Actions by Churchill were responsible for famine deaths: Book

"Churchill's Secret War" by physicist-turned-researcher Madhusree Mukherjee, which investigates unexamined parts of the statesman's records, provides evidence of how the Prime Minister and his advisors chose to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan, which caused food scarcity and inflation in the empire.

Also, says the author, the deprivation and anarchy of the era had torn the fabric of India's society and Churchill's efforts to retain the colony by means of divide and rule also contributed to partition.

The book notes that Churchill had a profound contempt of native Indians especially Mahatma Gandhi who for him came to represent a "malignant subversive fanatic" and a "thoroughly evil force." He had remarked in a conversation, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

After the capture of Burma by Japan, the British destroyed majority of boats and bullock carts in Bengal to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands in case of an invasion. They also started stockpiling food for soldiers which resulted in soaring prices of rice.

Mukherjee quotes British Army officer Clive Branson's account of his arrival in Bengal. "One long trail of starving people...I saw women -- almost fleshless skeletons."

The author cites War Ministry records and personal papers that show ships carrying cereals to the Mediterranean from Australia bypassed India. Mukherjee also delves into Secretary of State for India Leopold S Amery's personal diary whose papers were opened to the public in 1997.

Contemporary historian Ramachandra Guha says, "In her book, Madhusree writes evocatively of how hunger and rebellion in rural Bengal was a product of cynicism and callousness in imperial London."

In 1947, Winston Churchill hired a team of researchers and "ghost-writers" to formulate the definitive history of World War II, the book says. As historian David Reynolds has detailed, the treatise was in actuality a memoir of epic proportions, one which fell victim to a selective memory.

The Bengal famine received but a fleeting mention in a document that happened to make it into an appendix. Despite their distortions, the six massive volumes became the primary reference for a generation of historians -- which may explain why the famine is almost totally absent from the tens of thousands of tomes written about the war since then.

The famine commission which began secret hearings in July 1944 would elucidate all the local factors that had led to the catastrophe and avoid every lead that had pointed back at London, the book claims.

Hints of a cover-up are there in Amery's diaries which, says the author, do not have any mention about the scorched earth and in his papers the pertinent correspondence with India are missing. In the minutes of a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff available on microfilm at the National Archives of UK, a section dealing with shipping to India is blacked out.

It appears that the famine commission suppressed the results of a government-sponsored survey on famine mortality. Instead it provided its own estimate of the death toll -- a figure that still remains controversial.

Demographers Tim Dyson and Arup Maharatna noted a peculiar pattern in the registration data for West Bengal. During the years 1941 to 1946, the proportion of deaths in certain districts remained exactly the same, a sign that the numbers could have been manufactured.

Diverse authors have applied equally diverse correction to the raw numbers to obtain other estimates. Economist Amartya Sen took the registered deaths for West Bengal, extended them to East Pakistan and applied the corrections to get around the three million famine toll.

"Among the sources of inspiration and information are noted author Mahasweta Devi who described the famine to me in awful details," says the author.

"Madhusree has dug up the most pulsating and upsetting recollections of my teenage... in the convincing critique she brings to light how starvation deaths have been brought about by a domineering power, be it that of Hitler or Churchill and not by nature," says 85-year-old Mahasweta Devi.

Other sources for the author have been newspaper reports published at that time as well as common people whose accounts had prodded her to dig further.

The Frankfurt-based author says it took her close to eight years to finish the book. "I was starting from scratch, as I knew no history and had to read up about colonial economics, famine, the Bengal famine, before I even knew which questions to pose."

"After I realised that the answers lay in the UK, I studied wartime shipping and economics and pinpointed the archives that were likely to be able to fill in the gaps. I had no idea that the colonial period was so exploitative....It was devastating for the poor, however, and that I did not know about," the author told PTI from Germany.

"I think Churchill was larger than life. Everything he did, he did on a grand scale.

"During the war he was very unbalanced, excessively passionate, in his feelings about India. He had a lifelong tendency to get carried away by whatever project his mind was on. At the time he should have sent famine relief to Bengal, he was determined to fight Germans in the Balkans. That preoccupation, combined with his hostility to Indians, led him to deny relief," Mukherjee feels.

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