The Empire Strikes Back

I just finished reading Madhusree Mukerjee’s explosive new book “Churchill’s Secret War”. It is a true master-piece — an unforgettable epic — and I am glad to see Indians finally beginning to do original research and assess various events and personalities from their own civilisation’s point of view, rather than blindly adopt Western thought processes, something many Brown sahibs have become experts at.

I am surprised therefore to see how few links turn up in Google about Madhusree’s book. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence in the Western world about it — there are no reviews, no coverage anywhere. Looks like the Anglo-Americans and Anglo-Saxons are trying to protect the elaborate mythology they have built around Churchill, who in reality was nothing but a fat-assed racist lout burning with hatred of all coloured Peoples in the world.

The Western “heroes” (like Vatican’s saints) have feet of clay which the Westerners will go to any extent to hide from the world. No wonder, a demonization campaign has started in the West about “Churchill’s Secret War.” It is the Empire striking back.

As part of this, Arthur Herman, author of “Gandhi and Churchill,” has written an alleged review of “Churchill’s Secret War.” It is full of distortions. Here goes:

Without Churchill, India’s Famine Would Have Been Worse 

by Arthur Herman

Voltaire once said the problem with the Holy Roman Empire was that it was neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire. One could say of Churchill’s Secret War that it is neither secret, a war, nor has it much to do with Churchill.

Ms. Mukerjee, who writes for Scientific American and is no historian, has gotten herself entangled in three separate and contentious issues: Britain’s battle with Indian nationalists like Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose; Churchill’s often tempestuous views on India; and the 1943-44 Bengal famine. Out of them she attempts to build a plausible cause-and-effect narrative. All she manages is to mangle the facts regarding all three, doing a disservice to both historical and moral truth.

In mid-October 1942 a devastating cyclone ripped through the coastal regions of east Bengal (today lower Bangladesh), killing thousands and decimating the autumn rice crop up to forty miles inland. Rice that should have been planted that winter was instead consumed. When hot weather arrived in May 1943, the rice crop was a fraction of normal for Bengal’s peasantry, who had spent centuries living on the edge of starvation.

Turning bad news into disaster were the Japanese, who had just overrun Burma, the main source of India’s rice imports. Within a month, the entire southeastern portion of the subcontinent faced starvation. The governments in New Delhi and Bengal were unprepared, and as the heat intensified, people began to die. It was the greatest humanitarian crisis the British Raj had faced in more than half a century.

One might easily blame the disaster on the Japanese, but there were other problems of India’s own making. Many local officials were either absent (Bengal’s governor fell ill and died), distracted by the eruption of Bose’s Quit India movement; or simply too slow and corrupt to react. Bengal’s Muslim majority ministry did nothing, while many of its Hindu members were making huge profits trading in rice during the shortage. Finally, the magnitude of what was happening did not reach the attention of London and Churchill until it was too late.

No Churchill critic, not even Ms. Mukerjee, has yet found a way to blame Churchill for actually triggering the famine in the way that, for example, Stalin caused the Great Famine in the Ukraine or Mao the mass starvations during China’s “Great Leap Forward.” Instead, the claim is that Churchill callous racist attitudes, developed during his years in India in the 1890s and typical of the British imperialist ruling elite, not only blinded him to the human suffering but led him to make decisions that prolonged and aggravated the death toll. This included deliberately haltig shipments of food that might have relieved the suffering, while insisting that food exports from India to Britain continue despite a famine that by mid-October 1943 was killing 2000 a month in Calcutta.

Today, of course, no accusation against a statesman of the recent past carries more gravity than that of racism. But Churchill’s position in mid-1943 needs to be appreciated before we begin accusing him-as Mukerjee does-as all but guilty of war crimes.

During that crucial summer, the Anglo-Americans had just managed to prevail in the Atlantic U-boat war, although neither Churchill nor Roosevelt yet knew how decisively. Germany had suffered a decisive setback at Kursk on the Eastern Front, Japan at Guadalcanal in the Pacific, but both remained deadly opponents. Japan was still poised on the border of India, where a massive uprising instigated by Gandhi against British rule had just been suppressed. Meanwhile, both America and Britain were bracing for their impending landings in Italy.

