Calcutta, 1943: British viceroy Lord Wavell (centre) and J.K. Biswas, chairman of the Rotary Club Relief Committee, during a visit to a free kitchen for victims of the Indian famine

Churchill and the genocide myth

Zareer Masani says the wartime prime minister has been unfairly vilified over the 1943 Indian famine


This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

A favourite trope of the current Black Lives Madness and its left-liberal white apologists has been the alleged infamy of Britain’s most cherished hero, Winston Churchill, charged with everything from mere racism to actual genocide. The worst accusation is that of deliberately starving four million Bengalis to death in the famine of 1943.

The famine took place at the height of World War Two, with the Japanese already occupying Burma and invading the British Indian province of Bengal, bombing its capital, Calcutta, and patrolling its coast with submarines. 

The famine raged for about six months, from the summer of 1943 until the end of that year, and estimates of its victims range from half a million upwards, depending on whether one includes its indirect and long-term effects. Most famine experts agree that famines can be caused by both nature and human agency, but never by any single individual. So how has a 67-year-old British prime minister in poor health, 5,000 miles away, fighting near-annihilation in a world war, come to be charged with causing such a cataclysmic disaster? 

The attempt to lay this at Churchill’s door stems from a sensationalist book by a Bengali-American journalist called Madhusree Mukerjee. As its title, Churchill’s Secret War, indicates, it was a largely conspiracist attempt to pin responsibility on distant Churchill for undoubted mistakes on the ground in Bengal. 

The actual evidence shows that 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 found unexpected support in a 2010 exchange between Mukerjee and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the world’s foremost expert on famine in India.

Calcutta, 1943: British viceroy Lord Wavell (left) and J.K. Biswas, chairman of the Rotary Club Relief Committee, during a visit to a free kitchen for victims of the Indian famine

Commenting in the New York Times, Sen said of Mukerjee, that “she seems satisfied with little information” and that her data came from only two rice research stations, and those in only two out of 27 districts in Bengal. “The analysis I made,” countered Sen, “using data from all districts . . . indicated that food availability in 1943 (the famine year) was significantly higher than in 1941 (when there was no famine) . . . There was indeed a substantial shortfall compared with demand, hugely enhanced in a war economy . . . but that is quite different from a shortfall of supply compared with supply in previous years . . . Mukerjee seems to miss this crucial distinction, and in her single-minded . . . attempt to nail down Churchill, she ends up absolving British imperial policy of confusion and callousness.”

The “confusion and callousness” to which Sen alludes had nothing to do with Churchill and was largely the result of wartime supply constraints, with most of Bengal’s boats commandeered or disabled, and uneasy relations between the elected, Muslim-led, coalition government of Bengal and its largely Hindu grain merchants, notorious for hoarding and speculation.

When Churchill’s war cabinet first realised the enormity of the famine, it agreed 150,000 tons of barley and wheat should be sent

Provincial autonomy, with democratically-elected ministries, was the result of the British-sponsored 1935 constitution, designed to give India dominion status, like Canada and Australia, once its princes and politicians agreed on a federal central government. Churchill, no friend to Indian independence or dominion status, had considered the constitution premature, and had fought its adoption tooth and nail in the House of Commons in the 1930s, at the cost of dooming himself to the backbenches for a decade. 

By the 1940s, nonetheless, he regarded the food situation in Bengal as primarily a matter for its elected ministry rather than Whitehall. Within the war cabinet itself, Churchill’s role was one of broad oversight rather than detailed management, so the idea that he had much influence on actual relief aid to Bengal is far-fetched, especially at the height of the war. 

1943 had begun as a year of normal harvest, leaving the Bengal ministry sanguine about food supplies and the viceroy’s government in Delhi reluctant to intervene, using its reserve powers. Once the viceroy did intervene, the famine was rapidly brought under control and petered out within months. And it was Churchill who replaced the lethargic Lord Linlithgow as viceroy with the efficient and politically sensitive Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, brought in partly to address the famine.

