The Bengal Famine and World War II

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Srinath Raghavan (Courtesy: Getty Images)


Chennai, Nov 4:
The Bengal famine was only an extreme end of the poverty faced by Indians during the Second World War II, according to historian, Dr. Srinath Raghavan.

Discussing ‘India’s Long Rise as an Asian Power’ at the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies, Raghavan said that the necessity of building a war economy to sustain India’s efforts in World War hurt most groups of Indians, across regional, class, and caste lines. “Travancore saw the second largest famine during the war, after the Bengal famine.”

He said the roots of the widespread famines could be traced to the ways in which the British tried to bankroll the war expenditure. “By the end of the war, in 1945, the British government owed the Government of India £1.3 billion […] an extraordinary amount of foreign exchange for a poor economy like India to have.”

Historians believe the famines to not be natural occurrences or products of the free market, but to be deliberately constructed efforts. Winston Churchill, the then British Prime Minister, has been accused of not just criminal apathy, but of engineering the famine against the Indian people. Churchill was known to hold wide contempt for Indians, whom he saw as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”, who “bred like rabbits.”

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Winston Churchill (Courtesy: ITV News)

Speaking about the war economy, Raghavan argued that the government used three measures to raise money for the War: taxation, borrowings and the sale of bonds, and printing currency, each in equal proportions. There was a huge increase in the amount of money in circulation, which led to an inflationary tendency, he said.  While this led to an increase in salaries, it also meant a sharp increase in the cost of food items. “There was a reduction in the consumption of practically every kind of food item, from milk to meat, to butter.”

The inflation affected rural areas much more than they did the urban areas. This, combined with the suspension of the import of foodgrains from Japan-occupied Burma gave rise to the famines across the country, killing 3 million people in Bengal alone. Raghavan made the case that the British administration India recognized the severity of the famine. The then Secretary of the Civil Defence Department had claimed that inflation was “…a greater danger to India than either the Germans or the Japanese.”

In his book, ‘India’s War’, Raghavan says the response to this plea was below par, reflected in the sheer number of deaths. “The government not only lacked the requisite statistics but was apparently impervious to basic economic considerations such as relative costs of various items in a consumption basket as well as the regional disparity in prices,” he says. Several academics believe, however, that this ineffectiveness was not down to a lack of data or economic understanding, but by Churchill’s design.

Of this school of thought is author Madhusree Mukerjee, writer of ‘Churchill’s Secret War.’ In her book, she states that Churchill not only prioritized the need of British troops over Indian civilians, but displayed loathsome contempt for them.

“Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over.” She also says Churchill rejected offers of foodgrain from foreign nations, including Burma, Canada and the United States.

Friedrich Lindemann Cherwell, Churchill’s scientific adviser at the time, was a proponent of Malthusian economic theory, which espoused that the world would end in catastrophic circumstances owing to mass famines caused by the shortage of foodgrains.  Thus, Mukerjee says he advised the hoarding of foodgrain, fearing a devastation of Malthusian proportions, as a result of the war.

There has been widespread disagreement regarding the eventual cause of the Bengal famines. Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen sides more with Raghavan than with Mukerjee in believing that inflationary tendencies caused the famine, rather than actual shortages. “The 1943 famine can… be described as a ‘boom famine’ related to powerful inflationary pressures initiated by public expenditure expansion.” However, as Raghavan said in his lecture, one must understand the pressures caused by the famine itself. The unprecedented loss of life is now a watershed in the history of India. Raghavan asks that we reflect how this shaped modern India and South Asia.

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