In Pragati: Book Review – Churchill's Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill (Image via ChrisM70)

Three days after Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Winston Churchill inspired Britain with the words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” These words—Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat—is the title of a book by John Lukacs which analyses Churchill’s motivational speeches during World War II as American and Russian forces battled the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. The titles of other books—The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, Churchill: A Study in Greatness—reveal the exalted position Britain’s war-time prime pinister occupies in world history, specifically Western history.

While reading Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat it was unclear what was more funny—Mr Lukacs’ repetition of the title words every few pages or his admiration of Churchill’s speeches extolling the virtues of freedom ignoring the enslaved people of the colonies. For such historians Churchill proved his mettle by leading the country through the war and coming out victorious. Like how many American historians do not see the irony in Thomas Jefferson asserting all men are equal while owning slaves, members of Churchill fan club do not see anything wrong in pronouncing him as the upholder of freedom and democracy despite his unapologetic imperialist stance and inhuman behavior towards the colonies.

In Madhusree Mukherjee’s book, Churchill is neither a lion nor a man of great moral rectitude. He was a man who could have prevented three million Indians from starving to death, but did not. Clouded by racist views of Indians, he even stopped other countries from helping the starving population, antagonised the US president with his stand on India and argued that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to British India. Despite all these, when the first words of Paul Johnson’s biography states that Churchill was most valuable man to the whole of humanity in the 20th century, one has to wonder about the lack of perspective behind that testimonial.

The famine

Between 1941 and 1942, three events occurred which turned out to be disastrous for the people of Bengal. First, fearing the Japanese invasion of India, the War Cabinet ordered a scorched earth policy in areas which would have to be surrendered. Rice was removed or destroyed. Money was advanced to businessmen to buy and hoard. Along with this, boats, much needed by farmers, fishermen and potters for their livelihood were destroyed.

Second, there was a massive cyclone which killed around 30,000 people. Besides the death and damage, the cyclone also caused the price of existing rice to go up. Finally, the Japanese arrived in Burma and cut off the millions of tons that Bengal used to import from Burma and Thailand. Thus the stage was set for famine.

Britain’s focus during this period was to make sure that the war production was not affected:Indian industries were involved producing ammunition, uniforms, parachutes, vehicles and machine parts. The government machinery ensured that people in Calcutta—soldiers, war workers, government employees—became the priority class and sufficient rice was stocked up to feed them. The choice was between war efforts and large scale deaths in rural areas.

These rural deaths could have been avoided if the government imported grains, but Churchill was unwilling to provide shipping. We can understand why the government denied permission to Subhas Chandra Bose who wanted to send rice to Bengal, but how do you explain Churchill turning Canada away citing wheat shipment to India as an ‘uneconomic prospect’? The argument that providing ships for India would mean less ships for war effort falls flat because ships became available for Churchill’s pet project of stocking grains for the newly liberated European countries. For this, ships carrying wheat went from Australia to various countries around the world, navigating around a starving Bengal.

Ms Mukherjee argues that India was intentionally punished due to three reasons. First, Churchill’s primary goal was to ensure that British citizens did not have to follow an abstemious lifestyle. Statisticians estimated the food required and Churchill ensured that shipping was available for this. The prime minister had other calculations as well. He knew that Britain would be bankrupt after the war and wanted to stock up. He also knew that in the post-war period, there would be great demand for food in Europe which could be an excellent business opportunity.

Second, Churchill knew that India was slipping from his hands and did not care much. British rule was symbolised by Robert Clive’s memorable trip down the Ganga carrying barges filled with money. The economic balance of power was shifted by a 1940 arrangement by which war expenditure incurred by India had to be paid by Britain and the bills were accumulating. India had become a major creditor or in Churchill’s words—the biggest war profiteer. This was a serious issue and Churchill thought of various ways to not pay India back which included changing the exchange rate or presenting a counter bill to India for defense expenses.

