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Madhusree Mukerjee, a former editor at Scientific American and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, has published a bombshell book about Churchill’s attitudes toward India and the steps that he took during World War II that contributed to a horrific famine in Bengal in 1943. I put six questions to her about her book and some of the pushback it has drawn from Churchill’s defenders:
1. You write that Hitler never fully embraced the Indian nationalist cause because he expected Britain to reach some accommodation with Germany that allowed it to retain most of its empire, and specifically India. What is it about Churchill and Britain that Hitler misunderstood in this regard?
Hitler believed that the so-called Nordic race, which in his view included Germans and Britons, was destined to rule the world. He sought to emulate, not supplant, the British Empire: the German empire would comprise the Slavic countries to the east. As he saw it, the United Kingdom would retain its colonies but assume the role of Germany’s junior partner in world domination.
Hitler underestimated the depth of Churchill’s reverence for England’s imperial traditions. To Churchill, the British would be second to none. Moreover, Churchill’s reading of history told him that Britain had always maintained the balance of power in Europe: whenever France or Germany had marched, England had marched—against. This time would be no different. Churchill also believed that it was his destiny to lead his country in war against a vile enemy.
Hitler may have evoked particular repugnance because, in addition to persecuting Jews, he was seeking to enslave Europeans. Churchill had condoned the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, explaining that the aggressor was “an ancient State, with the highest sense of national honour and patriotism and with a teeming population and a remarkable energy.” And he had advised against intervention when Italy attacked Abyssinia, on the grounds that the victim was not “a fit, worthy, and equal member” of the League of Nations. Hitler trusted that British leaders would likewise comprehend his desire to induct Slavs, whom he saw simply as slaves, into the Third Reich.
2. Yet you do write that Churchill harbored a deep racism or at least ethnocentrism when it came to the Indians and that he toyed with the idea of building a British alliance with Untouchables, Sikhs, and Muslims to hold India and keep Hindu nationalists at bay. Did this reflect a reasonable appreciation of the forces then at work in India?
Churchill’s divide-and-rule policies found fertile ground among India’s Muslims. For decades, British conservatives had sought to deepen India’s inherent fissures in order to weaken the nascent independence movement. For instance, in 1905 Viceroy Curzon planned to partition Bengal province along religious lines, so as to enhance rivalries between Muslim landowners in its east and Hindu nationalists in its west. He also encouraged the formation of the Muslim League as a counterweight to the dominant nationalist party, the Indian National Congress.
A prolonged agitation led to Bengal being partitioned instead along linguistic lines. But then the colonial government introduced separate electorates for Muslims—that is, every Muslim in British India was required to vote for a Muslim. The measure favored separatists, who could get elected by appealing to narrow sectarian sentiments. The British subsequently introduced separate electorates for other groups as well, but the effort was partially repulsed.
So although Churchill was interested in exploiting diverse social fault lines, he concentrated on widening the Hindu-Muslim rift—which he regarded as “the bulwark of British rule in India.” When Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, called for a separate nation of Pakistan, Churchill hailed “the awakening of a new spirit of self-reliance and self-assertiveness” among India’s minorities. During the war, the British government encouraged the demand for Pakistan and propagandized along Islamist lines against Hindus.
3. At several points you suggest that Churchill was inspired by the remembrance of the 1857 uprising to take steps that disregarded the value of civilian lives in India. But, as you note, in 1920, following the Amritsar massacre, Churchill denounced precisely that logic when it was used by Brigadier Reginald Dyer and his supporters to justify the tragedy that had occurred. Churchill decried what happened as “frightfulness” and called for accountability for Dyer. Doesn’t this suggest a different attitude towards the Indians?
In 1920 Churchill was not hostile to Indians. The independence movement had yet to develop to its full strength; and the Indian Army, which was largely loyal to the British, had just sacrificed 60,000 lives in World War I. The British Empire was threatened mainly by actions such as Dyer’s. By killing more than a thousand Sikh civilians—at least by the Indian account—Dyer had undermined the loyalty of Sikh soldiers in the Indian Army. The army had accordingly dismissed Dyer; and, as secretary of state for war, Churchill was called upon to defend the army’s action. Hence his speech denouncing “frightfulness,” or terror tactics.
Incidentally, in these years Churchill was calling for gas attacks on rebellious Iraqis, in order to “spread a lively terror.”
By the 1940s, the Indian situation had changed dramatically. The freedom movement, led by Gandhi, posed a potent challenge to the Empire and caused Churchill’s animosity toward Indians to escalate. And the Indian Army had acquired many native officers, whose loyalty could not be taken for granted. So Churchill ensured that if rebellion broke out in India, the colony’s best-equipped and -trained battalions would be fighting the Axis—on another continent.
India was bereft of defenses, so that when Japanese forces reached the colony’s borders, the War Cabinet ordered scorched-earth measures to deter their advance. The resulting destruction of rice and boats contributed to famine.
4. The central thesis in your book is that Churchill and the War Cabinet took a series of decisions which led inexorably to the starvation of between 1.5 and 3 million persons in 1943. You do not, however, charge that it was their conscious intention to starve these people to death—unlike what the Nazis did in east central Europe about this same time, when starvation was a conscious policy objective. But do you believe that they knew or should have known that this catastrophe would follow from their decisions?
The War Cabinet received repeated warnings that famine could result from its exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort—and ignored them.
The Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942 cut off rice imports, of between one and two million tons per year, to India. Instead of protecting the Indian public from the resultant food shortage, the War Cabinet insisted that India absorb this loss and, further, export rice to countries that could no longer get it from South East Asia. As a result, after war arrived at India’s borders, the colony exported 260,000 tons of rice in the fiscal year 1942-43.
Meanwhile India’s war expenditures increased ten fold, and the government printed paper money to pay for them. In August 1942 a representative of India’s viceroy told the War Cabinet that runaway inflation could lead to “famines and riots.”
In December 1942, Viceroy Linlithgow warned that India’s grain supply was seriously short and he urgently needed 600,000 tons of wheat to feed soldiers and the most essential industrial workers. The War Cabinet stated that ships were not available. In January 1943, Churchill moved most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, in order to build up the United Kingdom’s stockpile of food and raw materials. The Ministry of War Transport cautioned him that the shift would result in “violent changes and perhaps cataclysms” in trade around the Indian Ocean. (In addition to India, the colonies of Kenya, Tanganyika, and British Somaliland all suffered famine in 1943.) Although refusing to meet India’s need for wheat, Churchill insisted that India continue to export rice.
With famine raging, in July 1943 Viceroy Linlithgow halted rice exports and again asked the War Cabinet for wheat imports, this time of 500,000 tons. That was the minimum required to feed the army and otherwise maintain the war effort. The news of impending shipments would indirectly ease the famine, he noted: any hoarders would anticipate a fall in prices and release grain, causing prices to fall in reality. But at a meeting on August 4, the War Cabinet failed to schedule even a single shipment of wheat for India. Instead, it ordered the buildup of a stockpile of wheat for feeding European civilians after they had been liberated. So 170,000 tons of Australian wheat bypassed starving India—destined not for consumption but for storage.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s stockpile of food and raw materials, intended for shoring up the postwar British economy, reached 18.5 million tons, the highest ever. Sugar and oilseeds overflowed warehouses and had to be stored outdoors, under tarpaulins.
Of course Churchill knew that his priorities would result in mass death. In one of his tirades against Indians, he said they were “breeding like rabbits” anyway. On behalf of Indians, the War Cabinet ignored an offer of 100,000 tons of Burmese rice from freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose (who was allied with the Japanese), discouraged a gift of wheat from Canada, and turned down rice and wheat volunteered by the United States.
The War Cabinet eventually ordered for India 80,000 tons of wheat and 130,000 tons of barley. (Barley was useless for famine relief because it had no impact on prices.) The first of these meager shipments reached India in November. All the while, the Indian Army consumed local rice and wheat that might otherwise have fed the starving. The famine came to an end in December 1943, when Bengal harvested its own rice crop—at which point Churchill and his friend Cherwell renewed their demand for rice exports.
5. Another figure who comes in for a shellacking in your book is Frederick Alexander Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, an Anglo-German known as “the Prof,” who exercised a powerful influence over Churchill. You describe Cherwell as an impressive scientist but also someone who harbored some rather sinister Malthusian ideas with a latent racist component. What were these ideas and how did they contribute to the famine?
Judging by a lecture that Cherwell gave in the 1930s, he regarded colonial subjects as “helots,” or slaves, whose only reason for existence was the service of racial superiors. In drafts of this talk, he outlined how science could help entrench the hegemony of the higher races. By means of hormones, drugs, mind control, and surgery, one could remove from slaves the ability to suffer or to feel ambition—yielding humans with “the mental make-up of the worker bee.” Such a lobotomized race would have no thought of rebellion or votes, so that one would end up with a perfectly peaceable and permanent society, “led by supermen and served by helots.”
In November 1943, Cherwell urged Churchill to hold firm against demands for famine relief. Else, he warned, “so long as the war lasts [India’s] high birthrate may impose a heavy strain on this country which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food.” That is, he blamed the famine on the irresponsible fecundity of natives—and ignored the devastation of the Indian economy by the war effort. He also elided the fact that the War Cabinet was preventing India from using its ample sterling balance or even its own ships to import sufficient wheat.
By Cherwell’s Malthusian argument, England should have been the first to starve. It was being kept alive by massive imports. In 1943 the United Kingdom imported 4 million tons of wheat, 1.6 million tons of meat, 1.4 million tons of sugar, 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 an eighth that of India.
To Cherwell and also to Churchill, colonial subjects were worth saving only if they made a direct contribution to the war effort. According to Field Marshal Wavell, Churchill wanted to feed only those Indians who were “actually fighting or making munitions or working some particular railways.” The rest were dispensable.
6. Arthur Herman argues that you rely too heavily on Leo Amery’s diaries, recording Churchill’s intemperate outbursts, and pass by the fact that Churchill took decisive steps to ameliorate the famine. “Without Churchill,” he says, “the famine would have been worse.” How do you respond to this?
My indictment is based on what Churchill did, not on what he said. The Ministry of War Transport papers, the Cherwell Papers, and the official histories of British wartime food supply, shipping, and economy are my key sources. They show, for instance, that the War Cabinet scheduled eighteen ships to load with Australian wheat in September and October, 1943. Not one of these ships was destined for famine-stricken India.
Had anyone else been prime minister, he would have striven to relieve India’s plight instead of consigning wheat to stockpiles.
Churchill’s diatribes, as recorded in Amery’s and others’ diaries, are, however, useful in understanding why he acted as he did. Famine had failed to temper his hostility toward Indians. Churchill would tell his secretary that Hindus were a foul race protected by their rapid breeding from “the doom that is their due.” He wished Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”
More from Scott Horton:
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Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
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