How severe was the 1943 Bengal Famine?

How severe was the 1943 Bengal Famine?

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I read this in a comment to a newspaper article:

By far the largest British empire human loss in the Second World War was the three million Bengalis who perished in a famine in 1943 that Churchill expressly refused to alleviate with food aid, after years of draining India of food and raw materials. "Winston seems content to let India starve while usi8ng it as amilitary base" remarked Alanbrooke, his chief military adviser. Churchill vetoed Us and Australian offers to send food

Is there any evidence to substantiate this?

In 1943, some 3 million indian subjects of the British Raj died due to bengal famine.

I think the most authentic and rich source for examining and finding evidences against Churchill in this incident is Madhusree Mukerjee's book, 'Churchill's Secret War', which reveals a side of Churchill's largely ignored in the West and considerably tarnishes his heroic sheen.

Mukerjee delves into official documents and oral accounts of survivors to paint a horrifying portrait of how Churchill, as part of the Western war effort, ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia. And he did so with a churlishness that cannot be excused on grounds of policy: Churchill's only response to a telegram from the government in Delhi about people perishing in the famine was to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet.

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that it was conducted for the benefit of the governed. Churchill's conduct in the summer and fall of 1943 gave the lie to this myth. "I hate Indians," he told the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for "breeding like rabbits."

As Mukerjee's accounts demonstrate, some of India's grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same hardship; Australian wheat sailed past Indian cities (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. And because the British government paid inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies, grain became unaffordable for ordinary Indians.

The answers @bhau and @coleopterist gave are good and marshal a lot of important evidence, but there are complementary points of view someone ought to mention - so I guess it falls to me to do this.

  1. Madhusree Mukerjee's findings have been disputed by the eminent Indian economist Amartya Sen. I haven't read both books yet but perusal of the wiki entry about Sen and of this review at the NYRB indicates that Mukerjee's contention is that the famine was caused by inadequate supply (for which the British would be very much culpable), whereas Sen

[… ]presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. (quote from here)

If Sen's analysis is correct, then - as far as I can tell - the British are guilty of a sin of omission rather than comission. (I have no wish to do apologetics but there is a difference).

  1. Churchill's comments, as quoted before, are crass and certainly do tarnish his great reputation. However, I think they need to be placed in some sort of context as well. Churchill was hell-bent on winning the war, and winning it in Europe first. Therefore, he focused his attention on this, and actually bothered very little with Indian issues (or Australian issues , for that matter - Australia had committed most of its army to the British war effort in the Mediterranean, on the standard imperial assurance that the RN would protect it from the Japanese, only to find out that this did not quite work out as promised). A hugely telling quote is from Leo Amery's (the Secretary of State for India) diary for November 1944:

It is terrible to think that in nearly five years, apart from incidental talk about appointments etc he has never once discussed either the Indian situation generally or this sterling balance question with me, but has indulged in wild and indeed hardly sane tirades in Cabinet.

(Quote taken from p.88 in The last thousand days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke).

To me this indicates that (A) Churchill's shamefully cavalier attitude to the famine in Bengal sprung not from a special animus towards the Indians, but rather from his dogged pursuit of a single objective (VE) on the one hand and from his slapdash working habits on the other. (B) His "tirades" on the subject were not really the same thing as actual British policy and must be read more as rhetorical exercises.

All this, of course, should not obscure two simple points:

  1. There was a terrible famine.

  2. The British, as India's rulers at the time, bear some sort of responsibility for this humanitarian disaster.

P.S. For a nuanced and comprehensive study of Churchill's attitudes to Empire, as they evolved over time, I recommend the book Churchill's Empire by Richard Toye.


Was the loss of life in the Bengal famine of 1943 the largest British empire human loss in the Second World War?

Yes, without doubt.

Did Churchill expressly refuse to alleviate the famine with food aid, or veto US and Australian offers to send food?

Absolutely not. The evidence shows that statement is completely untrue, although it might be argued that he might have done more to alleviate the situation, had he been blessed with the gift of 20/20 hindsight (like his modern critics).

Indeed, as the historian Arthur Herman wrote:

“We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilised the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn't occurred to anyone, apparently).”

  • [Quoted in Langworth, 2017, p150]

Origins of the claim

The claim that Churchill was responsible for the 1943 Bengal famine stems from the book Churchill's Secret War, By Madhusree Mukerjee.

The problem is that the evidence doesn't actually support that conclusion. On the contrary, it actually appears that Churchill did everything he could in the midst of a world war to save the Bengalis, and that without his actions the famine might have been worse.

What is more, the surviving documents show that Churchill explicitly requested assistance from Australia and from the United States.

Background to the Famine

There were undoubtedly a number of factors that came together to cause the 1943 Bengall famine. Many of these are covered in some detail in the Wikipedia article on the subject. It is also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to assign a definitive starting date to the actual onset of the famine. This is particularly true since different districts in Bengal suffered the effects at different times and to varying degrees. The Government of India dated the onset of full-scale famine to May 1943.

However, there is some uncertainty about quite how much was known in London, and when, about the severity of the famine. In his 1990 book, Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943, Richard Stevenson laid a great deal of the blame at the door of the then Viceroy, Victor Hope, 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow.

Certainly, the lack of reliable statistics does appear to have been a significant factor in the government's apparent reluctance to act earlier.

The Response of Churchill and the War Cabinet

What we do know is that in a report to the War Cabinet on 4 August 1943, the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, noted the spread of famine in Bengal. In his briefing, he specifically stressed the effect upon Calcutta and the potential effect on the morale of European troops stationed in India. At this stage, the cabinet offered only a relatively small amount of additional food shipments. Indeed, they explicitly referred to it as "a token shipment".

Three weeks later, The Statesman newspaper published graphic images of starving famine victims in Calcutta, bringing the situation to the attention of the world. It was probably several weeks before copies of the newspaper reached London.

Churchill appointed Field Marshal, Lord Wavell as Viceroy and Governor of India on 1 October 1943. In briefing the cabinet on Wavell's appointment, Churchill stated that Wavell's duty was to:

"… make sure that India was a safe base for the great operations against Japan which were now pending, and that the war was pressed to a successful conclusion, and that famine and food difficulties were dealt with.”

  • [War Cabinet, 7 October 1943, (Cabinet papers, CAB 65/36/4)]

He then wrote to Wavell:

"Peace, order and a high condition of war-time well-being among the masses of the people constitute the essential foundation of the forward thrust against the enemy… The hard pressures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought conditions of scarcity, verging in some localities into actual famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages… .Every effort should be made by you to assuage the strife between the Hindus and Moslems and to induce them to work together for the common good."

He stated that the goal was to be:

“the best possible standard of living for the largest number of people.”

  • [Winston S. Churchill to Members of the War Cabinet, 8 October 1943. (Churchill papers, CHAR 23/11)]

In terms of famine relief, Churchill initially urged Australia to provide assistance. In response, Australia promised to supply 350,000 tons of wheat.

The Canadian Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, also offered to provide aid, but Churchill replied that:

“Wheat from Canada would take at least two months to reach India whereas it could be carried from Australia in 3 to 4 weeks.”

Winston S. Churchill to William Lyon Mackenzie King, 4 November 1943.

  • [Prime Minister's Personal Telegram T.1842/3 (Churchill papers, CHAR 20/123/52)].

In India, Viceroy Field Marshal Lord Wavell, then mobilised the military to transport food and other aid to the stricken areas.

When in 1944, the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, requested a further one million tons of grain to ease the ongoing famine, Churchill stated that:

“for the four years ending 1941/42 the average consumption was 52,331,000 tons, i.e., 2½ million tons less than the figure cited by the Secretary of State. This difference would, of course, more than make good the 1½ million tons calculated deficit.”

Furthermore, he noted that diverting a further million tons of grain at that time would not be practicable:

“given the effect of its diversion alike on operations and on our imports of food into this country, which could be further reduced only at the cost of much suffering.”

  • [War Cabinet, 7 February (Cabinet papers, CAB 65/41)].

One piece of evidence that is missing from most of the modern claims that Churchill was responsible for the famine, is the observation made by the War Cabinet report that the shortages in Bengal had been:

“partly political in character, caused by Marwari supporters of Congress [Gandhi's party] in an effort to embarrass the existing Muslim Government of Bengal.”

Another cause, they added, was corrupt local officials:

“The Government of India were unduly tender with speculators and hoarders.”

  • [Ibid]

The speculation mentioned had arisen after the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 had cut off India's main supply of rice imports.

Nonetheless, the records show that Churchill and the War Cabinet continued to do their best to divert available resources to provide assistance to India. Shipping remained one of the key problems, and the cabinet recommended that:

(a) A further diversion to India of the shipments of food grains destined for the Balkan stockpile in the Middle East. This might amount to 50,000 tons, but would need War Cabinet approval, while United States reactions would also have to be ascertained;

(b) There would be advantage if ships carrying military or civil cargo from the United States or Australia to India could also take a quantity of bagged wheat.

  • [War Cabinet, 21 February 1944 (Cabinet papers, CAB 65/41)].

In April 1944, we know that Wavel was reporting that the situation in India was still dire. At this point, Churchill even wrote to President Roosevelt to ask for assistance:

I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India… Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died. This year there is a good crop of rice, but we are faced with an acute shortage of wheat, aggravated by unprecedented storms… By cutting down military shipments and other means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more.

I have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia… We have the wheat (in Australia) but we lack the ships. I have resisted for some time the Viceroy's request that I should ask you for your help, but… I am no longer justified in not asking for your help.

Winston S. Churchill to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 29 April 1944.

  • [Prime Minister's Personal Telegram T.996/4 (Churchill papers, CHAR 20/163/106-107)].

Roosevelt replied to Churchill saying that while he had his “utmost sympathy”, his Joint Chiefs had said they were:

“… unable on military grounds to consent to the diversion of shipping… Needless to say, I regret exceedingly the necessity of giving you this unfavorable reply.”

Roosevelt to Churchill, 1 June 1944.

  • [Prime Minister's Personal Telegram T.1176/4 (Churchill papers, CHAR 20/165/82)].

Of course, it must be remembered that this was in the context of America's war against Japan in the Pacific and the build-up to D-Day in the European theatre.



  • UK National Archives usage guidance for Cabinet Papers.

  • Churchill collections.


Copies of many of the (now declassified) War Cabinet papers are available for (free) download as scanned pdf files from the UK National Archives (link above).

Summaries of the papers in the Churchill collection are available on the link above. Access to copies of the documents themselves is only available from libraries with a subscription to the collection.


