Thursday, June 18, 2020

Was Winston Churchill a racist or war hero?

Ken Livingstone and David Mellor used to present a show on LBC. In this clip (which I saved from January 2016), Ken Livingstone talks about how, "five million Bangladeshis starved to death over 18 months" during World War II. Moreover, he adds the deaths resulted from a decision to export rice from what was then Bengal (India) towards the war effort.

My jaw dropped when I heard this. I wasn't expecting a discussion on the Salisbury nerve agent attack to cite something that happened in Bangladesh around seventy years ago.

Ken Livingstone says at the end of the clip that, "Great leaders protect themselves and they don't give a damn about the lives of others."

Upon hearing the jaw-dropping revelation back in January 2016, I thought I would ask my dad if he knew anything about this. He was born in what is now Bangladesh in 1935.

His recollection of 1942-43 is indeed one of great poverty and starvation. There was a shortage of  food in Rajshahi, a state in the north west. He remembers emaciated bodies lying on the street, close to death or dead The towns had more food than the villages. Everyone around him, literally everyone, was suffering, and owing to the lack of news, he assumed that everyone during the world war was suffering as they were. Until I told him, he was unaware that there was a reason why so many people were starving in Bangladesh.

I had to investigate further. I bought a book which I started reading called CHURCHILL'S SECRET WAR, The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee.

I had been meaning for sometime - well four years - to post about this. Over the last couple of weeks a greater awareness of Churchill's views and actions have come to light because someone daubed the plinth of his statue during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Mukerjee's book is well researched and I when I started reading it four years ago, I marked out paragraphs of note (including the very first paragraph of the book - below):

"No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan," Winston Churchill wrote in his 1950 history of the twentieth century's most lethal conflict. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island. By Hindustan, or Land of the Hindus, Churchill meant India, which during the war was part of the British Empire.
Britain's wartime prime minister did not discuss in his six-volume account the 1943 famine in the Eastern province of Bengal, which killed 1.5 million people by the official estimate and 3 million by most others. One primary cause of the famine was the extent to which Churchill and his advisers chose to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan, causing scarcity and inflation within the colony.
Hitler did not comprehend the extent to which the Indian freedom movement, along with other developments of the twentieth century, had weakened imperial controls over the colony. The days of formal empires were numbered- and, ironically, the conflict he initiated would deal the fatal blow. To commandeer Indian manufactures and produce for the war, His Majesty's Government would have to deploy inflationary monetary policies in preference to straightforward confiscation of the colony's products or revenues.

Mukerjee states, a cyclone in 1942 had caused pressure on food stocks but this was nullified by a bumper harvest the following year. Those who want to brush Churchill's involvement under the carpet, usually use the cyclone argument as the reason for the famine.

In truth, a combination of factors resulted in the famine in 1943. Here are some I picked out from Mukerjee's book:

Firstly, prior to the war, India's much vaunted railway system had left the Indian government heavily in debt to the UK. The terms of the repayment for the railway would have been comparable to WONGA. This left India vulnerable to fluctuations.

Secondly, there was a scorched policy to stop Japanese progression from Burma. The Japanese would be denied food and transport if they invaded India. Military authorities had requisitioned all trucks and cars in southern and eastern Bengal, and boats and steamers, the principal method of moving the harvested rice crop from surplus regions to those with shortages, were destroyed.

Thirdly, what harvested rice crop that existed in Bengal had to be sent to other parts of the empire, namely Ceylon, Arabia and South Africa, all of which were better supplied with grain India. There was also a requirement to feed the troops in India. Ninety five percent of the total wheat requested by India to avert a disaster was not delivered. Mukerjee points out that only one quarter of the wheat promised to Bengal by the Government of India actually arrived and most of that remained in Calcutta for the priority classes. Interestingly, Mukerjee points out that the Indian government chose not to explain why it was unable to supply the wheat and instead insisted the province had more than enough rice. This may explain why my dad said, it was assumed during the war everyone was suffering in this way, with little focus on why? My dad's account here is fascinating. He does remember relatives, including his uncles, finding work as Food Inspectors at the time. These inspectors were responsible for the limited stocks - which were stored in 'go downs' - and distribution.

Fourthly, an offer of aid in the form of wheat from Canada was refused. India Office files which should have had information on this during the 1944 famine commission which was conducted in secret were missing.

So, was he a war hero and a racist?

Could it be that if Churchill had a lower opinion - to put it mildly - of Indians, he would have little compunction in taking decisions that caused the deaths of possibly a million people. He famously once said, "I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion." I would argue he was probably a war hero and a racist.

One final area to clear up is the number of deaths. Mukerjee's final chapter states:

The population of Bengal in January 1943 was 61.8 million. The mortality rate that year was 6.5 per cent which gives a total of 4 million deaths in 1943. From this figure must be subtracted 2.5 million baseline deaths. That gives 1.5 million for the famine toll in 1943. Doubling this figure, because death registrations were roughly symmetric around December 1943, provides a famine total of around 3 million......... One thing is clear, the figure of 3 million does not include all fatalities from shortages of food because deaths from malnutrition were occurring even in so-called normal tears. If for comparison we were to use the death rate of 2.1 per cent that was the norm for India (rather than Bengal) in 1942, the famine toll would be 5.4 million.


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