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September 11, 2010


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Interesting article Ruchira. I had heard the name of the book, you have convinced me to read it. Prithwish

Very good review!

Narayan, thanks for the review. I will definitely look this one up. I guess that the chink in Churchill's historic armor as the unalloyed hero may be beginning to appear. I am not surprised that Indian historians will take a crack at examining the truth about his attitude towards the "colonies" and non-whites. More encouraging is that even British historians are now prepared to look at the man's mixed legacy of heroism on behalf of western freedom and utter racism and callousness elsewhere. I recently posted Johann Hari's review of Richard Toye's book Churchill's Empire which is an example of this changing view.

Actually the whole issue is not that much of a secret and has been fairly well known. My Ph D guide Prof Venkataramani has done some of this in his book on the US and Bengal Famine and that was done in the 1960s. What is sad is that "world" scholarship has persistently refused to mainstream the people who died as being also casualties of that terrible war.
Just as the Burma campaign has been called the forgotten war, so, too, the enormous collateral damage that occurred.

(trying to fix the unterminated URL)

Many thanks for this wonderful writeup. I would like to note that I got a vituperative review by Arthur Herman and have written a response, at
Please check it out.
I agree with the previous posting in that the hunger in India today is alarming, and lessons from the past are being ignored.
Madhusree Mukerjee

re comment by Manoj

While I don't doubt that Prof. M.S.Venkataramani's work was an important resource for discussions of US-India relations around wartime, there has been much new information unearthed by historians lately about that period. The book cites two works by M.S.V. dated 1973 and 1983, and contains gleanings from more than a 120 references dated later than 1983. The lesson of history is that it constantly needs to be re-examined and rewritten.
I will leave to professionals the task of writing formal reviews of Mukerjee's book; as Ruchira will attest, my article was meant as an opinion piece. Perhaps I should have done a better job explaining why this book merits a serious look, rather than saying so obliquely. The author goes to great lengths with one of her central theses - that the claim of hardship in allocating wartime resources to famine relief was not based on reality, but was an excuse by Churchill's war cabinet to not provide timely relief. This is a radical departure from the accepted history of the disaster.
It seems to me that on the subject of the Bengal Famine everyone has a favourite theme - the war, the cyclone, the pestilence, the hoarders, the racist British, the feckless Indians, the Hindus, the Muslims, Amartya Sen's 'Entitlement and Deprivation', Britain's Sterling Debt to India, and so on. Every one of these angles is given weight in Mukerjee's analysis. It is what makes this such a good book, for there are new ideas in every chapter that undermine one's casually held preconceptions of events and their causes.
I had a who'da thunk moment, for example, on reading a paragraph on the Communist Party of India based on a Bengali language source from the Govt. of India Archives. After Stalin switched allegiance from the Axis to the Allies in 1941, "the CPI declared it was fighting a People's War against fascism and began to actively support the authorities [bad]. Communists were prominent among the intellectuals who chronicled the famine in art and literature [good], but they placed all the blame for it on speculators and the Japanese. Consequently they stayed out of jail [bad], prevented food stocks from being looted [bad], suppressed protests [bad], helped distribute whatever relief was available [good & bad], and acquired political leverage in Bengal." (Assessments in brackets are mine and are formed in the context of the chapter describing the scene in Calcutta.) The speculator angle is what comes across in Ray's film.

re comment by Sujatha

Ms. Patnaik (writing in The Hindu) may be justifiably enraged at the policies and actions of the Govt. of India regarding food distribution, but I must fault her for using the tabulated data to support her assessments of blame and redress. Adducing data that does not give independent estimates of output and consumption leaves no room for concluding that food was witheld or was left to rot. In other words, the data does not show a deficit between production and consumption, instead lumps them together suggesting that what was produced was eaten.
The table itself says a whole lot of not-much - the only independent data is given in Cols. 1, 2 and 4. Note that
Col. 3 = Col. 1 + Col. 2 ; Col. 5 = Col. 3 - Col. 4 ; Col. 8 = Col. 5 / Col. 3 .
Be that as it may, Patnaik's outrage is based on the figure in Col. 7. What's missing from the table is a column listing population. I looked up the populations of India and the US and discovered that
Col. 7 = Col. 3 / POP.
Far from supporting any theory of waste or inequities of distribution, all that may be inferred from the data is that India produces less than is adequate for her population, which (barring imports) is contrary to what Patnaik asserts in her conclusion. Since the data suggests that India is not a major exporter of food, Malthusian arguments might have been more appropriate. Patnaik's article is merely polemical - which is OK by me.

