Why the defacement of Winston Churchill's statue in London stirs Bengalis 77 years since the famine
While there are massive statues of Winston Churchill commemorating his 'historical significance', acknowledgment of the Bengal Famine, let alone any memorialisation of it, has been ostentatiously forgone
It is difficult to imagine that the defacing of Winston Churchill’s statue recently in London would resonate so much with a Bengali, who has perhaps had no direct stake in the historic reality of slavery. Maybe it is more fitting to lend support to the Black Lives Matter movement critically, from a distance, as just an ally from a former colony of the British Empire. However, it is not only our share in humanity that connects us with this movement, but also the seldom-discussed history of the Great Bengal Famine in 1943. In this massacre sanctioned by the British, close to three million people died of hunger, starvation and sickness. However, it has been relegated to a mere footnote in any discussion on World War II globally, as a consequence of the crafty ways of the colonisers forging history, even within the colonised nation.
The knowledge Indians gathered about the event from history books while growing up is cursory at best, with no illustration of the monstrous scale of the event and its aftermath. Whenever one would hear stories of the deadly famine from the older generation comprising mostly grandparents, it carried the weight of a distant past that they were happy to let go of. It seemed like an ancient history with no relevance to the formation of our present.
History, on the other hand, continued to remember the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in all his supposed glory. Surely, Churchill was no trivial player in the World Wars — he was the grim and wise old man battling the combined 'evils' of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, as Hollywood has reminded us time and again. The persistent uncritical valorisation of Churchill’s role in history failed to see his political contributions as parallel to his racist and imperialist policies. He personified the symbol of the Empire, where the sun never set, later becoming synonymous with the victory of the Allied Forces. It was only much later that people learned about the deep impact of the 1943 Bengal Famine on its population.
The Empire’s marshal prowess in the war was made possible due to their imperial hold over vast lands and people. More than 2.5 million Indian troops were forced to fight the ‘good fight’ against the Axis Powers in World War II. India not only supplied an army, it also provided ration, money and political subsistence to the fight. During the war, India also contributed by sending men to British regiments all over the world, and populated a massive basecamp of the allied soldiers in different parts of the Indian subcontinent.
The British turned a deaf ear to Indian concerns, like it did with its other colonies. Calcutta, the centre of its military operations in the country, had to produce food for thousands of soldiers in the allied troops. Additionally, India was exporting its foodgrains to feed the Allied Forces worldwide during a time of acute scarcity back home. The narrative of the Raj, however, proclaimed that “they [Indians] were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island,” as noted by journalist and author Madhusree Mukherjee.
The Empire could not care less about the collateral damage of its wars. Raising a false alarm about a Japanese attack on the Bengal delta along with the imminent threat of the Axis Powers winning, the colonial government engendered merciless brutality on Indians in the name of war-time necessities. The industries in Bengal were reoriented to meet the demands of the Raj, redirecting basic foodgrains to its mercenaries at a time when millions were kept starving in Bengal.
Selective, even though minuscule, attention was paid only to the big centres in erstwhile India, like Calcutta and Dhaka, which further ensured mass influx of starving people from rural areas into these cities, resulting in outbreaks of epidemics like cholera. The reality of this massacre only made Churchill heartily laugh about the native Bengalis “breeding like rabbits”, and self-generating a famine. The debt owed to India by Britain was almost a million pounds a day, which was never repaid. Mukherjee notes how Churchill scorned off all good-willed gestures, saying, "Are we to incur hundreds of millions in debts for defending India in order to be kicked out by the Indians afterwards?" Pest infestation and the fall of Rangoon which cut off rice supply to India were exacerbated by the hoarding of goods, with the drought in southern parts of India already causing a scarcity of rice-crops. Additionally, the surplus of wheat produced was being utilised in war efforts. Thus, in the absence of any essential supply by the Raj, coupled with further drainage of resources from the colony, famine and starvation wreaked havoc in Bengal.
While there are massive statues of Winston Churchill commemorating his 'historical significance', acknowledgment of the Bengal Famine, let alone any memorialisation of it, has been ostentatiously forgone. To really think of the politics behind how history is written and how our past is memorialised, there are obvious reasons behind why the British Empire and its apologists have continued to erase some events in history, while glorifying others. It is due to such reasons that an outrage against a mere statue from a distance can instil strong emotions at home.
