NEW DELHI — British prime minister Winston Churchill deliberately let millions of Indians starve to death, the author of a new book has claimed, alleging he was motivated in part by racial hatred.
As many as three million people died in the Bengal famine of 1943 after Japan captured neighbouring Burma — a major source of rice imports — and British colonial rulers in India stockpiled food for soldiers and war workers.
Panic-buying of rice sent prices soaring, and distribution channels were wrecked when officials confiscated or destroyed most boats and bullock carts in Bengal to stop them falling into enemy hands if Japan invaded.
Rice suddenly became scarce in markets and, as worsening hunger spread through villages, Churchill repeatedly refused pleas for emergency food shipments.
Emaciated masses drifted into Kolkata, where eye-witnesses described men fighting over foul scraps and skeletal mothers dying in the streets as British and middle-class Indians ate large meals in their clubs or at home.
The “man-made” famine has long been one of the darkest chapters of the British Raj, but now Madhusree Mukerjee says she has uncovered evidence that Churchill was directly responsible for the appalling suffering.
Her book, “Churchill’s Secret War”, quotes previously unused papers that disprove his claim that no ships could be spared from the war and that show him brushing aside increasingly desperate requests from British officials in India.
Analysis of World War II cabinet meetings, forgotten ministry records and personal archives show that full grain ships from Australia were passing India on their way to the Mediterranean region, where huge stockpiles were building up.
“It wasn’t a question of Churchill being inept: sending relief to Bengal was raised repeatedly and he and his close associates thwarted every effort,” Mukerjee told AFP in a telephone interview.
“The United States and Australia offered to send help but couldn’t because the war cabinet was not willing to release ships. And when the US offered to send grain on its own ships, that offer was not followed up by the British.”
Churchill’s record as a war leader against Nazi Germany has secured his place in history, but his attitude towards Indians attracts less admiration.
“He said awful things about Indians. He told his secretary he wished they could be bombed,” Mukerjee said. “He was furious with Indians because he could see America would not let British rule in India continue.”
Churchill derided Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi as a lawyer posing as a “half-naked” holy man, and replied to British officials in India who pleaded for food supplies by asking why Gandhi had not yet died.
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” he told Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India. Another time he accused Indians of effectively causing the famine by “breeding like rabbits.”
Amery once lost his temper after one rant by the prime minister, telling Churchill that he could not “see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.”
Amery wrote in his diary: “I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane.”
Mukerjee believes Churchill’s views on India, where he served as a young army officer, came from his Victorian upbringing. Like his father, he saw India as the fundamental jewel in the crown of the British empire.
“Winston’s racist hatred was due to his loving the empire in the way a jealous husband loves his trophy wife: he would rather destroy it than let it go,” said Mukerjee.
Mukerjee’s book has been hailed as a ground-breaking achievement which unearths new information despite the hundreds of volumes already written on Churchill’s life.
Eminent British historian Max Hastings has described it as “significant — and to British readers — distressing.”
Author Ramachandra Guha said it provided “for the first time, definitive evidence of how a great man?s prejudices contributed to one of the most deadly famines in modern history.”
Mukerjee attributes the book’s revelations to her training as a physicist.
“People suspected that something like this happened but no one really went through the evidence properly to find out what the ships were doing at the time, proving that grain could have been taken to India,” she said.
“I didn’t set out to target Churchill. I set out to understand the famine and I slowly discovered his part in it.
“The famine, you could argue, was partly a deliberate act. India was forced to export grain in the early years of war and in 1943 was exporting rice at Churchill’s personal insistence. Britain ruthlessly exploited India during war and didn’t let up even when famine started.”
Mukerjee, a 49-year-old Bengali who now lives in Frankfurt with her German husband, believes the Bengal famine has also been air-brushed from Indian history books.
“I was never taught about it in school and my parents never mentioned it,” she said. “There’s middle-class guilt as they were employed in professions that meant they received rations. But villagers were considered dispensable.”
Seven years of working on the book, and of hearing gruelling tales from famine survivors whom she tracked down in remote villages, have left Mukerjee with a harsh opinion of Churchill.
“He is often criticised for bombing German cities but has never before been held directly responsible for the deaths of so many people as in the Bengal famine. It was the greatest stain on his career.”
“I find it very hard to be open-minded about him now,” she said. “After all, he would have thought that I am not worth the food I eat.”