Chastising Churchill

'Seventy years after independence, bashing Winston Churchill has become a sure-fire way of attracting a mass following on Indian social media'

Zareer Masani

Seventy years after independence, bashing Winston Churchill has become a sure-fire way of attracting a mass following on Indian social media. Most damaging to Churchill’s Indian reputation has been the allegation that he deliberately starved millions of Bengalis during the wartime famine of 1943.

The attempt to lay this at Churchill’s door stems from a sensationalist book by a Bengali-American journalist, Madhusree Mukerjee. As its title, Churchill’s Secret War, indicates, it is a largely conspiracist attempt to pin responsibility for undoubted mistakes on the ground in Bengal on an elderly British prime minister who was thousands of miles away, fighting a world war that threatened Britain’s very survival.

Far from willing the starvation of Bengalis, Churchill believed, based on the information he had been getting, that there was no food supply shortage in Bengal, but a demand problem caused by local mismanagement of the distribution system. Ironically, his view has found unexpected support in a recent exchange between Mukerjee and the Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen, the world’s foremost expert on famine in India.

Much of Mukerjee’s case, and of those who follow her, rests not on Churchill’s actions, but on his words — namely, his various racist comments about Indians, and Bengalis in particular. Most of these have been taken out of context.

Churchill was infuriated by Gandhi’s decision to launch the Quit India movement in the middle of the war, seeing it as a stab in the back. He also (like many Indian liberals and socialists) saw Gandhi’s frequent resort to political fasts as a form of emotional blackmail. And he was appalled, as were many Congressmen, by the Bengali Congress leader Subhash Bose joining hands with Hitler and the Japanese, a fact not calculated to endear Bengalis in general to Churchill.

His abusive comments about Gandhi and Bengalis have to be seen in that context. They also have to be seen in the context of Churchill’s penchant for making outrageous comments that he didn’t really mean in order to shock or tease. One long-suffering butt was his childhood friend and Cabinet colleague, Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India. Winston liked to interrupt Amery’s long perorations on India with racist jokes designed to cut him short. Amery was not amused and once responded by likening Churchill’s language to Hitler’s. None of this was meant to be taken very seriously, but Amery made a habit of writing it all down in his diaries. When these were published in 1997, they proved a bonanza for Mukerjee and others of her ilk, who seized on Churchill’s every racist word as evidence of yet darker deeds.

Even Mukerjee never blamed Churchill for causing the Bengal famine, but for compounding it by refusing to allow relief shipments of grain which were bound for Europe to be diverted to Bengal. Mukerjee’s camp-followers have taken this one degree further with claims that Australian food shipments were forced to sail past Calcutta without stopping, en route to Europe. One has only to look at a map of the Indian Ocean to see what a nonsense it would have been for Australian ships bound for Europe to come anywhere near the Bay of Bengal.

 The true facts about food shipments to Bengal, and these are amply recorded in the British War Cabinet and Government of India archives, are that more than a million tons of food grain arrived in Bengal between August 1943, when the war cabinet first realised the severity of the famine, and the end of 1944, when the famine had petered out. This was food aid specifically sent to Bengal, much of it on Australian ships, despite strict food rationing and shortages in England and newly-liberated southern Italy and Greece. The records show that, far from seeking to starve India, Churchill and his cabinet sought every possible way to alleviate the suffering without undermining the war effort.

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