  • Langworth, Richard M: Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality: What He Actually Did and Said, McFarland, 2017
  • Stevenson, Richard: Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943, Lionheart Press, 1990

Mark Tauger's 2003 analysis of the Bengal famine, which has been used by Madhushree Mukerjee in her book on the famine, in fact does actually bring to doubt the contention of Amartya Sen in his 1981 work that there was sufficient food supply before the Bengal famine, or was at least comparable to what was available in 1941, a non-famine year. Sen has stuck to his position, expressing a certain annoyance and causticity in his responses to both Mukerjee and Tauger, stating the musings of an 'unnamed plant biologist' to be the source of the data who actually turns out to have been S. Y. Padmanabhan who later headed the Central Rice Research Institute, and had worked in Bengal during the famine. Amartya Sen also seems to imply doubts on the the data from "two rice research stations" at Bankura and Chinsurah quoted by Padmanabhan and Tauger, as if a rice research station would not be a reliable source of data at all. The data cited in Tauger's paper actually seems pretty convincing, detailing the differential effect of the fungus on the yields of 21 varieties of rice in 1941 and 1942 at these two stations.

The simple fact, however, is that the damage from a natural disaster like a a fungal crop infestation would follow a distribution pattern with peaks at one or more places - the simplest distribution that could be fitted to it would be a Normal or Gaussian distribution. Even two points on the map being off the projected yields by a large amount would significantly alter the analysis, since we are dealing with a distribution here, and not just one or two blimps on the map.

Here is how Amartya Sen responded to Madhusree Mukerjee on The New York Review of Books.

"Madhusree Mukerjee seems satisfied with little information. Mark Tauger's data come from exactly two “rice research stations” from two districts in undivided Bengal, which had twenty-seven districts. Since weather variations have regionally diverse effects, it would require more than this to “seriously challenge” the analysis I made, using data from all districts, which indicated that food availability in 1943 (the famine year) was significantly higher than in 1941 (when there was no famine)."

However, when we are dealing with a distribution, the data of yields of rice varieties in 1941 and 1942 cited by Tauger (given by S. Y. Padmanabhan in his 1971 paper on the famine) from Bankura and Chinsurah, separated by around 150 kms, would, in my opinion, be sufficient to prove that Sen's analysis would be significantly off the mark, since these two widely separated stations cannot just be two exceptional points or blimps on the map. They are a part of a distribution spread over a large area. Of course the data from only two points cannot map out a whole distribution, and at that time it seems that there were only two such rice research stations recording data. It could still be argued that the distribution would have complex local variations and that it cannot be mapped with data from two points. Sure there would be local variations, but not to the extent of reducing these two stations to just two stand-alone peaks on the map. The probability that these two widely separate points are exceptional points in the distribution of a fungal infestation over a large area would really be very very minuscule.

Tauger at the start of his paper summarizes the two views on the causes of famine as follows

"Thus,admittedly with some oversimplification, the theories of famine divide into two categories, On the one hand, one view maintains that famines result from an overall decline in food availability in a region or country, a shortage, usually because of a natural disaster that destroys crops, and in a context of overall low food production. On the other hand, several other approaches argue that famines result from a variety of economic, social and political factors and contexts that reduce or deny access to food for certain people and groups in the country under consideration."

Amartya Sen's thesis is that it was not insufficient supply, but other factors - hoarding, high food prices, the cutting of supplies by the Japanese, the requisitioning of ships and boats by the British, British imperial policy of confusion and callousness, among other things that caused the Bengal famine and the deaths. Sen's analysis, of course, does not exculpate the British administration, on the contrary as he points out in his reply to Mukerjee on The New York Review of Books, it does precisely the opposite.

The actual cause would of course be a combination of all factors including the shortage, the callous indifference or even outright hostility of Churchill and members of his government, and including all the factors stated by Amartya Sen. However, whatever the causes, that timely intervention - entirely within the powers of the colonial administration, could have prevented the death of millions is beyond any dispute. That Winston Churchill and his government played a major role in preventing this intervention has also been established beyond doubt by Ms Mukerjee. Whether his actions were motivated by a racist or imperialist attitude and a hostility and contempt for Indians that found frequent expression in his remarks or by his overwhelming single minded dedication to the war effort can be a matter of debate. The truth probably is that it was both.

The Bengal Famine of 1943

Starvation and disease killed millions in British India during the Second World War. Why?

On an October morning in 1943, a scientist employed by the government of Bengal was travelling by boat along the Brahmaputra river from Bahadurabad to take up his new job in Dhaka (now capital of Bangladesh). All along the 120-mile journey, he saw bodies of dead and dying men, women and children on both banks. There was a war on and the Japanese were only a few hundred miles to the east.

But these people did not die in the war. They were victims of a famine that had begun in the summer of 1943 and continued until the end of the year. When it ended, two to three million people had died of starvation and disease.

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How the Bengal famine of 1943 turned into an invisible event in Indian and world history

Jagabandhu’s father was a carpenter in Jessore, and he used to help out his father in their shop. His mother had died when he was about ten years old, and his eldest sister, who was five years his senior, had looked after the household. He had another sister, about a year older, but she had typhoid in infancy and was mentally retarded.

Tragedy struck the household when Jagabandhu was about seventeen years of age in early 1942. It all started with rumours. The foodgrain shops would only bring in small quantities to sell each day. Normally petty tradesmen and odd-job workers would buy rice and other staples at the end of the day with their day’s earnings. But of late the shops would either be empty or be shut by afternoon prices went up on an hourly basis. The rumours became stronger: there was shortage of food because the government had bought up the whole crop and had sent it to feed soldiers in different lands.

Jagabandhu’s father could not find work. Everyone was spending all they had to stock up on rice. The family had no option but to move out of Jessore. The household deities were cleaned, given a few grains of rice and offered last prayers. Jagabandhu said that it was his eldest sister, Alpona, who cried the most. She took a long time in talking to the idols and repeatedly telling them that she would return soon and look after them again.

The house was locked and the family set off on a vague search for food. The ultimate goal was to get to Calcutta, as one was sure to find work in that large city. Their first camp was on the way to a place called Jhanpa, a grain market where they hoped to buy some food. However, it appeared that a vast multitude had the same thought.

They moved in a sea of people and saw the grain markets of Jhanpa totally bereft of any kind of grain. The place was a ghost town. Some children and infirm were making weak attempts to beg for food, knowing fully well that there was no hope of succour from people who themselves were beggars.

The family moved on through Sharsha town, towards the Betna river, where they planned to get hold of a boat and move towards Bongaon, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to walk on empty bellies. It was somewhere between Charatala and the Betna river ghat that Jagabandhu lost both his sisters.

They had sifted through an old heap of rice husk in an abandoned home – the kind of heap that is left after threshing parboiled rice – and had found some discoloured grain. The boiled grain was not enough for all, so the menfolk had feigned satiation and had the last tiny bit of parched rice and gur, while the girls had the rice. The girls complained of stomach pain at night and by morning were badly dehydrated. The next day saw no let-up in continuous diarrhoea and, the day after, father and son moved on after burying the sisters’ bodies in a shallow grave.

The duo reached Calcutta in a state of severe starvation, to find that Calcutta was nowhere near the city of their dreams. The streets were full of starving humanity families had sold off their girls to stay alive for a few more days and pestilence was almost upon them, with human bodies rotting in the streets.

Around 9 a.m., by a stroke of luck, they found themselves near the Salvation Army building. It was a red brick building, with a brick-lined drain all around. They saw a row of people sitting by the side of the drain with tin cups, mugs, plates, glasses, almost any kind of container. On inquiry they were told that rice was prepared twice a day, in the morning and evening, and the starch drained in the kitchen found its way to the side drains and could be collected if one were quick enough. The duo lived off the drains for a few days and then Jagabandhu said his father died of a broken heart. One evening he was there and the next morning he was gone. Jagabandhu had also lost his will to live and was aimlessly roaming the streets till he collapsed in front of Captain N.N. Chowdhury’s doorway.

I too got a whiff of the great calamity. For reasons unfathomable, there were all kinds of restrictions on the transport of foodgrains. There was grain rotting in the Punjab, but traders couldn’t send it to Bengal. Bi made at least five trips to her home in Calcutta from Lucknow in 1943 and 1944 with our children, and most of her luggage was filled with rice. The ‘holdall’, mattress, pillows were all full of rice. I used to be on tenterhooks till I got word of her safe arrival. If caught by the railway or police authorities, she would have been treated as a common criminal.

The only journalist (I am not including the vernacular press) I can think of who tried to highlight news about the famine was Ian Stephens, editor of the Calcutta-based and British-owned the Statesman. In a series of hard-hitting articles, especially those of 14 and 16 October 1943, he gave a graphic account of the famine, and delivered a stinging critique of inaction of the administration. Further, he had visiting cards made with his name on one side and the most gruesome pictures of death on the streets by starvation in Calcutta on the other, and made sure that all senior officers in Delhi got at least one. It was thanks to him that the ‘Famine Code’ was finally declared and the dying gradually came to an end.

In 1935 I had become the chief reporter of the Pioneer, and had worked in this capacity for a brief period of about four years. But somehow the name ‘chief ’ stuck on for the rest of my working life. I didn’t mind the appellation at all. But when Ian Stephens’s writings had me all fired up and I wrote an impassioned second leader on the famine, it caused me a bit of grief. I was told in no uncertain terms that the moniker ‘chief ’ had perhaps gone to my head and that there was a war to be won, and such talk was bad for army morale and grist for the enemy propaganda mills. The same person, though, appreciated the quality of my write-up!

As a final wrap-up job on the famine, a commission was set up, with the greatest care given to the selection of ‘compliant’ committee members, and all the evidence presented to the commission was held in camera. As a further precaution, the evidence collected was ordered to be destroyed after the final report was filed. Sir Mani Lal Nanavati, one of the committee members, managed to save his copies and these ended up in the National Archives of India, buried under a ‘Restricted’ tag (the Nanavati Papers).

The final report was signed in August 1945: a beautifully written document, full of information, and as expected – utterly misleading. Moreover, the war was over, the horrors of the famine had faded with time and, with public attention focused on getting on with life – all with Viceroy Archibald Wavell’s skills of procrastination and obfuscation – the famine became an invisible event in Indian and world history: Famine? What famine?

Excerpted with permission from Scent of a Story: A Newspaperman’s Journey, by Shankar Ghosh, HarperCollins India.

[edit] "Food Availability Decline" or "Man Made"

Severe food shortages were worsened by the Second World War, with the British administration of India exporting foods to Allied soldiers. The shortage of rice forced rice prices up, and wartime inflation compounded the problem.

The civil administration did not intervene to control the price of rice, and so the price of rice exceeded the means of ordinary people. People migrated to the cities to find food and employment finding neither, they starved.

Amartya Sen has cast doubt on the idea that the rice shortage was due to a fall in production. He quotes official records for rice production in Bengal in the years leading up to 1943 as reported in the table to the right.

The 1943 yield, while low, was not in itself outside the normal spectrum of recorded variation, and other factors beyond simple crop failure may thus be invoked as a causal mechanism.