Winston Churchill in May 1943

Even Mukerjee never blames Churchill for actually causing the Bengal famine, but for compounding it by refusing to allow shipments of grain from Australia and Canada, bound for Europe, to be diverted to Bengal. Mukerjee’s camp-followers have taken this accusation further with fantastical claims that Bengal was being forced to export food to Ceylon, while Australian food shipments were forced to sail past Calcutta without stopping en route to Europe. 

The fact is that Bengal only ever sent one food shipment to Ceylon that year, and it was an equal exchange of grain for rice. As for Australian food shipments being diverted from Calcutta, one has only to look at a map to see what a nonsense it would have been for Australian ships bound for Europe to come anywhere near the Bay of Bengal and run the gauntlet of Japanese submarines.

The true facts about food shipments to Bengal, amply recorded in the British war cabinet and government of India archives, are that more than a million tons of 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. 

To Churchill must go the credit for appointing the man arguably most responsible for these successes

This was food aid specifically sent to Bengal, much of it on Australian ships, despite strict food rationing in England and severe food shortages in newly-liberated southern Italy and Greece. As detailed in Andrew Roberts’s brilliant biography, far from seeking to starve India, Churchill and his cabinet sought every possible way to alleviate the suffering without undermining the war effort.

On 4 August 1943, when Churchill’s war cabinet first realised the enormity of the famine, it agreed that 150,000 tons of Iraqi barley and Australian wheat should be sent to Bengal, with Churchill himself insisting on 24 September that “something must be done”. Though emphatic “that Indians are not the only people who are starving in this war”, he agreed to send a further 250,000 tons, to be shipped over the next four months. 

On 7 October, Churchill told the war cabinet that one of the new viceroy’s first duties was to see to it “that famine and food difficulties were dealt with”. He wrote to Wavell the next day: “Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages.” Churchill refused a Canadian offer of 100,000 tons of food aid for Bengal because it would have taken two months to arrive, but the same war cabinet meeting resolved to seek Australian supplies instead. 

By January 1944, Bengal had received a total of 130,000 tons of barley from Iraq, 80,000 tons of wheat from Australia and 10,000 from Canada, followed by a further 100,000 from Australia. Then, on 14 February 1944, Churchill called an emergency meeting of the war cabinet to see if more food aid could be sent to Bengal without wrecking Allied plans for the coming Normandy landings. “I will certainly help you all I can, but you must not ask the impossible,” Churchill telegraphed Wavell before the cabinet met. 

The next day, he informed Wavell: “We have given a great deal of thought to your difficulties, but we simply cannot find the shipping.” Allied shipping had by then been stretched to breaking point by new fronts in Italy and by the need to send supplies to starving Russia; but the secretary of state for India, Leopold Amery, assured Wavell that the prime minister “was not unsympathetic”.

Meanwhile, the cabinet instructed the government of India to impose rationing across the whole subcontinent, raise taxes and impose food price controls. The cabinet expressed a suspicion that the shortages were “partly political in character, caused by Marwari (Hindu) supporters of Congress in an effort to embarrass the existing Muslim Government of Bengal”. 

On 24 April 1944, the cabinet minutes recorded: “The prime minister said that it was clear that His Majesty’s Government could only provide further relief for the Indian situation at the cost of incurring grave difficulties in other directions. At the same time, his sympathy was great for the sufferings of the people of India.” 

These were not empty words. A few days later, Churchill asked President Roosevelt for shipping to supply Bengal, saying he was “seriously concerned” about the famine, that Wavell needed a million extra tons of grain that was available in Australia, but without ships to transport it. The request was refused by the US administration on the grounds that it needed all its shipping to supply the Pacific theatre and the impending D-Day landings. 

India’s foremost economic historian, Professor Tirthankar Roy at the London School of Economics, grew up in post-famine Calcutta. His own verdict is remarkably balanced: “The cabinet believed what Calcutta and Delhi told it: that there was no shortage of food in Bengal. The cabinet took decisions in the knowledge that the Axis powers were sinking one ship every day and had sunk around a million tons of shipping in 1942. The regions where rice might be available were the most dangerous waters to enter. Army rations were already reduced; any further cuts could risk a mutiny.” Despite such obstacles, by the end of 1944 Wavell’s much-requested one million additional tons had been secured from Australia and the allied South East Asia Command and shipped to Bengal. 

