Churchill and the Atrocity of Famine
He was responsible for a monstrous crime here, and any honest reckoning with his record has to acknowledge that and take it seriously.
The charge that he maliciously caused the Bengal famine — in the sense that Joseph Stalin caused the Ukrainian famine — seems half-baked.
Gerson’s complaint against the book is that he thinks the author is “a snide journalist fishing with a tiny ideological net” and he claims that Wheatcroft supposedly cannot do justice to the subject. This is an unfair cheap shot at the author, and it suggests that Gerson is frustrated that he doesn’t have a serious defense for the ugliest parts of Churchill’s record. It is convenient that Gerson decides that “isn’t possible to consider each of the charges here,” because if he had to consider the charge of Churchill’s responsibility for the 1943 Bengal famine he would not be able to mount much of a defense. At best, Churchill was guilty of horrible neglect that led to the preventable deaths of millions of people living under the rule of the government he led. The evidence strongly supports the contention that the reality was far worse than simple neglect. He did not just “fail” to “prevent” the famine. In his history of famine, Mass Starvation, Alex de Waal comments on the causes of the Bengal famine:
It is also now well established that the colonial government in London bears the greater responsibility for causing the famine [bold mine-DL] by requisitioning food reserves and stopping all waterborne means of transport, including fishing boats, for fear that these might be useful to the Japanese army which was advancing through Burma, and for failing to enact standard relief measures when the famine was underway. Prime Minister Churchill insisted that food supplies to Britain itself should in no way be jeopardized by providing famine relief to a British imperial possession. Churchill’s offensive views of the Indian people undoubtedly played a role in this, the most lethal of British crimes during the war.1
On August 4, 1943, Winston Churchill made one of his most important but least known decisions: he declined to send wheat to India, then a British colony, thereby condemning hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions, of people to death by starvation. The inhabitants of Bengal, an eastern province of India where famine was raging, were of little value to the war effort and in any case they were “breeding like rabbits,” he explained at subsequent War Cabinet meetings (as recorded by Leopold Amery, the Secretary of State for India).
Did Churchill “maliciously” cause the famine? I don’t think we can know if he made the decisions he made out of malice, but he clearly made them out of indifference to Indian lives. If the best defense Churchill admirers can muster is that “at least it wasn’t the Holodomor,” perhaps they should reflect on why they feel the need to make excuses for a mass atrocity. In her history of India’s role in WWII, The Raj at War, Yasmin Khan described the thinking that led to the famine:
Some people’s lives were not seen as worthy of preserving. The state was geared in every way to the war and prioritised this at all costs. Human negligence and failure to prioritise other human lives as equal was the root cause. Certain lives were not seen as worthy of mourning, or as fully valid as others, and the lives of the people of Bengal had been sacrificed towards the greater global aim of winning the war. The lives of the famine victims were a cost of the Second World War, but these casualties were not counted as such.2
This is consistent with de Waal’s research that finds that man-made famines are the result of policy decisions characterized by a belief that some lives have no value. As he says:
Mass lethal violence and famine appear at times as fundamentally different phenomena. What they share is an assumption that the lives of their victims don’t matter…This consensus can be held narrowly within an elite circle or can be accepted among a much wider population. It is typically inflicted on an outsider group—foreigners, or a stigmatized minority….The lives of the targeted people may be irrelevant because leaders wish to destroy the group, or they may simply be an obstacle in pursuit of another goal. But once people are designated in this way, their lives are transported into a zone of exclusion in which their continued living or imminent death loses any political significance for those whose decisions will determine their fate.3
Churchill certainly put the lives of Bengalis in that “zone of exclusion,” and he did so because he thought their lives mattered less or not at all than other lives. Khan cites the experience of the Viceroy of India, who recounted his frustrating battle with the government in London to get necessary resources:
Towards the end of 1944, after a year-long struggle, Wavell was still battling against the callous attitude of Churchill towards India. ‘I feel that the vital problems of India are being treated by His Majesty’s Government with neglect, even sometimes with hostility and contempt’, he told the Prime Minister directly. ‘In spite of the lesson of the Bengal famine, I had during the last nine months literally to fight with all the words I could command, sometimes almost intemperate, to secure food imports.’4
These accounts show how Churchill’s government not only created the conditions for the famine, but also continued to resist requests for providing food to Bengal later on.
When we see the horrors of man-made famine staring us in the face once again in Yemen and potentially in Afghanistan as well, none of us should shrug at the terrible crimes of previous governments that subjected millions of people to mass starvation. Whatever else Churchill got right, he was responsible for a monstrous crime here, and any honest reckoning with his record has to acknowledge that and take it seriously. Gerson would rather pay homage to the Churchill cult figure instead, and I submit that this proves that his own ideological net is very tiny indeed.
De Waal, Mass Starvation: p. 76.
Khan, The Raj at War: p. 212.
De Waal, Mass Starvation: p. 35.
Khan, The Raj at War: p. 213.