Answers to Questions by Yair Davidiy (14 September 2017, 23 Elul, 5777)
How many people did Winston Churchill murder in India?
Question Raised on Quora:
How many people did Winston Churchill murder in India?
This question is relating to the famine in Bengal (Northeast India) in 1943.
The famine resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million Indians. They died of starvation, malnutrition, and disease exacerbated by the famine and by other causes.
The Hindu population of Bengal subsisted on rice. Their stomachs were used to rice and could barely tolerate anything else.
Theoretically there was enough rice in Bengal to meet minimum requirements. Apart from Bengal there was also rice in other parts of India.
War-time inflation and uncertainties however induced the peasants and merchants to hoard their rice expecting a rise in prices.
The administration of India requested supplies from overseas for two main reasons:
a. To meet immediate needs and feed as many starving people as possible.
b. To put more rice on the market, drive prices down, and thus confound the hopes of speculators inducing them to sell their stocks.
Churchill is blamed because he delayed diverting shipments of wheat to other areas and not sending them to India.
He also made comments concerning the natives of Bengal that were insulting and inappropriate. Churchill could be irascible.
Was Churchill to Blame?
Could More Have Been Done?
Let us consider the background:
World War-2 in 1943
By 1943 Germany had been defeated in North Africa and at Stalingrad in Russia.
During 1943 Germany would suffer more defeats in Russia, the Allies would invade Sicily and Italy.
Greece would remain occupied until October 1944.
Meanwhile, the Greek population was being systematically starved by the Germans.
The Allies were already preparing food stocks for Greece and the Balkan and Middle East areas.
Supplies of wheat for Britain and its allies were obtained by ships coming from Canada and Australia.
In the east the situation was unclear and less promising:
"By the end of April 1942, Japan and its ally Thailand had almost fully conquered Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and Rabaul, inflicting severe losses on Allied troops and taking a large number of prisoners."
Burma was to the east of Bengal. Previously rice from Burma had supplemented the Bengali needs. The British in their retreat from Burma had adopted a "Scorched Earth" policy destroying water communications (that had brought rice supplies to Bengal) and agricultural works. The Japanese fleet was to be beaten by the USA at Midway (May 1942). Nevertheless, Allied attempts to dislodge the Japanese from Burma were not successful.
Bengal in 1943
Bengal under the British included the Muslim section that later became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.
The British ruled India. There had been agitation for Indian independence and the inevitability of this being granted was more or less accepted by the British administration.
The British used Indian troop overseas to great effect. India is divided into various religions, castes and races. Peoples from the Northwest, i.e. non-Bengalis, were favored as soldiers. The Bengalis had proven martial abilities but were less trusted by the British ever since they had rebelled in 1857. The Bengalis were also disliked by other Indians who suspected them of exploiting the Indian independence movement for their own purposes. The Bengalis were mostly Hindus. Tension existed between the Muslims and Hindus. Moslem merchants were to be suspected of hoarding rice during the Famine. Subhas Chandra Bose was a Bengali and an Indian Nationalist. Bhose sought to make an alliance with Nazi Germany and Japan. Most Indians supported the British but Bhose also had many sympathizers. Bhose helped raise troops to fight on the side of the Axis from Indian prisoners of war captured by the Germans and Japanese. Apart from Bhose, the Indian independence movement had much support in Bengal.
The Bengali population especially the Hindu element subsisted on rice. The population had been progressively increasing but the means of subsistence had not kept pace. By the time the famine broke out most of the agricultural workers had lost control of their lands to other Indians. Famines were common. At the best of times many were underfed. During 1942 the Japanese completed their conquest of Burma. Many Indians then living in Burma fled to Bengal adding to the already existing strain on services and provisions. Rice supplies from Burma were no longer available. Consecutive bad harvests of rice in Bengal resulted in a lessening of supply. This was exacerbated by cyclones and fungal diseases that attacked the crop. Rice however should still have been available, in theory. Increased population plus the demands of the British Military for war-related construction caused inflation. Rice prices were continually rising. This caused the suppliers of rice not to sell immediately in the hope of the price continuing to go up.
This did result in the price of rice rising and so the hoarding continued.
Churchill from the beginning of his career had always relied heavily on statistics. He memorized date, analyzed it, and quoted from it to great effect.
The data showed that there should still be more than enough rice in Bengal to meet immediate needs.Â
Available supplies of wheat were needed elsewhere.
The claim is made that he should have diverted them.
There were fears that the change in sea-routes would jeopardize the ships.
About 43,000 tons of grain sent to Bombay was destroyed in a mysterious explosion.
Churchill was advised by his adviser, Frederick Lindemann, not to divert more shipping and wheat supplies. Nevertheless Churchill caused 350,000 tons of wheat to be sent to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This was sufficient for about six months or more. He asked the Americans for extra shipping to continue the shipments but was refused.
The famine was eventually broken by the British Military taking rice from areas where it was available in India and bringing it to Bengal.
Why they had not done that previously is another matter.
Churchill did not micro-manage every detail. He was not necessarily to blame.
He did more than he is credited for. He did bring about the end of the Famine.
The Bengali Famine
"We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilized the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn't occurred to anyone, apparently)."
Churchill made mistakes all the time.
He has been blamed in some way for many disasters that occurred during World War-2.
By the same token he deserves much credit for the victory. Without him it may not have happened. That may be why he is hated.
Some Sources and Extracts:
My father, William High Russell-Davis, served in India and Burma during the war.
He wrote a book describing his experiences and impressions.
He was in Calcutta during the famine and writes about it.
"Indian Interlude" by Hugh Davis, 1998.
Extracts from "Indian Interlude," Chapter Twenty-One , Famine
# Muslim financiers were accused of cornering the rice market. No one knows really how it all started, even now. It was wartime and many things were disorganised. #
# There was no way to explain to anyone who hadn't been through it the tremendous job that Britain had done already, just to try and keep freedom alive all on her own for so long, trying at the same time to defend an Empire that stretched over half the globe, trying to keep countries like India from breaking out into numerous riots and disturbances, often organised by self-serving politicians, whom America was actually, in some ways, helping in their insubordinations.
The Bengali Famine
Martin Gilbert writes about the situation at the time: "The Japanese were on the Indian border with Burma, indeed inside India at Kohima and Imphal in the state of Assam. Gandhi's Quit India movement, and Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army then fighting alongside the Japanese, provided the incentive for a full-scale Japanese invasion. The Royal Air Force and the Army were fully stretched. We know what terrors the Japanese wreaked in non-Japanese natives in Korea, the Philippines, and Malaya. If the RAF planes supporting India's defense were pulled off for a famine airlift, far more than three million would have died. The blame for insufficient famine relief lies with those who prevented those planes from being used: the Japanese.
A caste of Hindus, the Marwaris , originally from originally from Rajasthan in northwest India were quickly becoming the new capitalists of the country. They had already displaced the British in several fields e.g. the manufacture of jute. After Independence they were to quickly become the leading millionaire class in India. They were accused, along withe Muslim merchants, at the time of being behind the rice hoarding. cf.
Did Churchill Cause the Bengal Famine? - The Churchill Project - Hillsdale College. The Cabinet cited other causes of the famine rarely mentioned in latter-day denunciations of Churchill: the shortages were 'partly political in character, caused by Marwari supporters of Congress [Gandhi's party] in an effort to embarrass the existing Muslim Government of Bengal.' Another cause, they added, was corrupt local officials: 'The Government of India were unduly tender with speculators and hoarders.'