The Bengal Famine of 1943: How the British Engineered One of the Worst Genocides in the Human History

History is written by the winners and not by the losers. No wonder, the history of India under the British rule is written by British and American authors. It is said that during the Second World War Hitler killed as many as seven million Jews and is regarded as the most devilious person of the twentieth century. But what about the ghastly genocide done by the British government in India by using hunger and starvation as tools and which lasted for about two centuries claiming about thirty million lives. The British always adopted a ruthless economic policy towards India. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. The first of these famines started in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, the indigenous rulers of India were quick and used different means to avert the famine. After the advent of the British rule, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc that these famines brought with them, if anything, they were irritated by the inconveniences in collecting taxes that the famines brought about.

The deadliest famine that occurred after 1771 was in 1943, when more than 3.5 million people died and thousand others survived only by eating grass and human flesh. The Bengal Famine of 1943 struck the Bengal Province of British India (present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and the country of Bangladesh) during World War II following the Japanese invasion of Burma. The food situation in India was tight from the beginning of the Second World War, with a series of crop failures and localized famines. In 1941 Bengal had a poor harvest and several districts witnessed hunger marches. The authorities dismissed these as having been organized by ‘designing persons’ to create political unrest and strove to ensure that no such rumors of shortages leaked out.

The proximate cause of the famine was a reduction in supply with increase in demand. The winter rice crop of 1942 was expected to be poor and to make it more worse Bengal was hit by a cyclone in October, 1942. “An area of 450 square miles was swept away by tidal waves, 400 square miles were affected by floods and 3200 square miles were damaged by wind and torrential rain. A good deal of the reserve stocks in the hands of cultivators, consumers and dealers was destroyed. This killed 14,500 people and 190,000 cattle. The homes, livelihood and property of nearly 2.5 million Bengalis were ruined or damaged. The fungus Cochliobolus miyabeanus destroyed 50% to 90% of some rice varieties, causing even greater damage to yield than the cyclone.”1

In the 1940s to meet the demand for rice Bengal had to import rice from Burma. In the year 1942 the British Empire had suffered a disastrous defeat at Singapore against the Japanese military, which then proceeded to invade Burma in the same year. After the Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942, Bengal and the other parts of India, which imported large amount of rice from Burma, had to find food elsewhere. There were also poor crops and famine situations in Cochin, Trivandrum and Bombay on the West coast and Madras, Orissa and Bengal in the East. It then fell on the few surplus Provinces, mainly the Punjab, to supply the foodgrains to the rest of India. But the Provincial government of Punjab was reluctant to supply large amount of foodgrains to other provinces as they were themselves having difficulty in meeting the local demand. Bengal’s food needs rose at the same time from the influx of refugees from Burma, which made the situation even worse. As the supply of rice was in short and the demand high this made the price of grain to move upward and most of the people were not able to meet this sudden rise in the prices.

Also with the fall of Burma the British government made the Boat Denial Policy and Rice Denial Policy from the fears by the Army and other British authorities that the Japanese would follow up their conquest of Burma with an invasion of British India by way of Bengal. A scorched earth policy was hastily implemented in the Chittagong region, nearest to the Burmese border, to deny the Japanese easy access to supplies and other resources in case of an invasion. In particular, the Army confiscated many boats (and motor vehicles, carts and even elephants), fearing that the Japanese would commandeer them to speed an advance into India. The inhabitants used the boats for fishing and to take goods to market, and the Army failed to distribute rations to replace the fish and the food lost through the stoppage of commerce. The dislocation in the area forced many of the male inhabitants into the Military Labour Corps, where at least they received rations, but the break-up of families left many children and dependents to beg or to starve. This was the condition of Bengal in the early 1940s, which was once the most prosperous part of India. A brief historical background is needed to understand who was really responsible for all this.

A. The Dependence of Britain’s Economy on Indian Agricultural Products: A Historical Background

If we ponder little bit into history then we will be able to clearly see how the British exploitation completely changed the economic conditions of Bengal. The place which was once regarded as the ‘paradise of the earth’ by Robert Clive, was no more the same. “Historian William Hunter observed in 1874 that in Bengal, if the price of rice after the winter harvest was twice that in a normal year, it foretold a famine – and a price three times the normal, later in the year, indicated that the famine had already set in. Yet even a tripling in the cost of rice, enough to depopulate hundreds of villages, was of little financial significance to a consumer in the United Kingdom. Whereas the colony and the colonizer probably had the same level of prosperity in the mid-eighteenth century (with Bengal having been richer than this average), by the end of the Victorian era the per capita income in the United Kingdom was twenty times that in India. The industrial revolution and imperial policy had plugged India smoothly but asymmetrically into the global economy, such that the high incomes abroad siphoned off a good part of the grain that the land revenue system extruded onto the market. Because the grain was free to follow the cash out of the country, this forced-feedback loop went by the name of free trade.

Nationalists invariably demanded that cereals not be allowed to be exported in times of famine. But the authorities pleaded the virtues of free trade, and local administrators who curbed exports or otherwise interfered with market forces were severely chastised. Even during devastating famines, the government rigorously collected agricultural taxes, thereby feeding whatever harvest there was into the free market. If the revenue collectors could not gather all the tax due during a famine, they recovered it the following year, along with that year’s dues. ‘The one good harvest that stood between the famine of 1897 and 1899 had to pay the famine revenue and the revenue for the current year,’ observed journalist Vaughan Nash, so that ‘when the moneylenders had taken their share, the cultivator had nothing left for a rainy, or, rather, a rainless day’.

The crux of the matter was that India’s agricultural exports had become crucial to the United Kingdom’s economy. The imperial nation settled more than a third of its trade deficit with the United States and Europe by means of India’s export surplus. Prohibiting the export of food from India would make it more affordable within the colony, admitted economist Fred J. Atkinson in 1909. Yet such a measure would adversely affect India’s trade balance, reduce the value of the rupee, and make the Home Charge (which had to be paid in sterling) effectively more expensive. Moreover, Atkinson continued, ‘if the food supply from India ceased, unless the gaps could at once be filled from elsewhere, food prices outside India would rise, and this, owing to the existence of unions and their methods of enforcing their wishes by means of strikes… might affect wages outside India thus indirectly all prices.’ Should Indians eat their grain instead of exporting it, they would destabilize the economy of the United Kingdom.”2

In 1920s the Great Depression overcame rural India. “High grain prices in the 1920s had allowed some cultivators to accumulate savings in the form of gold or land, which had prompted an increase in taxes. Although the prices of wheat and rice began to slide in 1930, slashing farmers’ incomes, cultivators still owed taxes and other dues. Moneylenders (who, through a chain of refinancing arrangements, were ultimately beholden to banks) ran out of cash, refused additional credit, and instead forced peasants to pay up their debts – which they did by confiscating the gold bangles, earrings and necklaces belonging to the family’s women. (The alternative was to sell land, which for a peasant was the last resort because it deprived the family of its cheapest source of food.)

The secretary of state for India and the governor of the Bank of England controlled the colony’s monetary policy. They ensured that as much as possible of this ‘distress gold’ flowed to the United Kingdom. In the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped the export of the metal and used the country’s gold reserves to support the value of the currency, allowing him to inject money into the economy to revive it. Historian Dietmar Rothermund has written that had the British government in India been more responsive to the needs of the people, it similarly would have collected distress gold and used it to finance projects to alleviate rural suffering. Instead, banks melted down 3.4 billion (Pound 255 million) worth of gold jewellery into bars and shipped it to London, helping to buttress its threatened position as a financial capital of the world. As a result, rural India was drained of its savings, leaving peasants defenseless against future economic shocks.”3

By the 1930’s India was no longer a net exporter of grain, on the contrary, India imported cereals. “Whereas in the nineteenth century it had been producing more than required to feed the people (had the grain stayed in the country), the population’s needs had since overtaken food production. But the depression slashed the net earnings of Bengali peasants, the vast majority of whom needed to buy some rice for their families, by 90 per cent – with the result that they could not import enough. A 1933 survey revealed that 41 per cent of India’s inhabitants were ‘poorly nourished’ and another 20 per cent ‘very badly nourished’, with the statistics for Bengal being worst of all: 47 and 31 per cent, respectively. The province underwent serious food scarcities in 1934 and 1936 mass migration, the most egregious sign of famine, was averted thanks to rice shipments from Burma.

By the time World War II hit, India was importing between 1 and 2 million tons of rice a year from Burma and Thailand. That lifeline would be cut by the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia – just when India had again become an exporter of grain, this time for the war effort.”4

Thus when thousands of Indians were fighting on behalf of the British government in some of the toughest countries around the Mediterranean Sea, and when apart from the troops India was supplying foodgrains, uniforms boots, parachutes, tents, ammunitions and innumerable other necessities, the native people of India were even begging for a morsel of food. This was all because of the deceitful and cunning policies of the British government.

B. Winston Churchill and his Dreadful Policies towards India which Paved the Way for the Famine

In 2010, Bengali author Madhusree Mukherjee wrote a book about the famine called “Churchill’s Secret War,” in which she explicitly blamed Churchill for worsening the starvation in Bengal by ordering the diversion of food away from Indians and towards the British troops around the world. Mukerjee’s book described how wheat from Australia (which could have been delivered to starving Indians) was instead transported to British troops in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Even worse, British colonial authorities (again under Churchill’s leadership) actually turned down offers of food from Canada and the U.S. In her book she wrote that in June 1942, “Viceroy Linlithgow had been warning about a food crisis in India, and earlier that March a member of his council, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, had told the War Cabinet’s shipping committee of ‘some danger of famine conditions, particularly in Calcutta and Bombay’. Wheat was available in Australia, but all Indian ships capable of the round trip were engaged in the war effort. Moreover, in January the prime minister had brought most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, in order to bolster the United Kingdom’s stocks of food and raw materials. He was reluctant to release vessels to carry grain to the colony, because lowered stocks at home would compromise the British economy and limit the War Cabinet’s ability to pursue military operations of its choice – and because his hostility toward Indians was escalating.”5

“On January 2, 1943, Governor Herbert warned the viceroy that his province was desperately short of wheat. ‘Bengal’s normal demand is 18,000 tons a month and we are short of nearly twice this amount over last quarter alone. Amount of 110 tons mentioned by you therefore represents only few hours supply.’ If factory workers who ate wheat did not get it, they would either riot or leave, so the shortage threatened the production of ammunition. Herbert urged Linlithgow to get hold of a ship ‘for large-scale import of wheat which might prove palliative for the whole situation’ involving both wheat and rice.”6

“So early January 1943, Amery (Leopold Charles Maurice Stennett Amery, Secretary of State for India from 13 May 1940 to 26 July 1945) wrote to Lord Frederick Leathers, the minister of war transport, arguing the urgent necessity of sending to India 600,000 tons of wheat within the first quarter of the year (over and above 30,000 tons already promised to the army). The imports would enable the Viceroy ‘firstly to maintain supplies to the Army, secondly to feed the urban population on whose labour the war effort mainly depends, thirdly to maintain supplies to those areas where for one reason or another there is an unsatisfied deficiency of food grains, and fourthly to convince holders of supplies that holding for a major shortage is not good business.’

