Hungry Bengal

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No socialist interested in South Asia and the British Empire should be without this myth-busting book.

Meticulously researched and argued, Mukherjee focuses upon the Bengal famines of the 1940s and puts the blame for the millions of deaths upon three interrelated factors — British rule and the way India was dragged unwillingly into the Second World War; insistence upon free market economics, even in a crisis; and, crucially, the local elite who put their own interests far ahead of the starving.

The war, which loomed over India after Britain’s fortress of Singapore was easily lost to Japanese advance in 1942, is Mukherjee’s overarching theme. Calcutta, the capital of the state of Bengal in east India, and the industrial powerhouse of the country as a whole, became Britain’s new frontline.

In addition to being a crucial military port through which millions of allied soldiers passed, the city produced everything from armaments, to iron and steel, to textiles — all vital to the war effort. Massive profits were being made and the state of Bengal itself was a grain basket, with well irrigated land capable of growing rice in abundance, and able to feed both troops and an army of workers.

What should have marked Bengal out for prosperity would instead, in time of war crisis, mark its doom. As the Japanese marched their way through Burma, laying waste to the mighty Empire as they went, they utilised all that the British and Burmese left behind, from huge grain stores to small boats and bullock carts.

Determined that this would not happen in India, Winston Churchill and the British authorities in Bengal ordered a scorched earth policy. Throughout the countryside, patrols destroyed basic infrastructure, requisitioned boats and carts to move grain stores to the towns and cities, and drove millions of poor people off the land.

The British policy effectively drove millions of poor peasants from the land into Calcutta or into the more rural hinterlands, and in turn ended the cultivation of crops in huge swathes of the state.

Rice prices rocketed so fast that Indian grain merchants decided to hoard rather than sell, and soon the disposed millions who had already lost their incomes also lost whatever could be sold to pay for food. The workings of the market would eventually lead to stabilisation, Churchill insisted.

It didn’t. By the time the government moved to fix prices the market was so out of control that it proved impossible. Millions now faced certain starvation.

Rebellion against starvation was difficult but not impossible Mukherjee argues. Some took up arms and raided grain stores. The British, fearing anarchy, played the divide and rule card.

The Viceroy began handing over control of the key parts of the state machine to representatives of the Muslim League — despite it never having won a majority in the state — in the hope that the opposition could be separated into Hindu and Muslim constituencies.

Unsurprisingly, Hindu grain merchants who had their stores requisitioned felt they had been religiously targeted and started to organise defence squads based on ethnicity. Soon the situation spiralled into the most appalling communal violence.

Within a few months a new famine was being reported. The devastation this time would be even worse, and the hateful logic of Muslim-Hindu hatred once unleashed could not be put back in its box. The price this time would be not only starvation. It was slaughter.