Churchill assured Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar that the notion the Indian was inferior to the white man must disappear

To Churchill must go the credit for appointing in October 1943 the man arguably most responsible for these successes. British India’s most able and conscientious viceroy, Field Marshal Wavell, with his long and distinguished record of service in India, his intimate knowledge of its peoples and languages and his experience of large-scale military logistics, was just the person to halt the Bengal famine in its tracks, drafting in the army to get food supplies moving quickly from surplus to deficit areas.

Much of Mukerjee’s case against Churchill rests not on his actions but on his  various racist comments about Indians, and Bengalis in particular. Most of these have been taken out of context. Churchill was certainly no friend to Indian nationalist leaders, most of whom he regarded as moralising humbugs. He was an unashamed imperialist, like many of his generation, and committed to maintaining India’s unity within the British Empire. He had a strongly-held conviction that too sudden and rapid a move to democracy and independence would tear the subcontinent apart on sectarian lines, a fear that events would justify.

On the other hand, Churchill repeatedly voiced his admiration for the gallantry of Indian troops, noting in his war memoirs: “The unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers, both Moslem and Hindu, shine for ever in the annals of war. Upwards of two and a half million Indians volunteered to serve in the forces . . . The response of the Indian peoples, no less than the conduct of their soldiers, makes a glorious final page in the story of our Indian Empire.”

Despite his fears about Indian independence, Churchill’s views noticeably mellowed over the years. On 5 February 1942, Churchill proposed in cabinet to visit India to make its Congress leaders an offer of postwar independence, in return for their supporting the war effort. But instead the war cabinet sent its senior Labour minister, Sir Stafford Cripps, known for his friendship with Congress leaders. When the Cripps mission failed to meet their demand for immediate independence, Congress launched the Quit India movement of civil disobedience against the Raj and resolved to offer only passive resistance to the Japanese invasion.

On being informed of this in September 1942, an apoplectic Churchill exclaimed to Amery: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” He was referring to Hinduism, rather than Islam, given loyal support for the war effort from the Muslim League. Churchill saw Gandhi’s decision to launch the Quit India movement in the middle of the war as a stab in the back when Britain most needed and deserved loyal support. 

He also (like many Indian liberals and socialists) saw Gandhi’s political fasts as a form of emotional blackmail. And he was appalled, as were many Congressmen, by extreme nationalists such as the Bengali leader Subhas Chandra Bose joining hands with Hitler and the Japanese, a fact not calculated to endear Bengalis in general to Churchill.

Churchill’s abusive comments about Gandhi, Indians and Bengalis need to be seen in that context. They also need to be seen in the context of his penchant for making outrageous comments that he didn’t really mean in order to shock or tease. The long-suffering butt of many such remarks was Sir Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, who had also been his childhood friend.

Churchill used to rag him when they were at school together at Harrow and once even threw him into a swimming pool fully clothed. Amery grew up into a worthy but rather longwinded and tedious speaker with a talent for boring his listeners at cabinet meetings. Winston liked to interrupt Amery’s long perorations on India with racist jokes designed to shock him and 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 rather solemnly 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.

In July 1944, over lunch with the Indian statesman Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar, a member of the war cabinet, Churchill was heard assuring him that the old notion that the Indian was in any way inferior to the white man must disappear. “We must all be pals together,” the prime minister declared. “I want to see a great shining India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Canada or a great Australia.” 

Referring to India’s growing population, Churchill also remarked: “It was only thanks to the beneficence and wisdom of British rule in India, free from any hint of war for a longer period than almost any other country in the world, that India had been able to increase and multiply to this astonishing extent.” 

On another occasion, he proudly told the Spanish ambassador to London, “Since the English occupation of India the native population has increased by two hundred million,” and he contrasted this with the extinction of American Indians, a comparison he was fond of making on his trips to the US. Whatever the merits of India’s population explosion under stable British rule, these were hardly the sentiments of someone willing genocide by starvation on the Indian people.

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