Amery was talking to the wrong person. Leathers was a former shipping magnate who had been brought in by Churchill to run the British Empire’s merchant shipping during the war. He was reputed to be very competent but he lacked the authority, and by all accounts the inclination, to release ships for any purpose that the Prime Minister had not approved.”7

“It was too late. On January 5, 1943, the prime minister had slashed the number of ships operating in the ‘Indian Ocean area’. The term, used in connection with wartime shipping, referred to the entire span of water rimmed by Australia, Arabia, and Africa (as well as the British Empire territories and dominions surrounding this composite body of water). The United Kingdom controlled the merchant ships there, whereas the United States ran the Pacific. Of the forty vessels that remained in the Indian Ocean area after the cut, the lion’s share would go toward supplying Operation Torch, an invasion of French colonies in North Africa, leaving only a handful of ships to ply to and from India – just enough to collect whatever goods the colony could still provide to the outside world.

Churchill seems not to have mentioned this crucial decision when, at a War Cabinet meeting on January 12, 1943, Amery brought up India’s serious food problem. Instead of wheat shipments, the War Cabinet offered to send to the colony an official who had experience, from a stint in the Middle East, of prying grain out of cultivators. Unusually for the Prime Minister when India came up, he was ‘full of internal glee’ – because, it turned out, he was shortly to depart for Casablanca(Morocco) to meet the US president.”8

In any case, “…India received a little less than 30,000 tons of wheat by July 1943 (plus the 30,000 that had been previously promised to the army). That is, of the 600,000 tons that the viceroy had requested in December 1942 as being essential to avert disaster, it received less than 5 per cent. As a result, only a quarter of the wheat that the Government of India had promised to send to Bengal in the first half of 1943 could arrive in that province. Most of that, in turn, remained in Calcutta for use by the priority classes, with small quantities being sent to the districts for official use. In April, an intelligence summary observed that ‘large numbers of starving people’ were emigrating from the province – a marker of famine as given in the Bengal famine Code, the official manual for the region.

Curiously, the Government of India chose not to explain to the Bengal administration why it was unable to help out in supplying wheat. Instead it insisted that the province had more than enough rice. ‘This shortage is a thing entirely of your own imagination,’ Justice Henry B. L. Braund of Bengal’s Department of Civil Supplies said he had been told by officials of the Government of India in March 1943. ‘We do not believe it and you have got to get it out of your head that Bengal is deficit. You have got to preach that there is sufficiency in Bengal and if you wait you will find that there is sufficiency in Bengal.’ Civil servant Pinnell was similarly instructed by Major General E. Wood of New Delhi’s Department of Food that if only he would ‘preach the gospel of sufficiency’ and hint that large imports of grain might suddenly arrive and drive down prices, he would draw out hoarded stocks. Meanwhile he should battle any misconceptions about shortages ‘by attacking and confining on a large scale those who were likely to be its exponents’. A food minister was appointed for Bengal – Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy of the Muslim League – and although he believed a famine to be approaching ‘he was not allowed by the Government of India to say so.’ On the contrary, he announced that the province faced no shortages.”9

In the War Cabinet meeting of 4th August, 1943, the secretary of the State for India, Amery began the proceedings by giving the account of the shortage of foodgrains that India was facing. “The Indian economy ‘was being strained almost to the breaking-point’ by the demands of war, Amery stated, and the direst effects could be countered only by meeting the viceroy’s request. The War Cabinet took the view, however, that the problem ‘could not be dealt with simply by the importation of grain’. Lord Leathers argued that it would be ‘extremely difficult’ to find ships to get grain to India. If the War Cabinet felt that something needed to be done, he would suggest sending ‘not more than 50,000 tons as a token shipment. This should, however, not be earmarked for India but should be ordered to Colombo to await instructions there.’ It might also be possible to send up to 100,000 tons of barley from Iraq.”10

It is a complete nonsense that during this time of the year 1943 the British government was having difficulty in sparing ships to transport grains to India. “In truth, perhaps at no other period during the war than in the summer and fall of 1943 did the number of ships at hand so greatly exceed those already committed to Allied operations. The war against U-boats(U-boat is the anglicized version of the German word U-Boot, a shortening of Unterseeboot. While the German term refers to any submarine, the English one refers specifically to military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in the First and Second World Wars.) was won and American production of ships was increasing steeply the net gain for the Allies had been 1.5 million tons of shipping in May alone. That month the president had transferred to British control fifteen to twenty cargo vessels for the duration of the war. By the summer of 1943, the British shipping crisis had given way to what historian Kevin Smith calls a ‘shipping glut’ and the S branch(S branch means the Shipping Ministry.) would refer to as ‘[w]indfall shipping’. Lord Arthur Salter, had headed the British shipping mission to Washington, returned London to find that instead of worrying about the scarcity of ships, his colleagues were now concerned about the impact on post-war trade of too many ships in American hands. So many vessels would present at North American ports that autumn to be loaded with supplies to add to the United Kingdom’s stockpile that not enough cargo could be found to fill them. If ever during the war a window had opened for saving lives in Bengal – at no discernible cost to the war effort – this was it.” 11

So, the whole excuse of not having enough ships was only a hoax for not supplying grains to India and starving the country to death. By the fall of the year 1943, “Ceylon and the Middle East were to receive each month 75,000 tons of Australian wheat to meet the regions’ continuing needs, according to the Ministry of War Transport. In addition, building a stockpile required ‘to meet potential demand for re-occupied S. Eastern Europe’ would consume 70,000 tons of wheat by the end of October and a further 100,000 tons by the end of 1943. Churchill must have had the Balkan stockpile in mind when he commented on the necessity of conserving Australian supplies: because Europeans, if and when they were liberated, would need wheat, Indian would have to make do with barley. Cherwell(a Frederick Alexander Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell, was in charge of the Office of HM Paymaster General (OPG), which held accounts at the Bank of England on behalf of Government departments and selected other public bodies from 1942-1945.) Leathers(Frederick James Leathers, 1st Viscount Leathers Minister of War Transport from 1941-1945.) and Grigg(Sir (Percy) James Grigg, Secretary of State for War from 22 February 1942 to 26 July 1945) must also have known that the surplus shipping and Australian wheat were to be used for building the Balkan stockpile, and could not be spared to relieve famine in India these most loyal of Churchill’s aides were no doubt looking for reasons to reject the viceroy’s request.”12

At the end of the year 1943, the United Kingdom had build up a stockpile in the Mediterranean region for feeding the Greeks and Yugoslavs it intended to liberate. That would simply mean that shiploads of Australian wheat would pass by the famine-stricken India, destined not for consumption by the starving people but only for storage and latter to be shipped away. For example, in September 1943, ten vessels were loaded with wheat flour and two with other foodstuff, but none would be for India. Similarly, in October ten vessels were loaded with wheat and other foodstuffs, but again none was for India. As long as food could be exported from India for the use in the war, the imperial administration had exported it in large quantities. But while the colony itself suffered from famine shiploads of Australian wheat would pass it by, to be stored for future consumption in southern Europe.

The excuse that the British government provided for not unloading the wheat shipment in Bengal was that the people of Bengal are not habituated to eat wheat. This untruth appeared so regularly in British accounts of the Bengal famine, “…in one of three forms – that Bengalis ‘would sooner starve to death’ than eat wheat, had difficulty digesting wheat, or did not know how to prepare wheat – that it deserves special scrutiny.

Wheat was one of the ancient crops of Bengal and is one of the nine plants symbolically offered to the goddess Durga. When Bengalis worship her in October, they eat a paste as a sacral offering. They have no trouble digesting it on the contrary, better-off Bengalis use cream of wheat to wean infants.”13

C. Some Horrific Incidents during the Famine

  1. “In Sapurapota village of the 17th Union of Panskura Than a Muslim weaver was unable to support his family and, crazed with hunger, wandered away,’ recorded Biplabi(Local newspaper)on August 5, 1943. ‘His wife believed that he had drowned himself in the flooded Kasai River, unable to feed her two young sons for several days, she could no longer endure their suffering. On 7/23 she dropped the smaller boy torn from her womb, the sparkle of her eye, into the Kasai’s frothing waters. She tried in the same way to send her elder son to his father, but he screamed and grabbed on to her. The maddened mother had lost all capacity for love and compassion. She discovered a new way to silence her child’s searing hunger. With feeble arms she dug a small grave and threw her son into it. As she was trying to cover him with earth a passerby heard his screams and snatched the spade from his mother’s hand. A kagmara (low-caste Hindu) promised to bring up the boy and the mother then went away, who knows where. Probably she found peace by joining her husband in Kasai’s cold torrent.”14
  2. A schoolteacher in Mohisadal reported seeing children picking and eating undigested grains out of a beggar’s diarrheal discharge.15
  3. A British soldier Clive Branson wrote to his wife. “The ride was pleasant enough, until the train entered Bengal. ‘The endless view of plains, crops, and small stations, turned almost suddenly into one long trail of starving people. Men, women, children, babies, looked up into the passing carriage in their last hope for food. These people were not just hungry – this was famine. When we stopped, children swarmed round the carriage windows, repeating, hopelessly, “Bukshish, sahib” – with the monotony of a damaged gramophone. Others sat on the ground, just waiting. I saw women – almost fleshless skeletons, their clothes grey with dust from wandering, with expressionless faces, not walking, but foot steadying foot, as though not knowing where they went. As we pulled towards Calcutta, for miles, little children naked, with inflated bellies stuck on stick-like legs, held up empty tins towards us. They were children still – they laughed and waved as we went by. Behind them one could see the brilliant fiendish green of the new crop.”16
  4. “Stories of abandonment during the Bengal famine – of a small child found wandering alone in a field or of a woman who continued to eat at a relief camp while her baby died untended in her lap – are also common. An actress in Calcutta reported that once when her cook poured onto the pavement some phyan, the starchy water in which rice had been boiled, a shriveled-up woman who nevertheless seemed young caught it in her clay pot. Her four children ran up, but the mother ferociously slapped them away and drank up most of the phyan in quick gulps. … At Faridpur in eastern Bengal, some workers were removing a corpse when a woman huddled nearby threw a bundle in their direction, saying, ‘Take that also.’ It was the body of her child.”17
  5. A British soldier posted in Chittagong wrote in his diary: “I have heard many homeless little children of between 5 and 10 crying bitterly and coughing terribly outside my room in the Rest Camp at Chittagong at 3 & 4 in the morning in the pouring monsoon rain. They were all stark naked, homeless, motherless, fatherless and friendless. Their sole possession was an empty tin in which to collect scraps of food. We were strictly prohibited from helping any of these refugees in any way, under heavy penalties. Many could not endure to see this suffering, though, and did help surreptitiously.”18

From these real life incidents one can make out that how inhumane were the conditions in Bengal. Even when millions of Indians were serving in British units during this time, Churchill repeatedly denied food exports to India. How this utter inhumane cruelty of the British can ever be explained. These conditions created by the British not only bring them on par with the Nazi Germany but in terms of inhumane activities they even exceed them.

