes of rice from
Myanmar and Thailand, but when the Japanese occupied Burma in
1942, India couldn't get rice any more. Instead of protecting
India, Churchill insisted that India export rice to the war
theatres in Ceylon, South Africa and Arabia," Mukerjee said.
"Brokers started buying rice for exports and when the Japanese
arrived at the Indian border, the British initiated the scorched
earth policy in Bengal," Mukerjee said.
Under the policy, any territory that had to be surrendered was
ruthlessly destroyed and in Bengal it meant removing rice from the
traders' storehouses. Another aspect of scorched earth policy was
"boat denial", which denied fishermen the right to fish. It broke
"In 1942, there was a huge storm in Bengal that killed almost
30,000 and destroyed crops along the coast. But Britian said its
supplies were inadequate. Lord Cherwell created panic in the War
Cabinet, urging that Britain had to increase imports," the writer
"Churchill recommended that Britain take 60 percent of its ships
from the Indian Ocean and bring them to the Atlantic Ocean to
service Britain," she added.
And the order was "implemented in late January 1943".
"The Indian government realised that it was short of grain and
does not have enough wheat to feed the army for another week,"
Appeals for grain shipments were overlooked - and famine gripped
The writer, who is in India to promote the book, said she "had
travelled extensively in the Tamralipta (Midnapore) region of West
Bengal to collect information from old residents about the
situation leading to the famine".
Mukerjee is the author of the "The Land of the Naked People" - a
book about the indigenous communities in the Andaman Islands.