How Winston Churchill's bias against Indians led to one of the world’s greatest man-made disasters
Placing the tragedy that was the Bengal Famine of 1943 into the larger context of World War II, India’s freedom struggle and Winston Churchill’s legacy
Editor's note: Winston Churchill has been venerated as a resolute statesman and one of the great political minds of the last century. However, as Madhusree Mukerjee revealed in her book — Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and The Ravaging of India during World War II — his deep-seated bias against Indians precipitated one of the world’s greatest man-made disasters — the Bengal Famine of 1943, which resulted in the deaths of over four million Indians. Churchill’s Secret War places this overlooked tragedy into the larger context of World War II, India’s freedom struggle and Churchill’s legacy. A new edition of the book has been released by Penguin Random House to observe the 75th year of the Bengal Famine.
For three months, Viceroy Linlithgow had been warning about a food crisis in India, and earlier that March a member of his council, Sir
Ramaswami Mudaliar, had told the War Cabinet’s shipping committee of ‘some danger of famine conditions, particularly in Calcutta and
Bombay’. Wheat was available in Australia, but all Indian ships capable of the round trip were engaged in the war effort. Moreover, in January the prime minister had brought most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, in order to bolster the United Kingdom’s stocks of food and raw materials. He was reluctant to release vessels to carry grain to the colony, because lowered stocks at home would compromise the British economy and limit the War Cabinet’s ability to pursue military operations of its choice — and
because his hostility towards Indians was escalating.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood, had long been warning that India had erased its traditional debt to the United Kingdom and was instead becoming a major creditor. The sterling debt owed to the colony was mounting at a million pounds a day. It would fall due right after the war, just when a ravaged if liberated Europe would have to be fed. Food in the post-war era would be scarce worldwide and expensive to import — and His Majesty’s Government would already be bankrupt from paying for the war. In consequence, maintaining British food stocks had become crucially important to the War Cabinet and the debt to India a source of profound frustration.
On 16 September 1942, Amery had recorded in his diary: ‘Winston burbled away endlessly, the general theme being that it was monstrous to expect that we should not only defend India and then have to clear out but be left to pay hundreds of millions for the privilege.’ The Secretary of State for India strove to explain that the debt had little to do with the defence of the colony, but arose from its contributions in manpower and materials to the war in the Middle East and North Africa. ‘It is an awful thing dealing with a man like Winston who is at the same moment dictatorial, eloquent and muddleheaded,’ Amery wrote eight days later. ‘I am not sure that I ever got into his mind that India pays for the whole of her defence including the British forces in India, or that there is no possible way of reducing these accumulating balances except by stopping to buy Indian goods or employing Indian soldiers outside India.’
The prime minister announced at a War Cabinet meeting that the sterling debt should be neutralised by a counterclaim: a bill presented to India for its defence by the United Kingdom. At the very least, he insisted, the financial agreement forged in April 1940 should be revised to make the colony pay more of the costs of the war. Viceroy Linlithgow had already warned against this course of action: ‘If any suggestions were made that it was doubtful whether India would in due course receive value for her sterling balances, the reaction on India’s war effort could not fail to be disastrous.’ Should the United Kingdom signal its desire to renege on its financial commitments, then industrialists, contractors and even peasants would anticipate a drop in the value of the rupee and baulk at supplying goods for cash.
The sterling debt arose from the fact that commodities were being continually drawn from India with no recompense beyond the promise of payment in the future. The indiscriminate printing of paper money was enabling the Government of India to acquire supplies for the war effort, both within the country and without. But the situation was volatile: inflation was poised to combine with a shortage of every necessity of life to bring disaster to the colony’s poor. Amery did not anticipate that the Government of India’s warning of August 1942 —that inflationary financing might lead to ‘famines and riots’ — would actually come to pass. He was, however, cognisant of the risk posed by such a method of war financing to the war effort itself. Should Indians come to believe that His Majesty’s Government would not keep its promises, the torrent of supplies from the colony would dry up.
‘Winston cannot see beyond such phrases as “Are we to incur hundreds of millions of debt for defending India in order to be kicked out by the Indians afterwards?”’ Amery confided to his diary. ‘But that we are getting out of India far more than was ever thought possible and that India herself is paying far more than was ever contemplated when the present settlement was made, and that we have no means of
making her pay more than she wants or supplying goods unpaid for, is the kind of point that just doesn’t enter into his head.’ The prime
minister was aware that the sterling debt was inverting the economic relationship between colony and colonizer. After the war, money would flow from Britain to India, not as investment to be repaid with interest but as remittance. Whatever the romance of empire, a colony that drains the Exchequer is scarcely worth having — and that reality, notes historian Dietmar Rothermund, would make it easier for India to be finally released.
Another source of irritation to Churchill was the 1940 US Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie. In an October 1942 broadcast, he reported to Americans what he had learned on a world tour. ‘When the aspirations of India for freedom were put aside to some future unguaranteed date, it was not Great Britain that suffered in public esteem in the Far East,’ Willkie said. ‘It was the United States.’ The inhabitants of Asia ‘cannot tell from our vague and vacillating talk whether we really do stand for freedom, or what we mean by freedom’. Willkie’s criticism induced President Roosevelt to reiterate that the Atlantic Charter applied to the entire world and to appoint a seasoned diplomat, William Phillips, as his ‘Personal Representative with the rank of Ambassador’ to India.
Apparently stung by the disapproval emanating from the United States, Churchill made on 11 November 1942, what would become his most quoted pronouncement on India. ‘We mean to hold our own,’ he declared in Parliament. ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ According to Amery, the next day he ‘went off the deep end in a state of frantic passion on the whole subject of the humiliation of being kicked out of India by the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans’.
Madhusree Mukerjee won a Guggenheim fellowship to write her previous book, The Land of Naked People. She is a senior editor with Scientific American and lives in New York City.
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