D. World’s Response to the Famine and Chruchill’s Refusal to Take Help Reflecting His Dislike for India

“Starting in the summer of 1943, The Statesman began to publish editorials excoriating the government for the spreading famine. Stephens(Ian Stephans, Chief Editor of the Statesman) pointed out the official confusion, indifference, subterfuge, and buck-passing and every day his voice became more strident. The response was disheartening: ‘Write, write, write, but nothing came of it,’ he wrote in a memoir. On Sunday, August 22, the newspaper came out with close-up photographs of children with protruding rib cages and panoramas of stick-like beings huddled in vast numbers. Despite a warning from censors, the next week The Statesman printed more photographs – and another editorial.

Until Stephens publicized it, the calamity in Bengal had been unknown to most of India and utterly unheard about in the rest of the world. In a bid to keep the news from leaking out, the Government of India had allegedly destroyed all but one of five thousand printed copies of Hungry Bengal, a collection of sketches and reportage on the Midnapore famine – but it could not suppress The Statesman. In New Delhi, storefronts displayed the pictures of famine victims, and in Washington the State Department circulated them among policymakers.”19

When the news of the Bengal famine began to spread many nations and individual groups poured into to help the dying souls of Bengal. But the British government, mainly Prime Minister Churchill, was reluctant to take any help and was willing to let the people of Bengal to die.

“On August 14, 1943, the Indian Independence League, an association of expatriate nationalists, announced over Axis radio that it was accepting the help of Japan, Thailand and Burma to send rice to India. ‘Though it is normally impossible to send rice to India from Japanese occupied territory the league is prepared to do so if the British Government approves the proposal and gives an undertaking that the food so sent will not be reserved for military consumption or exported from India’ went, the message, as translated from Tamil by British intelligence. Over the next months Subhas Chandra Bose repeated the offer, because he had instigated it, in speeches and broadcasts, such as this one from Singapore: ‘100,000 tons of rice are waiting to be sent to India to alleviate the famine. The rice is stored in a suitable port near India. As soon as the British Government shows its readiness to accept delivery, I will announce the name of the port and the competent authority from whom the rice is to be collected. I will then also ask the Japanese Government to guarantee a safe convoy for the transport. Further deliveries for the starving population of India can be made as soon as the offer has been accepted. I hope that the British Government will accept without hesitation, as it is a humane offer, the acceptance of which will save hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in India.’ Ripples of hope stirred in his prostrate homeland. According to one intelligence report, the ‘latest Bose rumour is to the effect that he has written to the Viceroy asking him to send two ships to enable Bose to send rice to the starving people of Bengal.’”20

“The British must have thought his offer was genuine,’ opined historian Sugata Bose (a grandnephew of Subhas Bose) in an interview. ‘If they really thought it was a bluff they would have called it.’ Had the leader failed to keep his promise, he would have been destroyed as a political force. ‘When it came to a question of Bengalis starving to death, Subhas Chandra Bose would not have engaged in a propaganda stunt,’ Sugata Bose added. ‘When you look at his life, he was engaged in social work – plague relief and flood relief – since childhood.’

The War Cabinet knew of Bose’s rice offer (having received at least one of the pertinent intelligence summaries), but whether or not the issue was discussed is unclear. Although ships capable of traversing the oceans were scarce, hundreds of smaller vessels were plying along the Indian coast, most of them under government control. The proximity of Calcutta to Rangoon or other Burmese ports meant that Bose’s rice could have arrived within a week or two, had the authorities chosen to collect it. Distributed at the rate of a half-kilogram per person per day, 100,000 tons would have fed 1.6 million people for four months – after which Bengalis would be harvesting their own winter crop.

To be sure, Subhas Chandra Bose was a despised enemy of the United Kingdom he was an Axis collaborator and a target of British assassins. But when occupied Greece underwent famine in the winter of late 1941, Germany had permitted humanitarian agencies such as the International Red Cross to bring in relief and distribute it, a remarkable instance of Axis-Allied cooperation during the war. When it came to Bengal, His Majesty’s Government would turn down even those offers of cereals that came not from adversaries but from friends. The dominions of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada all asked how they could help. ‘Australia could supply all the wheat needed for the starving in India provided the United Kingdom could provide the ships,’ stated a minister in Canberra, as reported by Reuters on September 28. ‘Wheat was practically waiting to be loaded on boats.’

Virtually all dominion shipping was under the War Cabinet’s control, as were seventeen merchant ships registered in India, amounting to around 80,000 gross tons, that were capable of the journey to Australia, ’Almost all our ships have been taken away,’ Sir J.R Srivastava later told the famine commission. (Srivastava was the member of the viceroy’s executive council who was responsible for food.) At ‘one time I asked whether these ships could not be released to us to carry foodgrains. But nothing came of it.’ As a result, only highly compact foods could be loaded onto the ships that were already destined for India from the empire’s ports. Amery informed the New Zealand government, which had authorized £10,000 of famine relief, that ‘a free gift of powdered or condensed milk to this value would be the most useful form of gift as shipping could be most easily arranged for that.’

Ireland sent £100,000, and Prime Minister Eamon de Valera asked his compatriots for more meanwhile, the leader of the country’s Labour Party reminded the Irish people that when their forefathers had starved under British rule in the previous century, Indians had sent help. Private charities in the United Kingdom and the United States also began to collect money. The Red Cross started operations in Calcutta, but it could provide only milk powder, vitamins, and medicines. These were valuable, but no substitute for rice or wheat.”21

After a War Cabinet debate of the Bengal Famine in November, 1943, it was agreed, mainly due to international pressures to supply foodgrains to India. The war cabinet managed to “send 50,000 tons for each of January and February, and that was agreed upon. As it happened, Canada had offered a free gift of 100,000 tons of wheat to India to relieve the famine, and Viceroy Wavell had accepted. Churchill had already rejected Canada’s proposal because, according to a document with the Ministry of War transport, ‘it would be unjustifiable to impose any additional strain on our shipping resources (especially if that involved seeking further shipping assistance from the Americans) for the sake of the wholly uneconomic prospect of shipping wheat from Canada to India.’ But a Canadian ship of 10,000 tons had become available at Vancouver, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King wanted to fill it with wheat for India. To Amery’s consternation, Leathers and Churchill were ‘vehement against this’ and resolved to stop the consignment. ‘I can only trust that they won’t have begun loading before Winston’s telegram arrives,’ Amery recorded. ‘The trouble is that Winston so dislikes India and all to do with it that he can see nothing but the mere waste of shipping space involved in the longer journey.’

At the time, a consignment of 9,000 tons of rice from Brazil was on its way to Ceylon, and shiploads of Australian wheat were circumnavigating India on their way to the Balkan stockpile. Other ships were travelling to Argentina to collect wheat for Britain – a trip twice as long as that to Canada or the United States. And as it happened, the United Kingdom already had more than enough wheat. ‘I hope that out of the present surplus of grain you will manage to do a little more for the domestic poultry keeper,’ the prime minister directed the day after this meeting. If their hens could get more grain, Britons would get more eggs.”22

Even as Bengal was going through famine and thousands of people were starving to death, this did not deter the British government a bit. Instead of taking care of the local people and aborting this man-made famine, the British policy was actually contrary to this. As during this time the government should have imported foodgrains to meet the local demand but instead of that it actually exported tons of rice. “Whereas India annually imported at least a million tons of rice and wheat before the war, it exported a net 360,000 tons during the fiscal year April 1, 1942, to March 31, 1943. Of this quantity, 260,000 tons were rice. Gross exports of foodgrains (including lentils) in that fiscal year totaled 465,600 tons. The exports took place after the war had reached India’s borders, imports of rice from Southeast Asia had been cut off, invasion appeared imminent, and hunger marches and food riots had become routine. The exports continued even after the cyclone had damaged vital winter crop of rice. On April 22, 1943, more than a month after it had been warned of famine, the Ministry of War Transport recorded with approval ‘continued pressure being brought upon India to persuade her to release more than the previously agreed quotas of rice and, more recently, cargoes of wheat’. Between January and July of 1943, even as famine set in, India exported 71,000 tons of rice, an unknown fraction of it through Calcutta’s port.

Shiploads of food departing a captive and stricken land recall the Indian famines of the Victorian era and the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, when crop failure combined with colonial policy to fell millions. The exports of 1942 and 1943 were far smaller than those of earlier times, but just as damaging given the substantial imports that were needed to keep native souls from departing their bodies. Ceylon, Arabia and South Africa, where the rice ended up, were already better supplied with grain than was India. But if distributed at relief camps in Bengal at the average rate of a half-kilogram per person per day, 71,000 tons of rice would have kept 390,000 people alive for a full year. The 360,000 tons of wheat and rice, if similarly used, would have saved almost 2 million.”23

Throughout the year 1943, when India was going through an acute famine and was wading into an economic morass, the United Kingdom’s civilian stocks of food and raw materials continued to swell, and by the end of “1943 they would stand at 18.5 million tons, the highest total ever. The United Kingdom imported that year 4 million tons of wheat grain and flour, 1.4 million tons of sugar, 1.6 million tons of meat, 409,000 heads of live cattle, 325,000 tons of fish, 131,000 tons of rice, 206,000 tons of tea, 172,000 tons of cocoa, and 1.1 million gallons of wine for its 47.7 million people – a population 14 million fewer than that of Bengal. Sugar and oilseeds overflowed warehouses and had to be stored outdoors in England under tarpaulins. American and Canadian grain traders complained that excessive British demand was distorting the market and worried that, after the war, the United Kingdom would use its vast stocks to manipulate world prices.”24

Finally in the year 1944, India received 660,450 tons of wheat. “Fending off a second Indian famine took the combined efforts of the secretary of state for India, the viceroy of India, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, the supreme commander in Southeast Asia, and the commander-in-chief in India. It would be beyond anyone’s power, however, to win the prime minister’s consent to loosening political control over the colony.”25

Thus, by the end of the year 1944, the worst famine that was apparently engineered by the British government came to an end. The British government and mainly the British Prime Minister Churchill was solely responsible for this great calamity. It was Churchill’s antipathy towards India that India had to go through such gruesome conditions. Churchill’s hostility towards Indians has long been well established and documented. His attitude toward Indians was made crystal clear when in May 1943, while discussing his policies with the Secretary of State for India, Leopold S. Amery, Churchill exclaimed, “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with beastly religion.” It was this thinking of the Churchill that led him to make India go through all this. As we have seen above that the British government had enough means to avert the famine of Bengal and some officials even tried to do this but it was the reluctance of Churchill that they could do nothing. Reportedly, when he first received a telegram from the British colonial authorities in New Delhi about the rising toll of famine deaths in Bengal, his reaction was simply that he regretted that nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi was not one of the victims. Later at a War Cabinet meeting, Churchill blamed the Indians themselves for the famine, saying that, ‘Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.” The Delhi Government sent a telegram to him painting a picture of the horrible devastation and the number of people who had died. His only response was, ‘Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’ This antipathy of Churchill towards India led millions of Indians to starve and nearly 3.5 million to perish.

