Passing Bite | History & Culture

The disasters that hit Bengal in the 1940s offer a warning for the present day

A painting on the Bengal famine by Gobardhan Ash.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It is rather interesting at this moment in time to look at a period in our history from about 70 to 80 years ago, specifically in the region of Bengal, in undivided India. At the beginning of World War II in September 1939, India was deep in the struggle for independence. The capital of the Raj had shifted to Delhi but Calcutta was a thriving metropolis of just under three million people, and commercially, culturally and politically one of India’s two major urban centres. Around Calcutta spread Bengal, with its huge riverine maze feeding one of the most fertile regions of the world. Despite the city’s commercial robustness and the region’s legendary fecundity, there was urban poverty and large sections of Bengal’s peasantry were struggling under iniquitous conditions created by the zamindari system and the complicit British Raj that arched over that system.

The war that devastated so much of the northern hemisphere never quite reached Calcutta in its typical form: there was no fighting around the city or anywhere in Bengal — the nearest battles took place on the Burmese border, 750 kilometres away. The air bombing that devastated other places hardly touched Bengal — Japanese planes sporadically bombed Calcutta between December 1942 and January 1943, but these caused only token damage. Yet, by 1948, within nine years of the war starting, Calcutta was mutilated forever in a way that London, Paris, Rome and Moscow were not. And the province of Bengal was scarred in a manner that was comparable to some of the worst devastations in central and eastern Europe and in south-eastern Asia.

Refugee wave

The first event that hit Calcutta, in the summer of 1942, was the wave of Indian refugees who trekked all the way from a Burma being rapidly captured by the Japanese: migrant labourers, clerks, plantation managers, all trying to make their way home by foot on a horrendously difficult route.

The second event was something that spread over all of India: the protests and upheavals that followed Gandhi’s call for Quit India in early August. When Gandhi and the Congress leaders were arrested, the protests, the violent police reactions to it, and the retaliatory arson and riots continued from August almost into October.

Then, in October, the coast of united Bengal and Orissa was battered by a huge cyclone that killed many thousands of people, destroyed most of the cattle and devastated crops. Beneath this, away from urban public awareness, something else had begun: the government through its agents had bought up huge quantities of rice from Bengali peasants for the war effort; such was the price being offered that farmers had sold even their personal yearly stash, imagining that the next harvest would yield enough to make up any shortfall. In the meantime, seeing how the Japanese army had used local boats and bicycles in the Malayan peninsula, a panicked administration confiscated most of the boats on Bengal’s rivers — boats that were a lifeline for the villagers. All of this conjoined to create the Great Bengal Famine.

The peak of the famine was between 1943 and 1944, but the aftershocks in the shape of cholera and typhoid that claimed the weakened survivors continued into 1945 and beyond. The toll was close to three million dead. And in mid-1946 came the massive communal killings of Calcutta that presaged the violence of Partition in both Bengal and Punjab.

Domino effect

By 1948 the city was filled with a third wave of refugees — Hindus from the newly formed East Pakistan. From a bad mixture of cruel administrative edicts and natural disasters, the population of Calcutta had more than doubled and for the next several decades it would become a city associated with poverty and deprivation. The two Bengals would have intersecting but distinct histories that would lead to the second great cleavage in 1971, which would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths in genocide by the Pakistan Army, and lead to the formation of Bangladesh.

What this sequence teaches us is that different kinds of disasters often feed on each other, topple into each other like dominoes. Right now some of us may have forgotten the massive bomb of demonetisation; the criminal clampdown in Kashmir, the deliberate attacks on university students and the fascist CAA-NRC ‘laws’ and the huge protests against those may have receded from our minds; the reckless crony capitalism for which this regime wilfully destroys environmental safeguards may not even be on our radar; nor might the official skulduggery going on within the banking sector; but all these are feeding into what is happening now with the COVID-19 pandemic and will become ‘force multipliers’ that will continue to wreak havoc on our lives and our Republic.

Just as the armed conflict never touched Bengal, the actual pandemic by itself may — repeat may — only have a limited effect on our country, but coming as it does, right after this long sequence of calamities constructed by a cruel and uncaring regime, it may be the last heavy straw that will break many backs.

The writer is a filmmaker and columnist

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 10:58:52 PM |

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