How likely was it that Churchill would respond to the news of the Bengal famine-the seriousness of which was yet unrealized by his India advisers Viceroy Linlithgow and Secretary for India Leo Amery-as anything more than an unwelcome distraction?

Past doubt, Churchill’s feelings toward India at that time were far from charitable. He and British officials had narrowly averted disaster by suppressing the Quit India movement, which had threatened to shut down the country even as the Japanese threatened it with invasion. And, like most Englishmen of his generation, Churchill held views on Indians and other non-whites that are very far from our thinking today.

Yet the truth runs more deeply against Mukerjee than she is willing to admit. Her evidence of Churchill’s intransigence on India stems mainly from Leo Amery’s diary, where he recorded every one of the Prime Minister’s furious outbursts whenever Amery brought up the famine in the War Cabinet-whether Churchill meant what he said or not.

Amery privately decided that “on the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane,” and recorded in August 1944 Churchill’s remark that relief would do no good because Indians “breed like rabbits” and will outstrip any available food supply. “Naturally I lost patience,” Amery records, “and couldn’t help telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s, which annoyed him no little.”

This invidious comparison of Churchill with Hitler is the thematic hinge of the book. Unfortunately for the author, the actual record contradicts her account at almost every point.

When the War Cabinet became fully aware of the extent of the famine, on 24 September 1943, it agreed to send 200,000 tons of grain to India by the end of the year. Far from seeking to starve India, Churchill and his cabinet sought every way to alleviate the suffering without undermining the war effort. The war-not starving Indians or beating them into submission-remained the principal concern.

Reading Mukerjee’s account, one might never know there was a war raging in Europe and the rest of Asia. Germany barely rates a mention. Japan appears mainly as the sympathetic ally of anti-British Indian nationalists like Subhas Chandra Bose. In reality, Japan and Germany had far more dire plans for India than any ever hatched in Britain.

Even Amery had to admit, during the Quebec Conference, that the case against diverting vital war shipping to India was “unassailable.” Far from a racist conspiracy to break the country, the viceroy noted that “all the Dominion Governments are doing their best to help.” While Churchill and the War Cabinet vetoed a Canadian proposal to send 100,000 tons of wheat to India, they did push for Australia to fulfill that commitment.

The greatest irony of all is that it was Churchill who appointed, in October 1943, the viceroy who would halt the famine in its tracks: General Archibald Wavell immediately commandeered the army to move rice and grain from areas where it was plentiful to where it was not, and begged Churchill to send what help he could. On 14 February 1944 Churchill called an emergency meeting of the War Cabinet to see if a way to send more aid could be found that would not wreck plans for the coming Normandy invasion. “I will certainly help you all I can,” Churchill telegraphed Wavell on the 14th, “but you must not ask the impossible.”

The next day Churchill wired Wavell: “We have given a great deal of thought to your difficulties, but we simply cannot find the shipping.” Amery told the viceroy that Churchill “was not unsympathetic” to the terrible situation, but that no one had ships to spare with military operations in the offing. On April 28th Churchill spearheaded an appeal to Roosevelt and the Americans, but they too proved resistant to humanitarian appeals with the invasion of Europe pending.

Another irony: the harvest of 1943 was one of the largest in India’s history. Claims of starvation and civil unrest seemed, from the fastness of 5000 miles away, far-fetched, as they did in Washington. And Wavell thanked Churchill for “your generous assistance” in getting Australia to send 350,000 tons of wheat to India—although still short of the 600,000 tons thought necessary.

These ironies are lost on Ms. Mukerjee. If Churchill had truly intended to maintain the Raj in India by undermining nationalists like Gandhi and Bose, he could have done no better than to divert vital resources. But Churchill’s attention was focused on another goal: winning the war. Amery admitted as much in a note to Wavell on 26 June, three weeks after D-Day: “Winston, in his position, will naturally run any risk rather than one which immediately affects the great military stakes to which we are committed.”