Causes of the famine

Typically the causes of a famine include supply side shocks including bad harvest, war time supply issues, which inevitably lead to rapid food price inflation. The causes of Bengal famine are much more complex and intertwined than just supply shortage.

In case of Bengal, the primary reason for the famine was shortages in Rice. A variety of factors led to the shortage, but most prominent among them was not supply shortage rather it was due to improper allocation of the available rice stocks. 1943 was a relatively bad year in terms of rice harvest (down 5% year-on-year), but not enough to cause a famine. What happened was a series of events which led to the disaster:

  • A relatively bad harvest in winter crop of 1942, led to supply shortages.
  • Occupation of Burma by Japan in 1942 resulted in restriction on rice imports from Burma.
  • Restriction on inter-state trade of rice and other food grains at the time further aggravated the issue. This was lifted temporarily for eastern states but then put back again as the rice prices in other states also began rising.
  • Hoarding of rice stocks by traders and farmers in anticipation of speculative rise in rice prices in future as rice shortage was becoming evident.
  • No inaction on part of British authority to import more rice from abroad to control the situation.
  • The event at the time was not declared as Famine, which would have allowed government to act on supplementary reserves. This was due to the fact that government didn’t have enough reserves to fulfill the demand.

The brunt of the famine was most born by rural Bengal, primarily landless agricultural labour. The elite and some working class in Calcutta, however, remained largely untouched by the famine as the British government implemented a policy to provide rice at fixed price to close to one million workers in key factories, in order to not affect the war.

Ignorant policymakers within India and in the British Parliament combined with local inefficiencies were the major causes of Bengal famine of 1943, rather than supply shortage (supply in 1943 was the same as 1941, which did not experience any famine).

Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy, commented on British ignorance of the issue:

“The vital problems of India are being treated by His Majesty’s Government with neglect, even sometimes with hostility and contempt.”

Russian Famine 1921

World War I and the year leading up to it hit Russia hard. Political unrest and civil wars through 1917 lead to a bloody revolution and the start of Soviet rule. Food supplies were confiscated or redirected to Bolshevik soldiers, leaving civilians to do without. This in turn saw a decrease in food production as some chose not to cultivate crops they would not be allowed to eat. While policies were being put into place to ease tensions between peasants and authorities, the Volga basin experienced terrible crop failure. As a result, some 5 million Russians lost their lives.

The Forgotten Holocaust - The 1943/44 Bengal Famine

Dr Gideon Polya

THE FORGOTTEN HOLOCAUST - THE 1943/44 BENGAL FAMINE: impelled in part by global warming concerns, an account by Dr Gideon Polya of the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943/44 and the unresponsiveness of the world at the time to both the Bengal Famine and the Holocaust in Europe the total or near-total ignoring in many historical texts and in global public perception of the Second World War Bengal Famine and other such horrendous events such as the Great Bengal Famine of 1769/1770, other Indian famines, the Irish famine (1845/46), genocide in Tasmania and mainland Australia in the 19th century and the genocide of the Armenians (1915) history ignored yields history repeated and global warming through greedy industrial profligacy may next century visit even worse disasters on Bengal and on other low-lying regions such as deltaic Egypt, Thailand, Louisiana and Holland. Remarkably, one of the biggest mortality events of the mid-20th century (that has been written about extensively by Amartya Sen (1998 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics) and which was the subject of the film “Distant Thunder” by world-famous Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray) remains UNKNOWN to most in the English-speaking World - due to extraordinary, continuing academic and media holocaust denial involving self-censorship, lying by omission and intrinsic, covert racism.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2 and the world will reflect on the human cost of this conflict. In particular we will remember the enormous loss of civilian life, particularly in Poland (6 million dead), the Soviet Union (20 million dead) and China (35 million dead). The Holocaust involving the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews and half a million Gypsies has seared the human conscience, never to be forgotten. However a major man-made tragedy of similar proportions that occurred in Bengal in World War 2 has been effectively ignored by the world from the time it occurred. The man-made famine in Bengal in 1943-1944 killed an estimated 3.5 to 5 million people [1-7].

Famine in British India

While famines had occurred in the Indian sub-continent before British occupation, in many instances the consequences of monsoonal failure and resultant drought were addressed urgently by the indigenous rulers. Thus irrigation works, public works employment and food purchase and distribution were useful responses to such impending disasters.

The British brought an unsympathetic and ruthless economic agenda to India. Economic exploitation damaged the indigenous Indian economy and resulted in a decline in the standard of living. The British disinclination to respond with urgency and vigour to food deficits resulted in a succession of about 2 dozen appalling famines during the British occupation of India.

These famines swept away tens of millions of people [1-10]. One of the worst famines was that of 1770 that killed an estimated 10 million people in Bengal (one third of the population) and which was exacerbated by the rapacity of the East India Company [1-3,10]. Bengal suffered further famines in 1783, 1866, 1873-74, 1892, 1897 and 1943-44 [1].

The extraordinary continuing aspect of this 2 century Holocaust was the exacerbation and indeed the creation of famine by the sequestration and export of food for enhanced commercial gain. Thus in severe Indian famines in the mid-19th century (by which time the British authorities were thoroughly familiar with this sort of event) export of grain was permitted on the grounds of non-intervention in trade 6. This horrendous scourge [8,9] continued into the 20th century. Thus Rajasthan suffered a succession of severe scarcities and famines from 1899-1941, a very severe famine occurring in 1939-1940 [8]. The culmination of this saga of immense human suffering was the Bengal famine of 1943-44 [1-7].

Profiteering, export, denial and death

With the entry of Japan into World War 2 and its conquest of South East Asia, including Burma, the British authorities took strategic steps that affected the availability of food in Bengal. Food was required for soldiers, workers in industrial cities such as Calcutta and for export to other parts of the Empire. The grain import requirement of nearly 2 million tons to make up for deficiencies in Indian production was progressively cut back to a disastrous degree.

Loss of rice from Burma and ineffective government controls on hoarding and profiteering led inevitably to enormous price rises. Thus it can be estimated that the price of rice in Dacca increased about 4-fold in the period from March 1943 to October 1943. Bengalis having to purchase food (e.g landless labourers) suffered immensely - thus it is estimated that about 30% of one particular labourer class died in the famine.

The effects of the famine were exacerbated by a strategic policy of "denial" of potential resources from the Japanese. This involved acquisition of surplus food stocks from parts of Bengal together with the seizure or destruction of tens of thousands of boats crucial for fishing and for food acquisition and distribution in a waterway-rich country.

A major feature of this famine was the inability of the authorities to keep rice prices down to affordable levels and hence make food available to the suffering millions. For a variety of reasons the rice market "froze" with dealers and millions of producers retaining supplies. Lack of supplies from other Indian provinces due to self-regulating food control powers given to the provinces in 1941 (enacted a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) compounded the problem for Bengal. Heavy handed government intervention, a massive overall Indian food deficit, the determination of the authorities to adequately feed Calcutta and the military and the consequent fear and uncertainty of producers led to an appalling disaster for rural Bengal [1,2,5,6].

Decline of complex pre-colonial social relationships vital to disaster survival [5], overwhelming under-nourishment 6 and a greatly increased body of "landless" rural Bengalis [1,5,6,11] led to a nightmare for the 20% of rural Bengalis most vulnerable in this famine. Not surprisingly fishermen, deprived of access to fishing grounds and hence food and cash for rice, were among the worst affected [1,2,5,6].

Increasing population and lack of commensurate food production had yielded a pre-war situation in which India needed to import about 1.8 million tons of grain per year in the immediately pre-war years to make up the shortfall [1,6]. Nevertheless rice exports from India in the financial year 1942-43 were at near-record levels. A crucial factor, however, was the huge decrease in foodgrain imports to only about 20,000 tons in the financial year 1942-43 [1].

Starving people flocked into Calcutta, victims dying in a city with well-provisioned markets. The British authorities (at times forcibly) removed tens of thousands of destitute, starving people from Calcutta and other urban areas in late 1943. These people were relocated to die in the country, out of sight, out of mind [1].The reluctance of destitutes to leave derived from the inadequacy of relief gruel when it became available and the additional availability of food from rubbish and from begging householders for "rice water" from the cooking of rice.

Responses to a disaster

The British government, the Central Indian authorities headed by the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow and the Bengali provincial administration (critically interfered with by Governor Sir John Herbert) were grossly derelict in dealing with the situation and its genesis. However a new and effective Viceroy Lord Wavell took up his position in October 1943 [7], this being complemented by the arrival of a new, vigorous Governor of Bengal, the Australian R.G.Casey, in January 1944 [7,12].

Lord Wavell (unlike his predecessor) visited famine-wracked Bengal and within his first week took the key decision ensuring that Calcutta would be fed by the rest of India and not by starving rural Bengal. This energetic and concerned man pleaded continually with the British Government for requisite grain imports, demanding (unsuccessfully) 1 million tons for 1944. He was insistent about the need for additional supplies to bring down the price of rice and to prevent further disasters.

The release of thousands of boats was agreed to from April 1944 and more effective measures directed to relief, mass health intervention and to controlling food supplies and prices were also introduced. Eventually the excess mortality due to famine declined to the "normal" level of mortality associated with an impoverished, disease-ridden society living on the edge of starvation.

Interestingly famine was not actually declared by the authorities in 1943 despite the enormity of the circumstances. The famine was debated in the House of Commons, one of the key sessions being attended by less than 10% of the members. These appalling events eventually disappeared from public view, if indeed they had ever effectively appeared.

Appalling realities

Various estimates of the total number of famine deaths have been made that range up to 5 million [1-7]. A very detailed American analysis of this tragedy estimated 3.5 to 3.8 million as the excess mortality due to starvation and attendant disease in 1943-1946 [5]. The magnitude of this event and its continuing consequences can be gauged from the increase in population of West Bengal plus East Bengal (Bangladesh) of only 3 million in the period 1941 to 1951 as compared to a population growth of 11 million in the period 1931 to 1941 [6].

Repeated requests for food imports into India (Indian population 400 million Bengal population 60 million) in 1943 and 1944 resulted in only about half a million tons of grain being imported into India in this period [1,6]. In contrast the food stocks of the U.K. (population about 50 million) rose by about 10 million tons in the latter half of 1943.

