Churchill’s policies to blame for 1943 Bengal famine: Study

The Bengal famine that is estimated to have killed up to three million people was not caused by drought, new study says.

Army lorry convoys, each truck bearing the notice “Food for the People”, are an increasingly common sight in the famine-stricken province of Bengal, India. The army (acting in co-operation with the Be
The researchers concluded that the Bengal famine was the only famine that does not appear to be linked directly to soil moisture deficit and crop failures [File: AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – The Bengal famine of 1943 estimated to have killed up to three million people was not caused by drought but instead was a result of a “complete policy failure” of the then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a recent study has said.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, provided scientific backing for arguments that Churchill’s policies played a significant role in contributing to the 1943 catastrophe.

The researchers analysed a soil moisture database cover the years 1870 to 2016 to reconstruct agricultural droughts.

The researchers studied six major famines in the subcontinent between 1873 and 1943 and concluded that the Bengal famine was the only famine that does not appear to be linked directly to soil moisture deficit and crop failures.

“The idea was to study the history of droughts and famines in India and the factors responsible,” said Vimal Mishra, the lead researcher and an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

“Aside from the 1943 Bengal famine, all the other famines between 1870 to 2016 appear to be related at least in part to widespread soil moisture drought. But the 1943 Bengal famine was not caused by drought but rather was a result of a complete policy failure during the British era,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This was the only famine that does not appear to be linked directly to soil moisture drought and crop failures,” Mishra said.

Wartime grain import restrictions

The study found that the famine‐affected region received above‐normal precipitation between June and September of 1943.

“The Bengal famine was likely caused by other factors related at least in part to the ongoing Asian threat of World War II, including malaria, starvation and malnutrition,” the study published in February said.

It also argued that military and political events in early 1943 adversely affected Bengal’s economy, which was exacerbated by refugees from Myanmar, then Burma.

Additionally, it claimed that wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a significant role in the famine.

Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen had argued in 1981 that there should have been enough supplies to feed Bengal in 1943.

According to Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, “Churchill has the blood of millions on his hands whom the British prefer to forget.”

“Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top up European stockpiles, meant for yet-to-be-liberated Greeks and Yugoslavs,” Tharoor, the author of “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India”, wrote.

‘Famine deaths substantially eliminated’

Janam Mukherjee, author of Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire, said that “it is not at all a surprise that this scientific research confirms what had been argued way back in 1980 – that the Bengal famine was not the result of the agricultural failure, but of human action”.

He said that “there is no doubt Churchill had an animus against Indians, and there is no doubt that he played a role – particularly in blocking imports but to put the blame on the single person of Churchill is highly misleading”.

“No doubt, colonial administration had atrophied to the point of dysfunction, so there is a considerable amount of policy failure,” he said.

In the book, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, written by Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill was quoted as blaming the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”, and asking how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive.

Mukerjee, however, said that crop shortage was also a contributing factor in the famine.

“I agree, of course, that the underlying cause of the famine was British policy, but I do think it is possible there also was a significantly short crop,” she told Al Jazeera.

Despite huge population growth since the British colonial era, the study showed that famine deaths have been substantially eliminated in modern India due to “better food distribution and buffer food stocks, rural employment generation, transportation, and groundwater‐based irrigation”.

Source: Al Jazeera

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