That Churchill could be ruthless in pursuing his main objective the citizens of Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and a dozen other German cities were about to find out. But no racist or imperialist motives can be imputed there.

Of all the people who ignored the Bengal famine, perhaps the most curious case is Ms. Mukerjee’s hero, Mohandas Gandhi. For all his reputation as a humanitarian, Gandhi did remarkably little about the emergency. The issue barely comes up in his letters, except as another grievance against the Raj-which, in peacetime, had always handled famines with efficiency.

In February 1944 Gandhi wrote to Wavell: “I know that millions outside are starving for want of food. But I should feel utterly helpless if I went out and missed the food [i.e. independence] by which alone living becomes worthwhile.”

Gandhi felt free to conduct his private “fast unto death” in order to force the British out, even as the rest of India starved, because he felt he was playing for far bigger stakes. As was Winston Churchill.

Here is Madhusree’s response to the above review:

Dressing the Emperor
A response to Arthur Herman’s review of Churchill’s Secret War
by Madhusree Mukerjee

Arthur Herman, author of Gandhi & Churchill (2008), has reviewed my book, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. It is to be found at the website of the Churchill Centre under the title “Without Churchill, India‟s Famine Would Have Been Worse.” The review is negative, which is fine, but I am surprised by the extent of its distortions and feel compelled to respond. Here I excerpt some portions and comment on them.

“Ms. Mukerjee, who writes for Scientific American and is no historian, has gotten herself entangled in three separate and contentious issues: Britain’s battle with Indian nationalists like Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose; Churchill’s often tempestuous views on India; and the 1943-44 Bengal famine. Out of them she attempts to build a plausible cause-and-effect narrative. All she manages is to mangle the facts regarding all three, doing a disservice to both historical and moral truth.”

Indeed I am not a historian, but a journalist and scientist. My approach to history was informed by my training in physics. In both cases, one tries to discern the facts as well as one can, and then seeks the theory that best fits the facts. If preconceptions clash with the data, it is the former that must be discarded, not the latter. As to which of us—Herman or I—have done a greater disservice to historical and moral truth, I doubt this essay will help anyone to decide that. Those who care to read my book will at least have the evidence at hand.

Following this introduction, Herman lists causes of the famine: cyclone, a short crop, loss of imports due to Japanese invasion of Burma, and “other problems of India’s own making. Many local officials were either absent (Bengal’s governor fell ill and died), distracted by the eruption of Bose’s Quit India movement; or simply too slow and corrupt to react. Bengal’s Muslim majority ministry did nothing, while many of its Hindu members were making huge profits trading in rice during the shortage. Finally, the magnitude of what was happening did not reach the attention of London and Churchill until it was too late.”

Bose had nothing to do with the Quit India movement, but that is a small matter. A far more serious one is that Herman ignores a key cause of the famine, described in detail in my book: hyperinflation, which derived from India‟s role of supplier—of grain, uniforms, ammunition, and other goods—to the war effort. Part of India‟s war expenditure was to be paid for after the war by the UK, but during the war goods were extracted and paid for with paper money. The resulting scarcity, accompanied by an abundance of cash in the hands of urban war suppliers, caused India‟s economy to crash; the famine was a symptom. There was much warning of this impending disaster. Besides, in late 1942 and early 1943 the Indian government had repeatedly cautioned about a severe grain shortfall and asked for wheat shipments, which the War Cabinet had declined. Instead Churchill insisted that India continue to export rice.

“No Churchill critic, not even Ms. Mukerjee, has yet found a way to blame Churchill for actually triggering the famine in the way that, for example, Stalin caused the Great Famine in the Ukraine or Mao the mass starvations during China’s “Great Leap Forward.” Instead, the claim is that Churchill callous racist attitudes, developed during his years in India in the 1890s and typical of the British imperialist ruling elite, not only blinded him to the human suffering but led him to make decisions that prolonged and aggravated the death toll. This included deliberately haltig shipments of food that might have relieved the suffering, while insisting that food exports from India to Britain continue despite a famine that by mid-October 1943 was killing 2000 a month in Calcutta.”

