Great Bengal Famine of 1943
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The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was a large famine in Bengal, a state in British-ruled India, claiming the lives of at least three million people. Today it is largely forgotten outside the area where it happened, but is often mentioned by critics of Winston Churchill.
This famine was caused by crop failures in 1942 combined with continued exports of rice from Bengal to other regions of India and elsewhere in the British Empire, the destruction of most of the boats used for transport in the province and the refusal of the government of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to allow emergency food supplies -- wheat offered free by the United States and Canada -- to be shipped to the starving province.
Colonial governments bear responsibility for preventing and mitigating famine. Bengal and Bihar suffered several disastrous famines under British rule -- the famine of 1770 took approximately 10 million lives -- but few expected that it would happen again under the watch of a liberal democratic 20th century Britain. Indeed that expectation may be why the immense tragedy of 1943 event is largely overlooked. London turned a bad food shortage into a massive killing famine through its wartime policies; the British had been deliberately keeping food stocks in Bengal low to ensure that if the Japanese conquered Bengal, the occupying forces would not have a ready food supply. The prospect that the Japanese would inherit a starving province no doubt delighted London, and would offer useful propaganda. British soldiers fighting in East Africa and the Middle East were relying on Bengali rice exports, and London thought it expedient and less expensive to feed soldiers with rice than to keep Bengali civilians from starving to death. That they were brown, non-Christian and colonial no doubt had something to do with this calculation. In any event, "Indians did not vote in British elections."
The government (apparently not having learned from the example of a very similar situation during the Irish Potato Famine) opposed an urgent request from Leopold Amery and Archibald Wavell (the Indian secretary of state and the Viceroy of India, respectively) to stop exports of food from Bengal so that it might be used for famine relief. Churchill dismissed these in a fashion that Amery regarded as "Hitler-like," by asking why, if the famine was so horrible, Gandhi had not yet died of starvation. George Orwell echoed Amery when he said: "The way the British government is now behaving in India upsets me more than a military defeat."
Embarrassment about this horrific chapter in British history is reflected in academic accounts of economic warfare. Although British historian David Edgerton treats the food issue at length in his book Britain's War Machine, what happened in Bengal is reduced to one line that combines apology (presumption that it was an accident) and elision (imprecision in the numbers of victims): "Although where the British Army operate abroad there was often shortage as a result, famine was rare, with the great and important exception of the Bengal famine of 1943, when millions died."
Cheerleader for British imperialism in general and the Raj in particular, Niall Ferguson, claimed in his dispute with Amartya Sen in the New Republic that the famine "was a direct result of the attack on Burma by that paragon of non-imperial modernization ... Japan." How this "direct consequence" was actually linked to the Japanese attack on
Burma Myanmar Ferguson didn't deign to explain, and his claim was rejected by Sen, who, unlike Ferguson, has actually written on the subject.
The Great Bengal Famine receives little mention in many biographies of Winston Churchill; this is in contrast to the Holodomor, which is justly mentioned in biographies of Stalin, and the famine in China during the Great Leap Forward, which is always mentioned in biographies of Mao Zedong. While Western historians are likely to want to associate communist leaders with mass atrocity, they are probably more hesitant to implicate a figure strongly associated with Western civilization, and one of the heroes of World War II, by addressing his own role in comparable nastiness.
- The Forgotten Holocaust — blog entry by Gideon Polya
- M.S. Venkataramani. 1973. Bengal Famine of 1943: The American Response. Delhi: Vikas Publishing.
- Philip Weintraub. "UNRRA: An Experiment in International Welfare Planning," The Journal of Politics. (1945), Vol. 7, Pp. 1-24.
- Nikhil Sur. "The Bihar Famine of 1770." The Indian Economic and Social History Review. (1976)13,4:525-531.
- Madhusree Mukerjee. 2010. Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00201-6. p. 274.
- Exit Wounds, The New Yorker
- David Edgerton. 2011. Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 169.
- John Hickman. "Orwellian Rectification: Popular Churchill Biographies and the 1943 Bengal Famine". Studies in History. (2008) 24, 2: 235-243.