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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Bengal famine ~ the cruel administrator and our History hailing British Rule

After earning a  very bad name when it comes to imposing restrictions on people, the West Bengal government has finally buckled up and readied a special police force to ensure that the full lockdowns on July 23, July 25 and July 29 are abided by. The focus in on Kolkata — as the city is seeing a huge spike in the number of the cases.   According to news  reports, 28 areas have been identified in the city where special police teams comprising five police officers will be posted. .. .. this is a post on Bengal but where Mamta has no relevance.

During my school days, I was an avid reader of History in Text books reading many times and remembering by heart the various Viceroys, the British rules, the good governance, how good they were, and how freedom was obtained without ‘drop of blood’ .. .. the books taught of the various good things that occurred during the British rule,  foremost among them being Railways, Postal system – but not a single word on plundering, anarchy,  divisive politics and the way millions were made to die not to speak of those millions who fought for the British in unknown territories not knowing who their enemies were !!

I read about Cripps Mission led by Sir Richard Stafford Cripps, CH, QC, FRS,  a British Labour Party politician, barrister, and diplomat. A wealthy lawyer by background, he first entered Parliament at a by-election in 1931, and was one of a handful of Labour frontbenchers to retain his seat at the general election that autumn. He became a leading spokesman for the left-wing and co-operation in a Popular Front with Communists before 1939, in which year he was expelled from the Labour Party.  During World War II, he served as Ambassador to the USSR causing him to be seen in 1942 as a potential rival to Winston Churchill for the premiership. He became a member of the War Cabinet of the wartime coalition.

May be as a move to keep him away from British politics, he was sent to India heading a Mission.  The Cripps Mission was a failed attempt in late March 1942 by the British government to secure full Indian cooperation and support for their efforts in World War II.  Cripps was sent to negotiate an agreement with the nationalist Congress leaders, who spoke for the majority Indians and Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, who spoke for the communalist Muslim population. Cripps worked to keep India loyal to the British war effort in exchange for a promise of elections and full self-government (Dominion status) once the war was over.  Cripps was a friend of Nehru and did his utmost to arrange an agreement.  In India, he also faced hostility from the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. He began by offering India full dominion status at the end of the war, with  the Indian Defence Ministry be reserved for the British.

The man who had sent him - Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874 – 1965) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, when he led the country to victory in the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955. Apart from two years between 1922 and 1924, Churchill was a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1900 to 1964 and represented a total of five constituencies. Of mixed English and American parentage, Churchill was born in Oxfordshire to a wealthy, aristocratic family.

Widely considered one of the 20th century's most significant figures, Churchill remains popular in the UK and Western world, where he is seen as a victorious wartime leader who played an important role in defending Europe's liberal democracy from the spread of fascism. Also praised as a social reformer and writer, among his many awards was the Nobel Prize in Literature. Conversely, his imperialist views and comments on race, as well as some wartime events like the 1945 bombing of Dresden, have generated controversy.  During the recent protests in UK his statue was defaced.  The Black Lives Matter protester who 'tagged' the statue of Winston Churchill said he did it because he believes Britain's greatest Prime Minister was a 'confirmed racist' who cared more about colonialism than black people.  

                      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.  The Guardian reported that 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.

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.  More recent studies, have argued the famine was exacerbated by the decisions of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet in London. It is documented that 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.

The Bengal famine of 1943 is a dark chapter in the annals of Indiah history whence an estimated 2.1–3 million, out of a population of 60.3 million, died of starvation, malaria, or other diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions and lack of health care. Millions were impoverished as the crisis overwhelmed large segments of the economy and catastrophically disrupted the social fabric. Eventually, families disintegrated; men sold their small farms and left home to look for work or to join the British Indian Army, and women and children became homeless migrants, often travelling to Calcutta or other large cities in search of organised relief.  The financing of military escalation led to war-time inflation, as land was appropriated from thousands of peasants

Now read this report too to understand the way still the British treat India ! -  Historians have criticised the BBC for an 'unbalanced' News At Ten report claiming Churchill was responsible for the 'mass killing' of up to three million people in the 1943 Bengal Famine. A section broadcast on Tuesday examined how modern Indians view the wartime prime minster as part of a series on Britain's colonial legacy, and featured a series of damning statements about his actions. Rudrangshu Mukherjee of Ashoka University in India, said Churchill was seen as a 'precipitator' of mass killing' due to his policies, while Oxford's Yasmin Khan claimed he could be guilty of 'prioritising white lives over Asian lives' by not sending relief.   But today historians said the report ignored the complexities behind the famine in favour of squarely blaming Churchill. World War Two expert James Holland argued he had tried to help but faced a lack of resources due to the war against Japan.

The historian James Holland weighed into the row today, insisting that Churchill faced immense difficulties supplying Bengal due to the amount of British resources tied up in the fight against the Japanese in the Pacific. 'In light of the latest furore over the Bengal Famine and people wrongly still insisting it was Churchill's fault, here's this on the subject,' he tweeted. 'His accusers don't a) understand how the war worked, or b) that his hands were tied over use of Allied shipping.'

Churchill's legacy has been attacked in other quarters, with a group of civil servants recently complaining that they did not feel 'comfortable' with having a room in the Treasury named after him.  The subject of Churchill's racial attitudes and whether they taint his modern legacy has become one of the most controversial areas of historical debate. 
So for the British Historians who could not however deny the fact that millions lost their lives, it should be seen as  Churchill didn't cause the disaster but could not do much because of the circumstances ! ~ then why is he hailed as a great administrator ?  Winston Churchill was at the helm, down-playing the crisis and arguing against re-supplying Bengal to preserve ships and food supplies for the war effort.  Secretary of State for India at that time,  Leopold Amery recorded that Churchill suggested any aid sent would be insufficient because of 'Indians breeding like rabbits'.

Sadly, Indian History appears far different reading authentic sources and far away from what was represented in School History books.   One’s heart would cry and melt to think that masses seen in the photo at the start  were queuing in lines for porridge or rice gruel.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

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