Churchill‟s culpability in triggering famine is not on the same scale as that of Stalin or Mao, but it is not absent. In January 1943 Churchill withdrew 60 percent of the shipping from the Indian Ocean area, precluding any possibility of meeting the Indian government‟s demand for 600,000 tons of wheat by May. As a result, British officials in India realized they could not feed the army and factory workers: they could not keep the war effort going. They panicked and began purchasing rice and wheat on the open market, paying any price that the brokers demanded, and triggering a steep price rise that precipitated famine by February or March. Meanwhile, rice exports continued.

After this, Herman describes events of the war on several fronts, and asks: “How likely was it that Churchill would respond to the news of the Bengal famine-the seriousness of which was yet unrealized by his India advisers Viceroy Linlithgow and Secretary for India Leo Amery-as anything more than an unwelcome distraction?”

Thus Herman dismisses the single most important event regarding the famine: the War Cabinet meeting of August 4, 1943, in which Churchill and his advisors failed to schedule any shipments of grain for famine-stricken India. Instead, Churchill ordered that the ships that were in excess after meeting the needs of the armed forces be used to build a stockpile of 170,000 tons of wheat in order to feed southeastern Europe after the war there was over. So shiploads of wheat from Australia traveled past India (probably even stopping in Bombay to refuel) on their way to be stored, not consumed—while India starved. That news of a famine was “an unwelcome distraction” to a man who shed tears when Britons lined up to buy birdseed is testimony to the profound racism that, at least in part, motivated this decision.

Herman does acknowledge this racism, and excuses it: “Churchill held views on Indians and other non-whites that are very far from our thinking today… Yet the truth runs more deeply against Mukerjee than she is willing to admit. Her evidence of Churchill’s intransigence on India stems mainly from Leo Amery’s diary, where he recorded every one of the Prime Minister’s furious outbursts whenever Amery brought up the famine in the War Cabinet-whether Churchill meant what he said or not.”

On the contrary, my indictment of Churchill‟s actions is based not on what he said but on what he did. The key sources I used were the Ministry of War Transport papers and the Cherwell papers. But what Churchill said, as noted by Amery and others, is useful in understanding why he did what he did.

Herman notes that Amery (the Secretary of State for India) was so frustrated by Churchill‟s rants on India that he compared Churchill to Hitler. “This invidious comparison of Churchill with Hitler is the thematic hinge of the book. Unfortunately for the author, the actual record contradicts her account at almost every point… When the War Cabinet became fully aware of the extent of the famine, on 24 September 1943, it agreed to send 200,000 tons of grain to India by the end of the year. Far from seeking to starve India, Churchill and his cabinet sought every way to alleviate the suffering without undermining the war effort. The war-not starving Indians or beating them into submission-remained the principal concern.”

In late July, Viceroy Linlithgow had asked for half a million tons of wheat by year-end, not for feeding famine victims but for provisioning the army and war workers until the next harvest. News of large shipments would cause prices to fall, and indirectly help famine sufferers. In response, the War Cabinet ultimately sent 80,000 tons of wheat and 100,000 tons of barley. (Barley was useless for relieving famine because it had no effect on food prices.) Churchill wanted to conserve wheat for the use of Europeans; the shipments to the Mediterranean stockpile continued. Had the War Cabinet instead ordered substantial relief in August, the wheat would have reached in September, greatly alleviating the famine and saving many lives. As it is, the first of the meager shipments reached in November. All the while the army continued to eat local wheat and rice, taking it away from famine relief. By the end of December, Bengal was harvesting its own rice crop and the famine was largely over, though deaths from disease continued.

Where is the evidence to back up the claim that “Churchill and his cabinet sought every way to alleviate the suffering without undermining the war effort”? The stockpile building up in the Mediterranean region was for use after the war—such vast quantities could only have been delivered after Germany was defeated. It was of little use to the war effort as such.
“Even Amery had to admit, during the Quebec Conference, that the case against diverting vital war shipping to India was “unassailable.” Far from a racist conspiracy to break the country, the viceroy noted that „all the Dominion Governments are doing their best to help.‟ While Churchill and the War Cabinet vetoed a Canadian proposal to send 100,000 tons of wheat to India, they did push for Australia to fulfill that commitment.”