Finally, Churchill hated Indians and more specifically, Hindus. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion” were his exact words. But he did not wanted to let go of the cash cow and wanted to keep it for a few generations mostly on his terms. Roosevelt tried to get Churchill to negotiate with the nationalists without much luck. Churchill did not want to leave India for the nationalists; his spin was that there would be no future for Untouchables, Muslims and other minorities under Congress which he saw as a ‘Caste Hindu’ enterprise. While he used every opportunity to widen the communal chasm, he argued that the British had to stay in India for the benefit of the minorities.

Churchill saw the famine as a failure of the Indian government in redistributing the excellent harvest; importing grain would not have made any difference according to him. Ms Mukherjee says that this is a fallacious argument for there was no efficient way of redistributing grain to rural areas. Also, the government did not want to procure grain from Punjab—whose soldiers were battling in Middle East for Britain—and upset the farmers. When finally the grain from Punjab did reach Bengal, it never went beyond Calcutta. If Churchill had abandoned his overweening ego and imported grain as the famine set, Ms Mukherjee argues that it would have caused the hoarders—who included government supported businessmen—to release the grain and reduce prices. The War Cabinet acknowledged this, but by then it was too late.

Churchill’s priority simply was Britain and the execution of the war and he would do nothing to jeopardise it. Much later when Punjab had a bad crop and there was fear of desertion by Punjabis in the Indian Army, Churchill was ready to budge. When it became obvious that the Allies would not be able to take on Japan without India’s help, with sufficient persuasion by army officials, tons of food made its way to India.

The familiar pattern of historiography

Churchill's Secret WarWhen it comes to the historiography of the famine of 1943, it follows the same pattern as in the historiography of the war of 1857 or river Sarasvati: many inconvenient truths are suppressed. Churchill’s tome of the war does not mention the famine. The famine commission ignored the scorched earth policy and the fact that aid was refused. According to the Communists the blame lay purely with everyone else—speculators, Japanese—but the British. They stayed out of jail. The British blamed the Indians, United Nations and even God. Another member of the War Cabinet blamed crop failure and high birthrate. In short, the British negligence and Churchill’s role in the shipping crisis etc were simply washed away. Arthur Herman’s Gandhi and Churchill blames Churchill briefly, but Ms Mukherjee’s book fills the vacuum and refutes the popular narrative by quoting chapter and verse from the national archives, War Transport ministry’s logs and the recently released transcripts of the War Cabinet meetings.

The book provides sufficient context for the events of 1943. After giving a brief history of British rule in India and the changes they made which went against Indian polity, Ms Mukherjee dilligently follows the strategies of the Allied and Axisl powers, Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Franklin D Roosevelt as well as the uphill battle of British administrators against Churchill’s advisers like Lord Cherwell, who believed in the Malthusian population theory. Even when it comes to documenting the efforts by British administrators in intentionally fanning the Hindu-Muslim communal divide, Ms Mukherjee does not walk on egg shells.

The most heartrending portion of the book is when Mukherjee writes about people who survived the famine. Through interviews with them she reconstructs the holocaust of 1943 and those vignettes are hard to read. In the midst of famine, people had to find ways to survive. Some women survived as domestic help or by providing child care. Others had to resort to prostitution. Unable to feed their children, some parents sold them or simply threw them into the river. Dead bodies piled along the roads as people tried to make their way to the cities. But in the midst of this famine and even when the nationalist leaders were in jail, local leaders dragooned themselves into fighting for freedom. A parallel government, which provided basic administration and civil courts, functioned in Tamluk.

Thus the British rule started with the famine of 1770 with an estimated 10 million deaths and ended with another one. Yet there are some who believe that the British left too soon and should have stayed longer to educate us on civic sense, how to run our cities and manage traffic. There are others who believe that we should be thankful to them for railways and English language. After reading Ms Mukherjee’s book, you will be relieved that the imperialists finally left.

(This review appeared in May 2011 issue of Pragati)