In Britain every year on January 24, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill is commemorated. He is remembered as a World War II hero. He is seen as a leader who fought and defeated a powerful dictator like Hitler. There is no disagreement that he is seen as a powerful leader in Britain. But there is also a dark chapter in Britain’s colonial history associated with his rule. It was directly related to India. In Britain he is a hero but in India he is a villain. The Indian public and most of the country’s historians believe that Churchill was responsible for the millions of deaths due to starvation in Bengal in 1943. One estimate suggests that more than 30 lakh people died due to lack of food during this famine. Historians believe that this happened because of Churchill’s policies and that without them most of the deaths could have been avoided.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, along with many historians, has been saying that Winston Churchill was responsible for the deaths of lakhs of people due to drought in 1943. Sasi Tharoor, in a speech he once gave in Britain, said, “Churchill needs to be read deeply. His hands are bloody like Hitler’s. Especially because of his decisions, the terrible food crisis in Bengal in 1943-44, in which 43 lakh people died.”
“He is the one the British keep presenting as the ambassador of freedom and democracy. I consider him one of the worst rulers of the 20th century,” Sasi Tharoor added. Sugata Bose, professor of history at Harvard University, has been writing about the Bengal Famine for the past 40 years.
The terrible famine in Bengal was a ‘silent massacre’. He told BBC India that the British government and the Church were responsible for this. “The exploitation of the British imperial system was ultimately responsible for the famine. But Churchill should be held responsible for two reasons. First he was the Prime Minister at the time. Second he was surrounded by racist advisers with conservative attitudes. They thought Indians were not really fully developed. That is why millions of people were dying in Bengal. Doesn’t seem important,” he added.
Did Churchill deliberately ignore it?
Professor Sugata Bose says Churchill knew everything. “I think he knew everything about what was happening in Bengal because the British administration in India also sent him their reports. In those reports, complete information was given about the misery of Bengal. We all know that Churchill’s attitude was racist,” he remarked.
Sonia Burnell has written the book ‘First Lady, The Life and Works of Clementine Churchill’. Many biographies have been written about Churchill. He writes that he is both a hero and a villain. Churchill had many responsibilities. Because World War II was going on at that time. Sonia Pernell has noted that he tried to deal with the war emergency and all the other responsibilities of his regime simultaneously. Richard Toye, a historian at Britain’s University of Exeter, told the BBC that Churchill did not deliberately ignore the drought in Bengal.
“He didn’t want to intentionally commit genocide against Indians. He had his own compulsions,” says Richard.
British-based historian Yasmin Khan recently told the BBC, “Global conditions during the war led to famine. The grain shortage is man-made,” he said.
“We can certainly blame them for prioritizing whites over Texans. It’s clearly a discriminatory attitude,” he said.
A painful episode
As food grains were not available in the villages, people went to the cities in search of food and died of starvation there. Many writers and historians have recorded that thousands of dead bodies had to be removed daily from the streets of Calcutta. Christopher Bailey and Tim Harper in their book ‘Forgotten Armies Fall of British Asia 1941-1945’ state, “By mid-October the death rate in Calcutta was 2000 per month. British and American soldiers on their way out from a theater saw vultures and crows eating the corpses of the starved on the road. ,” he wrote. All this information reached Churchill, but it did not seem to have any effect on him.
Old man Chitrakumar Shamto was the youngest in 1943. But he still remembers those sad scenes.
“My family and I starved for days. It was scary to see people turning into skeletons. It was hard to tell if you were a human or a ghost when you saw someone. I went near a canal. There were many bodies lying there. Dogs and vultures were eating them. The British government starved us to death.” He said. Bengali artist and journalist Siddaprasad Bhattacharya went from village to village collecting news about the disaster. He compiled his news and published a journal. He named it ‘Hungry Bengal’. He painted pictures of the dire poverty that prevailed during the Bengal famine of 1943. He used pictures to show the gravity of the situation in his news reports.
But the British government destroyed about five thousand copies of his book. Professor Sugata Bose says that the British government then banned the publication of news about the drought. In such circumstances the work of Siddaprasad Bhattacharya was adventurous. An English journalist was equally courageous, says Professor Sugata Bose.
“From March 1943 to October 1943, no one was allowed to report on the famine. But Ian Stephens, the editor of the Statesman newspaper, who broke the censorship and broke the news about the famine for the first time, started publishing photographs of the famine victims. After this, the British Parliament, six months late, declared the Bengal disaster. Accepting being in the grip of a famine,” Sugata Bose said.
Churchill was fully aware of that. But in August 1943 he refused to provide relief supplies to Bengal. The then Viceroy Archibald Wavell also informed Churchill about the drought in Bengal. About the disaster, he wrote in his diary, “The Bengal famine was one of the greatest calamities that befell the people under British rule. It ruined our reputation among Indians and foreigners alike.”
Why is Gandhi not dead yet?
When Viceroy Wavell requested more grain to be sent to famine-stricken districts, Churchill deliberately decided to send grain from starving Bengal to the British soldiers at war. India’s own surplus grain was sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The Churchill government sent ships full of wheat from Australia to the Middle East without stopping at Indian ports. The US and Canada offered to send food aid to India. But that too was rejected by Churchill. It is documented that Churchill did not respond to the Viceroy’s most essential telegram about the famine. When the authorities drew his attention to the deaths resulting from his decision, he sent an exasperated telegram. In it he asked “Why is Gandhi not dead yet?” had asked. It is true that Churchill, Britain’s hero, was a controversial figure and was held responsible for the millions of deaths caused by the terrible famine in Bengal in 1943.
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