Amery had to go by what he was told by shipping officials, who were not sympathetic to India. Lord Leathers, the Minister of War Transport, was a Churchill appointee and provided ships only for such purposes as Churchill desired. In any case, it wasn‟t necessary to divert “vital war shipping.” Simply doing away with the Balkan stockpile, or allowing the UK stockpile to be reduced, would have released ships. The UK stockpile of food and raw materials reached a record 18.5 million tons by the end of 1943—far higher than necessary for meeting wartime needs. Dominion governments did try to help, but were thwarted because all the merchant shipping, including their own, was under the War Cabinet‟s control.

I have made no charge of a general racist conspiracy. There was indeed immense hostility toward Indians among Churchill and his close advisors Cherwell, Grigg, Leathers and Bracken; but these sentiments did not extend much beyond this circle.
“The greatest irony of all is that it was Churchill who appointed, in October 1943, the viceroy who would halt the famine in its tracks: General Archibald Wavell immediately commandeered the army to move rice and grain from areas where it was plentiful to where it was not, and begged Churchill to send what help he could. On 14 February 1944 Churchill called an emergency meeting of the War Cabinet to see if a way to send more aid could be found that would not wreck plans for the coming Normandy invasion. “I will certainly help you all I can,” Churchill telegraphed Wavell on the 14th, “but you must not ask the impossible.”

The appointment of Wavell is the only way that Herman can think of in which Churchill alleviated, rather than worsened, the famine. What Herman does not mention is that Wavell was able to extract grain shipments for India from the War Cabinet only by threatening to resign his post of viceroy if he did not get what he needed. India did receive sufficient wheat in 1944, thanks to the efforts of Wavell, Amery and the military chiefs Brooke, Auchinlek and Mountbatten, who ceded space on military ships in order to carry grain to India. Herman selectively uses quotes without noting the vast gulf between what Churchill said and what Churchill did.

“Another irony: the harvest of 1943 was one of the largest in India’s history. Claims of starvation and civil unrest seemed, from the fastness of 5000 miles away, far-fetched, as they did in Washington.”

The wheat harvest was indeed large, but prices of wheat remained high because of vast purchases by the Indian government for feeding the 2-million-strong army, in India and abroad. The rice shortage was 3.5 million tons (including export and army requirements) as estimated by the government of India. The overall grain shortage was about a million tons. If claims of starvation seemed far-fetched in London, that was because Churchill chose to ignore the viceroy of India and the secretary of state for India, relying instead on the dubious advice of his friend, Lord Cherwell. “Of all the people who ignored the Bengal famine, perhaps the most curious case is Ms. Mukerjee’s hero, Mohandas Gandhi. For all his reputation as a humanitarian, Gandhi did remarkably little about the emergency. The issue barely comes up in his letters, except as another grievance against the Raj-which, in peacetime, had always handled famines with efficiency.”

Gandhi was incarcerated from August 1942 to May 1944—the entire period of famine and more. What could he have done? And although by the 20th century the British Raj had indeed acquired much experience with famine, that it “had always handled famines with efficiency” is a stretch. Read Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis.

“Gandhi felt free to conduct his private “fast unto death” in order to force the British out, even as the rest of India starved, because he felt he was playing for far bigger stakes. As was Winston Churchill.”

As Churchill’s Secret War goes to great pains to demonstrate, relieving famine would have caused no discernible disruption to the war effort. It is certainly true that Churchill was absorbed in the war to the exclusion of other matters—including a famine that would kill millions.

While I am about it, I might as well point out some key errors in Herman‟s own book, Gandhi & Churchill.

The historian praises British rule in India, for instance, by stating that “average life expectancy rose from twenty-one years to thirty-two.” This comment is sourced from Niall Ferguson‟s Empire. The corresponding footnote in Ferguson‟s book—which is also used to uphold the assertion that the British Raj benefited Indians—states that between 1820 and 1950 life expectancy in India increased from 21 years to 32. No source is cited.

