Chilling truths...

lead review

Chilling truths...

shrewd leader Former British prime minister  Winston Churchill

Churchill’s Secret War is Madhusree Mukerjee’s disturbing book on Winston Churchill’s prejudice against Indians, especially while he was prime minister of Great Britain, during the World War II years. Churchill is renowned for his wartime leadership of Britain, his famous speeches, stirring up the spirits of troops fighting against Hitler, and his Axis allies. His attitude towards granting India independence is well known. (“I have not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”) His utterances against Gandhi and his freedom struggle are also quite famous. What is disquieting about this book is not only Churchill’s appalling attitude towards Indians, but also the fact that he remained callous and unbending even during the severe famine in Bengal in 1942.

This book clarifies that the famine was directly caused by the diversion of food grains towards the war effort, through orders of the war cabinet headed by Churchill. But what makes the reading of this book even more upsetting is the fact that huge surpluses of grain were also stockpiled for use by the Indian (British) Army and workers of industries that were churning out war-related material even as 1000s were dying in the Bengal countryside. Mukerjee’s book reveals another recorded fact — that Churchill requested and received far more than the required food grains and supplies for the civilians of the United Kingdom from the United States of America — this, even as Bengal was reeling from famine. While this was being ostensibly done to shore up reserves in the light of rampant U-boat attacks in the Atlantic, this refusal to divert ships to bring grain to India continued even when the German submarine menace was effectively neutralised. As a result, Britain had enough food grain and the utmost sacrifice that Britons had to make while 1000s perished in Bengal for lack of food was to switch to multi-grain instead of soft-white bread. (If anything, this must have been healthier.)

Subhas Chandra Bose, who was working closely with the Axis powers during those war and famine years, had also organised rice through Japan, Thailand and Burma. Bose, living abroad then, continued to make the offers through Axis radio broadcasts, saying nearly 1,00,000 tons of rice was being sent from Japanese occupied territory “provided the British Government approves the proposal and gives an undertaking that the food so sent will not be reserved for military consumption or exported from India.” Predictably enough, the British, “anxious to discredit Bose in every way,” according to a senior official of the time, ignored the offer. “To be sure,” argues Mukerjee, “...Bose was a despised enemy of the United Kingdom; he was an Axis collaborator and a target of British assassins. But when occupied Greece underwent famine in...1941, Germany permitted humanitarian agencies...to bring in relief and distribute it, a remarkable instance of Axis-Allied cooperation during the war...”

What is even more galling than this is the fact that Churchill and his war cabinet turned down requests from the friendly British Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada to send food grains to Bengal. “Australia could supply all the wheat needed for the starving in India, provided the United Kingdom could provide the ships,” Mukerjee quotes an Australian minister of the time as saying in Canberra to Reuters. “Wheat was practically waiting to be loaded on to boats.”

At this point in time, all the dominion shipping was under the war cabinet’s control (headed by Churchill), as were 17 merchant ships registered in India, amounting to around 80,000 gross tons which were capable of travelling to Australia.

A member of the viceroy’s executive council responsible for food, Sir J P Srivastava, later told a famine commission that nothing came of his request for ships to be released to lift the Australian wheat.

It is also apparent from Mukerjee’s carefully researched book that all the wartime shipping was being looked after by the completely ill-informed and known-racist, Lord Cherwell, who was Frederick Alexander Lindemann before being raised to peerage. His only qualification for being on the cabinet, apart from being a physicist, seems to have been his unstinting loyalty to Churchill. Churchill trusted him implicitly. Other department heads soon realised that arguing with Cherwell was futile.

It was such a man who would have the power to pronounce judgment on the pointlessness of sending famine relief to Bengal. These and other chilling points have been quietly but forcefully argued by Mukerjee in this book, which is a must for those who seek to understand India’s history, especially to understand the often-misguided view that Indians and the British shared a cosy relationship.

In 1949, a session of the Geneva Convention extended the guidelines for civilised warfare and included a prohibition against starving civilians in occupied territories. In 1977, additional protocols strengthened the injunction against starvation. In fact, depriving civilians of an occupied territory of vital foods and failing to supply them with adequate relief constitute war crimes, as understood today.

If such provisions protecting civilians had been in place before the war, writes Mukerjee, the denial policy and the failure of His Majesty’s Government to relieve the famine could conceivably been prosecuted as war crimes.

Mukerjee has ended this book most elegantly with an indication that Churchill did try to show that he had changed his rigid views of Indians when he told Nehru in London in 1949 that he had ‘conquered two great human infirmities: you have conquered fear and you have conquered hate.’

What leaves an indelible mark on one is the description at the very end, of an encounter between Indira Gandhi and Churchill in June 1953, after witnessing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. “You must have hated the British for the treatment meted out to your father,” Churchill said, “it is remarkable how he and you have overcome that bitterness and hatred.”

“We never hated you,” she responded. “I did, but I don’t now,” he replied. Will history be as forgiving? This book is thoroughly researched and is a most valuable (and haunting) contribution to Indian history.

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