Book Review: Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire – Janam Mukherjee
Ford, G. (2016). “Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire” by Janam Mukherjee, Asian Review of Books, 10 July.
Hungry Bengal is the story of Bengal’s man-made famine in 1942 which killed two million people over a period of eighteen months to two years, all while Imperial Britain’s leaders in London looked on unconcerned. It was the British who provided both direct and indirect causes of the famine. When the War with Japan broke out the “little yellow men” proved far doughtier warriors than ever envisaged by Whitehall. British troops were swept aside as the fortress of Singapore fell and the Japanese swept northwards through Burma towards Imperial India.
The question of possible nationalist collaboration with Japan with its promise of “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” was answered with a scorched earth policy that manufactured malnutrition. In the vast deltaic coastline of Bengal, largely undefended by the British, the cheap answer to Tokyo’s threat was “denial” by denuding the coast of the resources that Japanese forces in Malaya and Burma had used so expeditiously to facilitate their advance. In April 1942, the first action was the appropriation of all “surplus” rice with government contractors smashing the local rice market by buying, under duress if necessary, all the available rice forcing prices to rapidly spiral upwards.
Second was the “country boats”—the lifelines of the local communities and industry: 66,000 boats were registered and, of these, 46,000 were confiscated. The livelihood of generations was destroyed for a miserly three months compensation. Third, hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted overnight to carve out space in the countryside for aerodromes, encampments and supply dumps. In the end, Britain’s actions were the cause not the cure: the reorganization of the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose in early 1943 saw large numbers of Indian soldiers desert.
By 1 July 1942—as rice and paddy prices continued to rise precipitously—attempts were being made to impose price controls but these were swept aside by a rampant black market. By August, official stocks of rice in Calcutta were running dangerously low, threatening the ability to feed the workforce engaged in war production. Civil supplies were to ensured for “essential” industrial labor, leaving the other 56 million people in the province to their fate. Companies were allowed to write-off otherwise ruinous costs as they bought rice for their workforce at extortionate prices. This was the trigger that resulted, over the next years, in the unnecessary deaths of 3-5 million people.
The Government in India did eventually acknowledge and appreciate the calamity. The Marquess of Linlithgow, as head of the newly constituted Food Department, reported in early December 1942 to London that the food situation in India as a whole had “deteriorated seriously” and requested the immediate import of 600,000 tons of wheat with military needs to be given preference over civilian. Only 130,000 tons was provided and it takes little imagination to realize there was little trickle down to the hungry poor. But perhaps hardly surprising. Churchill saw famine as a “weapon of war” which he had deployed against Germany in 1914-18. It worked just as well against “internal” rather than external enemies. Used against Germany there was no compunction with regard to India; after all, earlier in September Churchill had said, “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion.”
A terrible story, but one largely rehearsed earlier in Madhustee Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (2010). But Hungry Bengal is both more comprehensive and accentuated with deeper research and goes further in two important respects. First, Janam Mukherjee consigns responsibility more widely. Justly the British—more in London than Delhi—are assigned the lion’s share of the blame for crimes of commission and omission that killed these millions. Yet the Indian Nationalists and Nationalism are allocated their share. Among the commercial class, there was a venal communalism that tainted mere profiteering transforming it from simple greed into a capital crime, while the squabbling Hindu and Muslim political factions allowed themselves to be played off against each other by the British administration in the most cynical manner, squabbling over rewards, position and preferment as their public lay dying. At best, British and Indians shared complacency and misjudgement, greed, myopia and political spite, at worse conducted in tandem joint crimes against humanity.
Second, Hungary Bengal attributes the savage communal pogroms of the 1947 Partition to the practices and lessons learned in Bengal. The breakdown of the economic and moral order as the poor of Bengal faced annihilation through deprivation. Death and dislocation destroyed communities and left final refuge in communalism. To survive was to watch people die and choose whom to save. The scale of the catastrophe was dehumanizing as compassion and dignity died. To put food in one mouth was to take it from another. The easy choice was communal, Muslim or Hindu, and often accompanied by violence. The Calcutta Riots of 1946 were an early battle in Imperial India’s civil war of religion that was to follow. The savagery had been bred as a product of Bengal’s famine.
The victors write history, but finally in this outstanding polemic, Janam Mukherjee tells the victims’ side of the story.