As has been pointed out repeatedly by several quarters, whenever there has been a flawed and deliberate erasure of certain histories, it has become imperative to reconstruct a new history of the past. Surely, one might have debates and differences with the assumed ‘vandalising’ of memorials; however, concerns about what qualifies for memorialisation and what does not still remain. Evidently, history is never merely in the past — it also makes a case for the present, as is exemplified by the resurgence of defensive narratives about Churchill and the Raj.
Even previously, movies like The Darkest Hour (2017) or Into the Storm (2008) have shown the ‘human’ side of Churchill through their efficient weaving of the World Wars' realities with the politician's personal life. But what they systematically refused to do was paint the whole picture. The selective glorification of Churchill and his quirks further justified an uncritical appreciation of his historic
repute infamy, without ever engaging with the problematic aspects of their combined pasts. It denied any space for an understanding of how the British Empire fought the great war riding on and exploiting the labour and resources of its colonies.
The trauma of the Bengal Famine is, however, commonplace in the memories of people who were unfortunate survivors and successors of the event. The stories of people begging for "phyan" – the stock water of boiled rice — and dying at the doorsteps of the landed gentry, became a part of popular parlance and a collective folklorish remembrance of the famine. Even though dominant history had little place for the event, latent memories of famine and hunger continued to drive cultural expressions in Bengal in the future, finding space in its cinema, art and literature. One still wonders whether such reflections were consciously conceived by writers and artists influenced by Leftist ideals of roti-kapda-makan, or if these naturally mirrored the deep trauma the famine generated in the collective memory of Bengalis.
The disaster clearly remained a steady refrain in popular and parallel cinema — from KL Abbas’s Dharti Ke Laal (1946) and Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973), to Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (1980), the imagery were alive and potent. Especially since the Holocaust, the contestations between the official narratives of history, and the ones retold from people’s collective memory, have emphasised on the politics of memorialisation of certain events and the erasure of others. In light of the ‘vandalism’ of Winston Churchill’s statue, foregrounding such works becomes explicitly important in order to examine and unravel the alternate side of history.
In the wake of the Bengal Famine, many from the undivided Communist Party of India took to documenting the reality of the event as it played out. Artists like Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, along with Zainul Abedin, Sunil Janah, among others, took the initiative of capturing the everyday lives of people in starvation in 1943. Later in 1944, Bhattacharya also documented the aftermath of the famine, travelling to remote pockets of undivided Bengal. His documentation of the 1943 Famine in the form of extensive ink paintings, sketches, and copious amount of annotations, was published as Hungry Bengal.
The British government confiscated and destroyed almost all of the 5,000 copies of the book. The lone copy that survived with the artist’s family was recently showcased at several exhibitions around the world, bringing alive the horrors of the 1943 Famine to many. Even though Bhattacharya later distanced himself from the CPI on political grounds, he continued making political art, upholding the crimes of capitalism and imperialism through his works.
Zainul Abedin left his steady job at the Government School of Art in Calcutta to document the war-crimes of the Empire, travelling to remote villages of Bengal, as noted by Marxist scholar Sudhi Pradhan. Sunil Janah, on the other hand, joined Chittaprosad Bhattacharya with a Rolliflex camera, and captured the starving population in parts of present-day Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh. While Abedin devoted himself as a cultural organiser for the CPI in undivided Bengal, Janah continued to depict the lives of common people and places through his art.
In the absence of a sustainable record of the famine within dominant histories, such documentations offer a direct visual window into the sufferings of the people of Bengal, who were made to sacrifice for the ‘greater good.’ Revitalising the tradition of political art in India entails unearthing and preserving sketches and photographs of deserted villages, barren lands, starving children and millions of travelling migrants, to provide scathing images of a forgotten genocide in history. It offers us an alternative narrative to counter the systematic erasure of histories of the oppressed in the colonies. It enables us to witness the vandalism and desecration of millions of lives that was never addressed by the popular iterations of history.
Jigisha Bhattacharya is an Assistant Lecturer of English at OP Jindal Global University
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