Churchill repeatedly opposed food for India and specifically intervened to block provision of 10,000 tons of grain offered by Canada6. The U.S. declined to provide food aid in deference to the British Government6. The British Government rejected Lord Wavell's request for 1 million tons of grain in 1944 and also rejected his request that the U.S. and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) be approached for assistance.

Even when Congress (after extensive lobbying) altered legislation to permit UNRRA aid for India, no plans were in place for such assistance because the British authorities had not requested it [6]. An offer of 100,000 tons of rice from the Axis collaborationist leader Subhas Chandra Bose was ignored [6,13]. Lord Wavell records in his diary R.G.Casey's intelligence relating to the Argentinian use of 2 million tons of surplus wheat in their railway system in lieu of coal (of which there was a world-wide shortage) [7]. Churchill finally requested U.S. assistance in mid-1944 in terms that he was "no longer justified in not asking for such aid" - with a resultant negative response from Roosevelt [6].

It should be appreciated that India made a major contribution to the war effort. 2,400,000 Indians served in the British forces6 and thousands of Indian, and particularly Bengali, lascars served in the Merchant Navy (the pay being £5, £15 and £22.10.0 a month for Indian, Chinese and British sailors, respectively) [7].

The Second World War involved the following British losses: 303,000 British armed forces personnel killed, 109,000 Commonwealth losses, 60,000 civilians killed in air raids and 30,000 Merchant Navy sailors killed [14]. Against this we can set the forgotten "Allied" millions of Bengalis who died agonizing deaths, the toll amounting to 50 to 100 times the civilian losses in Dresden, Hamburg, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo or in German bombing raids on Britain.

Differential victimisation - children, women and famine-enforced sexual abuse

Detailed demographic analyses of Calcutta destitutes and other famine victims reveal distressing discontinuities [1,2,5,6]. Young children were by far the most vulnerable in this famine and young adults the least so [1,2,5,6].

A nearly 2-fold difference in the percent mortality increase of males as compared to females in the age groups of 10-15 and 15-20 years has been taken as evidence of substantial young female survival through sexual submission. A similar conclusion has been drawn from the greatly decreased ratio of females to males in the 10-15 year age group among destitutes in Calcutta during this period [2,6].

The distressing testimonies of famine victims attest to the famine-enforced sexual exploitation of women [5]. There was a major military presence in Bengal and the Military Labour Corps was an avenue of survival for starving women, the price of survival being sexual submission and abuse and venereal disease [5].

Testimonies of victims and observers describe horrendous realities: dogs and vultures devouring the nearly dead, bones and bodies littering roadsides, desperate attempts to find sustenance, starvation-enforced prostitution, sale of children and even infanticide by despairing, deserted or widowed, starving mothers and tortured deaths in a lush countryside or in well-provisioned Calcutta [1,2,5,6].

Famine relief was belated and grossly insufficient [5,6]. Thus before the famine the average Bengali in 1 year consumed about 140 kg of rice (the crucial staple) and a bare-subsistence rural farming family consumed 90 kg per head each year. The famine relief diet amounted to 30 kg of grain per person per year. There were major added complications of disease, notably malaria and cholera, the shortage of medicine and the malabsorption of food [1,5,6].

Lest we forget

The Holocaust of European Jews has not been forgotten because of a numerous, world-wide diaspora of articulate and resolute survivors. Nevertheless continued postwar mass killing events in Europe, Africa, Asia and America point up the continuing incompetence of the world as a whole to deal promptly with large-scale inhumanity.

An extraordinary feature of the appalling record of British imperialism with respect to genocide and mass, world-wide killing of huge numbers of people (by war, disease and famine) is its absence from public perception. Thus, for example, inspection of a selection of British history texts reveals that mention of the appalling Irish famine of 1845-6 is confined in each case to several lines (although there is of course detailed discussion of the attendant, related political debate about the Corn Laws). It is hardly surprising that there should be no mention of famine in India or Bengal in these texts [15-18]. The famines in Bengal are absent from other texts dealing with modern British imperial history [14,19].

In my own well-stocked personal library the 1770 Bengal famine rates a mention only in a major encyclopaedia [10]. The 1943 Bengal famine is totally missing except for a brief reference, namely "famine strikes Bengal" in a massive German chronology of world events and developments, being listed under the category "daily life" for the year 1943 [20].

Nevertheless detailed and expert academic accounts and analyses of the 1943 Bengal famine were prepared shortly after the event despite severe war-time and economic constraints [1,2] and other very detailed accounts have appeared [5,6]. The Satyajit Ray feature film "Distant Thunder" is an immensely moving account of this tragedy seen through the lives of a Bengali intellectual and his wife in a Bengali village setting [4]. The diaries of Lord Wavell give a powerful insight into this period [7].

Australia, the world, "greenhouse" and historical repetition

As an Australian I am very conscious of Australian connections with these appalling events. A significant reason for British settlement in Australia in 1788 (and the consequent decimation of the indigenous aboriginal people) was the need to protect the lucrative British interests in India from its European foes, especially the French [21-23]. The first decade of the colony coincided with appalling famines in India [1]. Wheat from India was imported into Australia in the 19th century [24].

Australia was intimately linked to the defence of the British Empire (and hence the protection of the lucrative slave empire in India) for 2 centuries. The mass destruction for which the British were responsible in India was reflected in numerically far less significant enormities inflicted by Australian colonists on the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania and mainland Australia and on the indigenous people of the nearby Pacific islands [21-24].

Australia has a more recent Bengal connection. The Bengal famine of 1943-44 coincided with the critical defence of this part of the world against the Japanese advance. The distinguished Australian R.G.Casey became Governor of Bengal in 1944 in the diminishing phase of the famine ( the appointment by his own account being initially locally unpopular because of the prohibition of entry of Indians into Australia) [12,25].

History has an excellent chance of repeating itself if its realities and lessons are ignored. Tied historically to the British Empire, Australians are extraordinarily ignorant of their own (albeit surely unintended) negative global impact in the service of Britain. Thus the xenophobic extermination of the best part of one million Armenians - precipitated by the Allied attack on the Dardanelles - commenced with the roundup of Armenian intellectuals and other community leaders in the day or so before the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in 1915 [26-28]. This unintended consequence of Australian heroism is apparently unknown to most Australians. The recent Gulf War, in which Australia also participated, had similar (and again, no doubt unintended) consequences for Shiites and Kurds.

History may yet repeat itself with respect to the Bengalis. Australia is per capita one of the most profligate contributors to "greenhouse" gas emission and hence global warming. There is unfortunately a current bipartisan political consensus in Australia opposed to effective short-term reduction of such emission. The recent Berlin Climate Change Conference, heavily influenced by the U.S. and similarly-inclined Australia and Canada, concluded with no agreed targets on greenhouse gas emission and produced merely a motherhood commitment to continuing assessment [28]. While global warming may have advantages for some [30], there is a widespread concern that global warming and consequent sea level rises will have a major impact on low-lying regions such as densely populated and impoverished West Bengal and Bangladesh [31-35].

It is quite conceivable that continuing global greed and irresponsibility in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, desertification and forest destruction will have an even more devastating impact on Bengal in the 21st century [31-35] than that of ruthless imperialism in past centuries. We must learn from the appalling consequences of the blindness, complacency and insensitivity with which the world responded at the time to the Jewish Holocaust [36-38] and to the now-forgotten Bengali Holocaust.

Cited works

1. Ghosh, K.C.(1944) Famines in Bengal 1770-1943 (National Council of Education, Bengal, Calcutta, 2nd edn, 1987).

2. Das, T.(1949) Bengal famine (1943) as revealed in a survey of the destitutes of Calcutta (University of Calcutta, 1949).

3. Maloo, K.(1987) The history of famines in Rajputana (1858-1900 A.D.) (Himanshu Publications, Udaipur & New Delhi).

4. Satyajit Ray, director, "Distant Thunder", a feature film.

5. Greenough, P.R. (1982) Prosperity and misery in modern Bengal. The famine of 1943 - 1944 (Oxford University Press, New York).

6. Uppal, J.N. (1984) Bengal famine of 1943. A man-made tragedy (Atma Ram & Sons, Delhi).

7. Moon, P. (ed.)(1973) Wavell. The Viceroy's journal (Oxford University Press, London).

8. Kachhawaha, O.P. (1985) Famines in Rajasthan (1900 A.D. - 1947 A.D.) (Hindi Sahitya Mandir, Jodhpur).

9. Merewether, F.H.S. (1898) A tour through the famine districts of India (1985 edn, Usha, New Delhi).

10. History of the Indian sub-continent. Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol.9, pp 334-430 (15th edn, 1977, Chicago).

11. Chatterjee, P. (1984) Bengal 1920-1947. The land question (Bagchi & Co., Calcutta).

12. Hudson, W.J. (1986) Casey (Oxford University Press, Oxford).

13. Gordon, L.A. (1990) Brothers against the Raj (Columbia University Press, New York).

14. Thomson, D. (1965) England in the twentieth century (Penguin, London).

15. Trevelyan, O.M.(1952) History of England (4th edn, 1952, Longmans, London).

16. Wells, H.G. (1951) The Outline of History (1951 edition, Cassell, London).

17. Carter, E.H. and Mears, R.A.F. (1960) A history of Britain (Clarendon Press, Oxford).

18. Langer, W.L.(1956) (ed.) An encyclopaedia of world history (3rd edn, 1956, Harrap, London).

19. Porter, B. (1975) The lion's share. A short history of British imperialism 1850-1983 (Longman, London).

20. Grün, B.(1975) The timetables of history. A chronology of world events (1975 edn, Thames & Hudson, London).

21. Ross,J.(1993) (ed.) Chronicle of Australia (Chronicle, Melbourne).

22. Shaw, A.G.L. (1960) The story of Australia (2nd edn, Faber & Faber, London).

23. Frost, A. (1987) Towards Australia - the coming of the Europeans. Ch. 9 in Mulvaney,D.J. & White, J.P.(eds) Australians - a historical library (Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, Melbourne).

24. Clark, C.M.H. (1962) A history of Australia (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne).

25. Murray-Smith, S.(1974) (ed.) The dictionary of Australian quotations (Heinemann, Melbourne).

26. Gürün, K.(1985) The Armenian file. The myth of innocence exposed (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London).