I thought Patnaik's outrage was more directed at Col 8, not Col 7. The cereal production/consumption patterns in India fall below even that of Africa, and far below the world average, and is indicative of the poor quality of the Indian diet, inadequate to deal with the hunger pangs of millions of people.
That's what I took from the article, rather than the polemics of the last passage where she concludes with a grand flourish.
"This country can afford to feed all its people at a decent level — what is holding it back is not lack of resources but ignorant and incorrect ideas. Will the economists at the highest levels of policymaking abjure dogmas and think the problem through rationally? Or will they inflict more punishment on the people, subjecting this country to the shame of falling even further behind the least developed countries and Africa?"
Poor distribution of the existing stocks would definitely contribute to a worsening situation, whether they be adequate or inadequate(because of 'unwillingness' to import and make up the shortfall?)

Also, notwithstanding whether Patnaik has made an effective case for hunger in India with the numbers in her chart, those here are far more damning evidence. From the FAO statistics (see the chart on numbers of undernourished people), the numbers increased considerably in India, as opposed to the vast majority of the other countries, where the numbers dropped or held steady.

While “[w]atching Satyajit Ray's 'Ashani Sonket' many years ago [may have been] an uneasy experience for [Ms Ruchira],” the film does not seem to have discomfited too many Englishmen. The contrast between Satyajit Ray and Ousmane Sembene is striking when one considers how their oeuvre is received in the West. Screenings of both Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye are reported to have led the French representatives present to walk out in protest. I cannot think of a single moment in anything that Satyajit Ray put on screen that would cause any of the British Queen’s servants (or subjects) to so much as fidget in their chair. It is not an accident perhaps that Sembene’s background included a stint as a worker on the Marseilles docks, while Satyajit Ray worked for a British advertising agency whose clients included the Imperial Tobacco Company.

As Ms Ruchira mentions, three million Bengalis perished in the famine in 1943. On whatever scale events such as famine and genocide are measured, the Holocaust is probably worthier of commemoration, and each year January 27 is justifiably observed as a Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. Avoidable death of three million Bengalis does not deserve to be remembered perhaps because there are, have always been, and perhaps will always be, a lot more Bengalis in the world than there are Jews. However, I suspect the relative urgency of demand on the human memory has more to do with class than with race. I cannot help wondering what kind of film Ray would have made if one tenth as many Bhadra Brahmos had experienced inanition, lethal or otherwise.

I'm reading the book presently: reached chap.11. And like any Indian I'm getting madder and madder as I read it. 2 to 3 millions of my countrymen systematically exterminated and we all keep quiet. Churchill did his work with more finesse than Hitler and comes out smelling of roses. As far as I'm concerned Churchill is Hitler, Cherwell (the Prof) is Himmler and the Bengal Governor Herbert is Heydrich. And please, no more BS about Churchill winning WW2; the Soviets and Americans did it.

The primary differences between Hitler's slaughter of Jews & Churchill causing 3.3 million to starve to death are (1) Hitler's was an act of commission, Churchill's an act of omission (2) Nazis were meticulous record keepers, so their their misdeeds are well recorded, while the colonial Brits were expert in hushing up. Thus little historical records are available.

History resides in our memory : we heard blood curdling stories from our parents & grandparents about people suddenly appearing in droves in Calcutta & dying like flies. The docile Bengalis never attacked well stocked food shops.

Some more research work at

Late Jainul Abedin had painted famine of 1943 of dying people. That painting made him famous all over India.In Bangladesh is is the most famous painting. Then comes the Ashani Shanket of Ray. Whenever I praised the English, my mother always mentioned the Bengal Famine and blamed the British. She told me that people used to line up in her village in Vikrampur, Dhaka to take Papya and banana plants inner parts for consumption. In Bangladesh, there are still documents of Langarkhana for the starved population during 1943. If Madhusree would have seen the archives of Bangladesh, she could get very important documents to support her assertion that Churchill got killed millions in Bengal.

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