Indian life expectancy can be calculated with some reliability only after 1871, when the first nationwide census took place. Perhaps in some locality life expectancy was 21 in 1820, but the figure cannot be extrapolated to the entire country. And even if life expectancy were 21 in 1820 and 11 years higher in 1950, that would not point to an improvement during British rule because that was not the span of British rule. The East India Company was already a powerful force in India in 1820: wars of accession were laying waste to entire districts and kingdoms, and life expectancy was no doubt low. To judge whether British rule helped rather than hurt Indians, one would have to gauge life expectancy during 1750 or thereabouts—before the Battle of Plassey—and compare it with life expectancy around 1940 or 1950. That these apocryphal figures, which prove nothing at all, have been quoted not once but twice show how difficult it is to get hold of any
data that point to British rule having economically benefited Indians.

Another of Herman‟s main points in Gandhi and Churchill is that Gandhi was to blame for the rejection of the Cripps offer by Congress. As a result, Herman goes on to argue, Gandhi was responsible for the Quit India movement and the repression that followed. He completely fails to mention the role played by Colonel Johnson, Roosevelt‟s personal representative, who helped negotiate an agreement between Cripps and the Congress that Churchill and Amery finally stymied. Gandhi was absent from these discussions.

Herman also blames Gandhi for the slaughter of partition: “His decade and a half defiance of the law through civil disobedience had bred an atmosphere of contempt for social order, a celebration of recklessness and militancy.” An extraordinary claim, given the spiritual discipline that Gandhi imposed on himself and his followers. The areas of India in which Gandhi‟s influence was predominant (such as Midnapore, where my book is grounded) saw none of the random violence that caused and resulted from partition. In Churchill’s Secret War, I offer rather different explanations for the carnage: the legacy of war and famine, British divide-and-rule policies, and a breakdown in law and order that was inevitable when the government emptied its jails of criminals in order to make room for freedom fighters.

Herman is the established historian—not I. Sometimes it takes a rank outsider to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Here is something interesting:

Hindus ask for Britain’s apology for millions of starvation deaths of 1943 famine
 
2010-09-10 
 
Hindus want Britain to tender a formal apology to India and relatives of affected families for reportedly about three million starvation deaths in the great famine of 1943.

Noted Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that if allegations mentioned in Madhusree Mukerjee’s recent book “Churchill’s secret war: the British empire and the ravaging of India during World War II” (Basic Books, New York) were true, Britain should tender a formal apology for what was described as a preventable catastrophe caused by intentional negligence of Britain.

This book by Mukerjee, nuclear physicist with doctorate from University of Chicago and former editor of Scientific American who lives in Germany, reportedly alleges that millions of people of Bengal were left to starve ignoring repeated pleas to Britain for emergency food aid. Some other countries offered to help but were prevented.

Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s racism, prejudice and callousness were blamed for this easily stoppable famine. Britain apparently did not consider Indian lives worth saving and it was said to be a deliberate decision to let Indians starve.

During this famine, babies were said to be abandoned like stray cats, children picked undigested grain from faeces, and sheer number of corpses created disposal problem.

Rajan Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, argued that this was simply inhuman, immoral and ungodly; a disaster brought by British policy towards India at that time. (ANI)
 
  

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Empire Strikes Back

  1. Sandeep

    Ms. Madhusree Mukerjee’s book needs huge publicity, at least in India

  2. JGN

    The East India Company which ruled India for more than 200 years is now ruled by an Indian Sanjiv Mehta who took over the company for $150 lac.

    He said ” at an emotional level as an Indian, when you think with your heart as I do, I had this huge feeling of redemption – this indescribable feeling of owning a company that once owned us”

  3. Razib Khan responds to Mukerjee here, though his interest is the present rather than the past.

  4. passepartout

    This exchange reminds me of the one between Amartya Sen and Niall Ferguson, where the Nobel laureate takes the “<a href="http://www.vanityfair.com/online/wolcott/2009/08/niall-ferguson-the-noted-historian.html"egregious, ubiquitous, hustler-historian and neo-imperialist” to task for his less-than-objective POV.

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