27. Walker, C.J. (1990) Armenia. The survival of a nation (2nd edn, Routledge, London).

28. El-Ghusein, F. (1917) Martyred Armenia (Pearson, London).

29. Pearce, F. (1995) Don't stop talking about tomorrow. New Scientist, 15th April, p4 (see also Editorial, ibid, p3).

30. Moore, T.G. (1995) Why global warming would be good for you. Public Interest, vol. 118, 83 - 99.

31. Eastwood, P. (1991) Responding to global warming (Berg, New York).

32. Edgerton, L.T. (1991) The rising tide. Global warming and sea levels (Island Press, Washington).

33. Leggett, J. (1990) (ed.) Global warming. The Greenpeace report (Oxford University Press, Oxford).

34. Mitchell, G.J. (1991) World on fire. Saving an endangered earth (Macmillan, New York).

35. Myers, N. (1990) The Gaia atlas of future worlds. Challenge and opportunity in an age of change (Penguin, New York).

36. Weissberg, A. (1958) Advocate for the dead. The story of Joel Brand (Andre Deutsch, London).

37. Laqueur, W. (1980) The terrible secret. Suppression of the truth about Hitler's "final solution" (Penguin, London).

38. Wasserstein, B. (1980) Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939 - 1945 (Oxford University Press, Oxford).

Dr. Gideon Maxwell Polya
29 Dwyer St., Macleod, Melbourne, Victoria 3085, Australia

An edited version of this account has been published :

Polya, G.M.(1995) The famine of history: Bengal 1943. International Network on Holocaust and Genocide vol.10, 10-15.

POSTSCRIPT, July 2005: The US and its close ally Australia still refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and about a year ago a substantial part of Bangladesh was under water from monsoonal run-off. The Anglo-American mainstream media still overwhelmingly ignore the World War 2 Bengal Famine (4 million victims) just as they continue to ignore the horrendous post-1950 avoidable mortality in the World (1.3 billion), the non-European World (1.2 billion) and the Muslim World (0.6 billion). Mianstream media continue to ignore the post-invasion avoidable mortality in US-occupied Iraq (0.4 million) and Afghanistan (1.5 million).

A detailed, wide-ranging account of the Bengal Famine was published by me in 1998 (now out of print but available in some major Anglo-American libraries):

Gideon Polya "Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability" (Polya, Melbourne, 1998).

posted by Dr Gideon Polya @ 6:09 PM


To be sure, British imperialism was shockingly lethal and there is no excuse for overlooking its crimes. There is also no excuse for overlooking one of its other great crimes, which was its systematic effort over half a century to destroy Germany. The two world wars that were required to reduce the country to subservience cost an estimated 70-80 million lives and, in the form of Holocaust mythology, has created a permanent millstone around the German people's collective neck.

It is apalling that even people who understand how appalling the British empire really was still haven't clued into British responsibility for the fifty years' war against Germany.

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The Minister of Labour and Supplies in the Muslim League Government of the Province of Bengal in 1943 was Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. He was actually born in the District of Midnapore where the famine began. The weakness of that newly formed Government and the sickness of the Governor, who died that year,caused inadequate measures against famine to be taken. The arrival of the new Viceroy Wavell in the area ensured rapid action was taken. The British Indian Sarkar did encourage the construction of railways and canals to make famine relief possible in all parts of British and Princely India. There was also a special Famine Diet based on Molasses with necessary Electrolytes available, which was later used in the liberation of the Kranken Konzentration Lagar at Belsen.

Thank you very much for your informed comment Reverend Hawkins. General Wavell certainly tried to address the crisis but, according to his published diaries, was repeatedly blocked by Churchill. The man-made Bengal Famine in British-ruled India killed 6-7 million Indians in Bengal and adjoining provinces in the 1943-1945 “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others: link ).

congratulations. amazing
thank you

Ah yes, Giordan, but of course Britain launched a "systematic effort over half a century to destroy Germany" and "reduce the country to subservience. in the form of Holocaust mythology".

Adolf Hitler was really a peaceable, misunderstood sort of chap (a vegetarian after all) who was forced by those British devils to invade Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, France et al.

Another little-known fact: Germany's 1914 invasion of Belgium was, in fact, a complete accident. The advance guard just went to the shops to stock up on Bratwurst and bugger me if they didn't stray into Belgium by mistake.

As for the Holocaust, yes you're absolutely right, it should be viewed in the same light as Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Not sure if you're aware but Britain's also single-handedly responsible for global warming, natural disasters and winter.

This is a shockingly dishonest posting, it completely distorts the Historical facts in order to make the British appear guilty of genocide.

Who wrote this? Joseph Goebbels?

Three million Bengalis perished in the famine in 1943, while more than six million Jews died over 1939-45. 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 Bengali filmmakers would have made if one tenth as many Bhadra Brahmos had experienced inanition, lethal or otherwise.

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The post by K Chamaar smacks of racism. It also mentions wrongly about 3 million deaths in the Bengal famine. One may safely believe that 5 millions perished due to the racist and arrogant Churchill whose crime was no less, in fact more than Hitler's. Six to 7 million innocent men, women and children were starved to death under Churchill's racist regime whereas the Jews were to blame partially for the holocaust. The Jews are also equally racists. Germany suffered enough ignominy and the German appeasement of the British policy had made Hitler paranoid about avenging the insult which Germany had suffered at the hands of the British and the Americans. The Jewish Diaspora in Hitler's Germany could not however claim complete innocence because they refused to cooperate with Hitler’s Germany. But six to 7 million Bengalis perished in their homeland due to the colonial exploitation by the British. Even Churchill had baulked at the progress achieved by the Cripps' Mission in 1942 which was engaged in dialogues with the Indian National Congress for finalizing India's Independence. The racist Churchill stood between Sir Stafford Cripps and Indian Independence. A democratic National Government in India would have been obliged by the force of nationhood to tackle this man-made famine that was a real Holocaust of greater severity than the Jewish holocaust. But the Western media which influence the World media - Indian media only pipe the tune of their Western counterpart,- is not interested because they have to sing paeans of their own governments.

Because famine is not caused by people but is a failure of crops it cannot be called a genocide. What is a problem, is to balance the ability to supply food, with the likelyhood the war was lost. I am shocked by the blocking of requests for supply by Churchhill. This was an obvious missjudgement. I think like all historical events it needs further investigation and explanation before clear understanding is brought to bare. I think the british as a nation would be shocked to be made aware of this event, and is down to politicians and there decisions rather than any actual intention by a nation against another as was demonstrated through Band-Aid etc.
I think therefore one has to be carefull about jumping to conclusions etc.

This famine was completely unknown to me, an english citizen.
To put it alongside the holocost is insane, as famines arise from crop failure, and not intent.
The problem with not supplying food to meet the need is shown as a conflict between the indian authorities and Churchhill.
More light is needed, to bring issues into perspective and show what could have been done and what was done.
There are obviously some neo-nazis here, which never helps anyone

That the famine is unknown to British citizens is not surprising. Ruling colonial powers never had interest in showing the degree of oppression that the colonised underwent. But the famine was man made, not a case of crop failure. Two brief comments on what is an excellent paper. The Amartya Sen argument stresses the entitlement issue. In other words, there might be food, but it is not available to all. having been forced to take on the Labour Party in government, the British government during the war had to make sure people in UK got rations at least. In colonial Bengal this was not deemed essential. The other issue is, the denial policy -- fearing the Japanese might come and take over Bengal, the then ricebowl of Eastern India, the rulers, notably the governor of Bengal, took policies that destroyed the economy. One is aware that for many white people a real genocide happens only when white die (Jews under Hitler). But we non whites have had far too many murdered not to challenge this position.

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Thank you very much for this documented article Dr Polya

As a french young student of bengali in university (INALCO) indeed (and lover of bengali language), I learnt about this famine's multiple potential causes only last week, after years of studying South Asian history in oriental university in Paris.

I was speaking about Churchill in laudative terms with one of my teachers born in Kolkata when he got angry and made allusive comments about both british responsablity and "abohela" (indifference) to some of its crimes commited during colonial occupation of India.

I will read your article deeper and look for sources to document myself more on the subject and thus be able to share it with my friends who are also studying south asian history or bengali here.

Churchill's policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study

The Bengal famine of 1943 was the only one in modern Indian history not to occur as a result of serious drought, according to a study that provides scientific backing for arguments that Churchill-era British policies were a significant factor contributing to the catastrophe.

Researchers in India and the US used weather data to simulate the amount of moisture in the soil during six major famines in the subcontinent between 1873 and 1943. Soil moisture deficits, brought about by poor rainfall and high temperatures, are a key indicator of drought.

Five of the famines were correlated with significant soil moisture deficits. An 11% deficit measured across much of north India in 1896-97, for example, coincided with food shortages across the country that killed an estimated 5 million people.

However, the 1943 famine in Bengal, which killed up to 3 million people, was different, according to the researchers. Though the eastern Indian region was affected by drought for much of the 1940s, conditions were worst in 1941, years before the most extreme stage of the famine, when newspapers began to publish images of the dying on the streets of Kolkata, then named Calcutta, against the wishes of the colonial British administration.

The Rotary Club relief committee at a free kitchen in Kolkata in 1943. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

In late 1943, thought to be the peak of the famine, rain levels were above average, said the study published in February in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“This was a unique famine, caused by policy failure instead of any monsoon failure,” said Vimal Mishra, the lead researcher and an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

Food supplies to Bengal were reduced in the years preceding 1943 by natural disasters, outbreaks of infections in crops and the fall of Burma – now Myanmar – which was a major source of rice imports, into Japanese hands.

But the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in 1981 that there should still have been enough supplies to feed the region, and that the mass deaths came about as a combination of wartime inflation, speculative buying and panic hoarding, which together pushed the price of food out of the reach of poor Bengalis.

Winston Churchill in 1940. Britain’s wartime leader has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were ‘breeding like rabbits’. Photograph: Cecil Beaton/IWM via Getty Images

More recent studies, including those by the journalist Madhushree Mukerjee, have argued the famine was exacerbated by the decisions of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet in London.

Mukerjee has presented evidence the cabinet was warned repeatedly that the exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort could result in famine, but it opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire.

Rice stocks continued to leave India even as London was denying urgent requests from India’s viceroy for more than 1m tonnes of emergency wheat supplies in 1942-43. Churchill has been quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.

Mukerjee and others also point to Britain’s “denial policy” in the region, in which huge supplies of rice and thousands of boats were confiscated from coastal areas of Bengal in order to deny resources to the Japanese army in case of a future invasion.

An emaciated family who arrived in Kolkata in search of food in November 1943. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

During a famine in Bihar in 1873-74, the local government led by Sir Richard Temple responded swiftly by importing food and enacting welfare programmes to assist the poor to purchase food.

Almost nobody died, but Temple was severely criticised by British authorities for spending so much money on the response. In response, he reduced the scale of subsequent famine responses in south and western India and mortality rates soared.

Though India’s population has vastly increased since the British colonial era, the country has largely eliminated famine deaths owing to more efficient irrigation practices, improvements in seed yields, a stronger food distribution and welfare system and better transport links, which allow emergency food stocks to be moved quickly to deprived areas.

Watch the video: EP 21: Bengal Famine of 1943 with Dr. Janam Mukherjee (July 2022).


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