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Updated: November 2, 2010 22:00 IST

Churchill at war with India

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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CHURCHILL'S SECRET WAR — The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II: Madhusree Mukerjee; Tranquebar Press, Venkat Towers, 165 Poonamallee High Road, Maduravoyal, Chennai-600095. Rs. 495.
CHURCHILL'S SECRET WAR — The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II: Madhusree Mukerjee; Tranquebar Press, Venkat Towers, 165 Poonamallee High Road, Maduravoyal, Chennai-600095. Rs. 495.

He hated Indians and was bitterly determined to hold on to India

Winston Churchill was often said to be permanently mid-Victorian, although being born in 1874 made him a late Victorian. He was bitterly determined to hold on to India; he hated Indians, and intended that they remain subjects for all time. With sources ranging from official documents to first-hand accounts of the Bengal famine, Madhusree Mukerjee brings out the consequences for India, and thereby for hundreds of millions of people. Major policies were designed to exploit the divisions in Indian society — whatever that meant — and the greatest weaknesses in a culture which Amitav Ghosh has described as being informed by a monumental inwardness, a property which renders those who possess it ill-equipped to read an outsider's intentions. The double-dealing before Plassey is well known, but the colonials often used a central indeterminacy in their Indian subjects' conceptions of who was, or was not, an Indian to undermine any serious challenge to foreign rule.

That British rule was never as assured as it looked is also well known, but Mukerjee shows how effective the colonial strategy was. In 1940, Churchill refused to accept a draft constitution unless it was prepared by a body which represented “not only Hindoos and Moslems, but the Princes, the Depressed Classes, the Sikhs, the Anglo-Indians and others.” His aim was to negate the status of the Indian National Congress as the representative body of India; and one implication is that Churchill was prepared to jeopardise the war effort by refusing to offer independence in return for wartime Congress cooperation. Secondly, the way trade was organised between Great Britain and India created a huge trade imbalance in India's favour. Churchill hated the idea of repaying this after the war, and attempted to get the deficit abolished by proposing various forms of currency revaluation.

The wartime strategy towards India was much wider than that, of course. At the start, the best Indian troops were sent to the Middle East, possibly because the discovery of oil in Persia in 1908 had long meant that India was not quite the primary focus of British concern that it was for Churchill. The apparently unstoppable westward Japanese advance, however, meant that poorly trained troops, Indian and British, had to be deployed in Bengal, on the empire's relatively undefended eastern flank. One consequence was British disquiet about whether Indian officers could be allowed to command British troops, but the other results were tragic and colossal. All boats and many other forms of transport were commandeered; as India's surplus foodgrains were already being sent westward, government acquisition of grain in Bengal inflated prices sharply and contributed crucially to the terrible famine that followed.

Surprisingly, there seems to have been little or no cannibalism despite the depth of suffering. The troops were fed, and the government-licensed private merchants did well; grain rotted in warehouses, and the main official response was the removal of unsightly corpses from the streets of Kolkata — protesters laid bodies around official buildings — so as to sustain troop-morale. Thousands of the living were forcibly removed to rural areas and left to starve; and they never saw their families again. Somehow, not all humanity was lost: in places, British and Indian troops shared food with the locals, and some British officers and administrators did what they could to resist official policy.

Meanwhile, Churchill's close adviser Lord Cherwell, an even more putrid bigot than Churchill himself, lied that foodgrains and ships were not available; the fiction that Bengalis would not eat wheat was also peddled. For Churchill and Cherwell, reason was the slave of racist passions; Australian grain was sent to the Middle East, the Balkans, and Greece, and such Indian grain as was available went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Canadian and American offers of food were rejected, the latter being suspect in view of American hostility to colonialism.

Things did improve later; Archibald Wavell's appointment as Viceroy meant that the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, acquired a supportive figure in Delhi. Improved harvests in 1944 helped, though the markets remained sensitive to large-scale official acquisitions, and that year India also received 660,000 tonnes of grain. The rest was politics of a different kind. For what it is worth, Amery favoured the granting of Independence before consensus could be reached on Partition, which he greatly feared.

A sloppy mixture

The text is not helped by a sloppy mixture of British and American English, or by misspellings; long sections read like assemblages of newspaper articles rather than a sustained historical account, but there is no doubting the quality of the material. The counterfactual conditional, the question of what India might have been had the empire not existed may not yield intelligible answers, but Mukerjee has shown what an obscenity the empire was.

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