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August 8, 2010

Churchill's Secret War
by Madhusree Mukerjee

The 1943 Bengal famine was one of the second world war's greatest scandals. This book lays the blame squarely on Churchill's shoulders

Reviewed by Max Hastings


Title Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II
Author Madhusree Mukerjee
Publisher Basic Books
Length 368 pages
Price £17.09

WINSTON Churchill told the House of Commons after Pearl Harbor in December 1941: "The great thing is that we have four-fifths of the world's populations on our side." This was a terminological inexactitude. It would have been more correct to say that the allies had many of the world's peoples under their control, which was somewhat different.

A significant proportion, including many Arabs and Indians, were alienated from the allied struggle for freedom, because it included no commitment to liberate them from colonial mastery.

Even Churchill's greatest admirers cannot escape the fact that British misgovernment of the Raj represented a blot on his wartime leadership.

"He is really not quite normal on the subject of India," wrote Leo Amery, secretary of state for India. Churchill defied American opinion by resisting serious negotiation with Nehru's Congress party about self-government. He wrote in his war memoirs that President Roosevelt's commitment to this represented "an act of madness… Idealism at other people's expense and without regard to the consequences of ruin and slaughter which fall upon millions of humble homes cannot be considered as its highest and noblest form".

He claimed that British policy was based on a refusal to desert the Indian people in their hour of need, "leaving them to anarchy or subjugation". He caused most of the nationalist leadership to be imprisoned for much of the war, and endorsed ruthless repressive measures in response to strikes, demonstrations and acts of sabotage. The British authorities copied Stalin's policy in Russia by confiscating all accessible private radios to prevent disaffected Indians from listening to Axis broadcasts.

All this was narrowly defensible in the context of Britain's struggle for survival, especially when the Japanese were at the gates. On January 21, 1942, the viceroy Lord Linlithgow reported to London: "There is a large and dangerous potential fifth column in Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa, and…indeed, potentiality of pro-enemy sympathy and activity in eastern India is enormous."

But the scandal, one of the great horrors of the war, was the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least 1m and perhaps 3m Indians perished. In the clubs of Calcutta sahibs continued to enjoy unlimited eggs and bacon, while a few yards from their doors people died in the streets.

This is the story Madhusree Mukerjee tells in her significant and - to British readers - distressing book. A soldier of left-wing sympathies, Clive Branson, was appalled by what he found in India during war service there: "Let our imperialists boast… Never will any of us…forget the unbelievable, indescribable poverty in which we have found people living wherever we went." If the British people knew the truth, "there would be a hell of a row - because these conditions are maintained in the name of the British".

Bengal was especially vulnerable. Its principal source of imported rice was cut off when neighbouring Burma was occupied by the Japanese. The British confiscated or disabled most of the coastal region's transport, including boats and bullock carts, to prevent its use by the enemy. This crippled both fishing and trade.

Much traditional crop-growing land had been turned over to jute production, vital for sandbags - indeed, India became a major source of war material for the empire. Then in November 1942 a cyclone struck today's Bangladesh, killing 30,000 people and ravaging the countryside. As hunger began to give way to starvation, the authorities were slow to respond. Large quantities of food continued to be exported to Sri Lanka.

When the crisis was belatedly recognised and the new viceroy, Wavell, appealed to London for food aid, his repeated and increasingly urgent requests received woefully inadequate responses. He wrote: "Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries from starvation than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in [Britain]."

The government pleaded the shipping shortage, which was real enough. But Mukerjee makes the telling and just point that, even at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, Churchill insisted on sustaining the British people's rations at a level far above that prevailing in India.

Winston Churchill. 17th March 1943 (Muggeridge)

To put the matter brutally, millions of Indians were allowed to starve so that available shipping - including vessels normally based in India - could be used to further British purposes elsewhere. When Churchill's nation was engaged in a desperate struggle, perhaps this reflected strategic logic. But it made nonsense of his post-war claims about upholding the interests of the Indian people, and indeed of the whole paternalistic ethic by which the empire sought to justify itself.

Churchill wrote in March 1943, applauding the minister of war transport's unwillingness to release ships to move relief supplies: "A concession to one country…encourages demands from all the others. [The Indians] must learn to look after themselves as we have done… We cannot afford to send ships merely as a gesture of goodwill."

It is a ghastly story, and the book's eyewitness accounts of the consequences for the people of Bengal make harrowing reading. Most recent western histories of the war in the east mention the famine - as earlier chronicles did not. But Mukerjee's book offers the fullest account I have read.

She is right in asserting, passionately and bitterly, that British wartime governance of India was exploitative. Towards the end of her tale, however, I became less confident of her judgments. She suggests, for instance, that British agents might have been responsible for the 1945 plane crash that killed nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, serving with the Japanese. British enthusiasm to eliminate Bose was not in doubt, but there is no evidence to suggest that they were smart enough to sabotage his aircraft on the far side of Asia.

Finally, she blames Churchill for the bloody 1947 partition of India. This seems a bridge too far. The old imperialist's enthusiasm for a Muslim Pakistan is well known, as is his matching distaste for Hindus. But he was two years out of office when partition came. Its causes seem to lie deep in the subcontinent's history and racial make-up. It is hard to make a credible case that what happened was the product of a Churchillian conspiracy.

But the broad thrust of Mukerjee's book is as sound as it is shocking. I have myself argued that Churchill's disdain for the interests of black and brown peoples besmirched his awesome wartime record. If the Bengal famine arose from circumstances beyond British control, failure to relieve the starving millions - or even to be seen to care much about them - was in substantial degree our fault.

© 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd

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