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I read this in a comment to a newspaper article:

By far the largest British empire human loss in the Second World War was the three million Bengalis who perished in a famine in 1943 that Churchill expressly refused to alleviate with food aid, after years of draining India of food and raw materials. "Winston seems content to let India starve while usi8ng it as amilitary base" remarked Alanbrooke, his chief military adviser. Churchill vetoed Us and Australian offers to send food

Is there any evidence to substantiate this?

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Wikipedia article on a matter has references to several different estimates. If you want to ask for evidence regarding Churchill's reaction then I believe you can come up with better title. Something like: Did Winston Churchill vetoed food supply offers to Bengal? Anyway, aforementioned article references several sources for this one too. –  default locale Apr 18 '13 at 7:22
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3 Answers 3

In 1943, some 3 million indian subjects of the British Raj died due to bengal famine.

I think the most authentic and rich source for examining and finding evidences against Churchill in this incident is Madhusree Mukerjee's book, 'Churchill's Secret War', which reveals a side of Churchill's largely ignored in the West and considerably tarnishes his heroic sheen.

Mukerjee delves into official documents and oral accounts of survivors to paint a horrifying portrait of how Churchill, as part of the Western war effort, ordered the diversion of food from starving Indians to already well-supplied British soldiers and stockpiles in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, including Greece and Yugoslavia. And he did so with a churlishness that cannot be excused on grounds of policy: Churchill's only response to a telegram from the government in Delhi about people perishing in the famine was to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet.

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that it was conducted for the benefit of the governed. Churchill's conduct in the summer and fall of 1943 gave the lie to this myth. "I hate Indians," he told the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for "breeding like rabbits."

As Mukerjee's accounts demonstrate, some of India's grain was also exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to meet needs there, even though the island wasn't experiencing the same hardship; Australian wheat sailed past Indian cities (where the bodies of those who had died of starvation littered the streets) to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and offers of American and Canadian food aid were turned down. India was not permitted to use its own sterling reserves, or indeed its own ships, to import food. And because the British government paid inflated prices in the open market to ensure supplies, grain became unaffordable for ordinary Indians.

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+1. Welcome to the site. I have long admired Churchill, but your response to this question gave me food for thought. My father (a Chinese immigrant to America) said much the same thing, that "Churchill may have won World War II, but he didn't care much for us Asians." –  Tom Au Apr 21 '13 at 22:29
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The answers @bhau and @coleopterist gave are good and marshal a lot of important evidence, but there are complementary points of view someone ought to mention - so I guess it falls to me to do this.

  1. Madhusree Mukerjee's findings have been disputed by the eminent Indian economist Amartya Sen. I haven't read both books yet but perusal of the wiki entry about Sen and of this review at the NYRB indicates that Mukerjee's contention is that the famine was caused by inadequate supply (for which the British would be very much culpable), whereas Sen

[...]presents data that there was an adequate food supply in Bengal at the time, but particular groups of people including rural landless labourers and urban service providers like haircutters did not have the monetary means to acquire food as its price rose rapidly due to factors that include British military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region. In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society. (quote from here)

If Sen's analysis is correct, then - as far as I can tell - the British are guilty of a sin of omission rather than comission. (I have no wish to do apologetics but there is a difference).

  1. Churchill's comments, as quoted before, are crass and certainly do tarnish his great reputation. However, I think they need to be placed in some sort of context as well. Churchill was hell-bent on winning the war, and winning it in Europe first. Therefore, he focused his attention on this, and actually bothered very little with Indian issues (or Australian issues , for that matter - Australia had committed most of its army to the British war effort in the Mediterranean, on the standard imperial assurance that the RN would protect it from the Japanese, only to find out that this did not quite work out as promised). A hugely telling quote is from Leo Amery's (the Secretary of State for India) diary for November 1944:

It is terrible to think that in nearly five years, apart from incidental talk about appointments etc he has never once discussed either the Indian situation generally or this sterling balance question with me, but has indulged in wild and indeed hardly sane tirades in Cabinet.

(Quote taken from p.88 in The last thousand days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke).

To me this indicates that (A) Churchill's shamefully cavalier attitude to the famine in Bengal sprung not from a special animus towards the Indians, but rather from his dogged pursuit of a single objective (VE) on the one hand and from his slapdash working habits on the other. (B) His "tirades" on the subject were not really the same thing as actual British policy and must be read more as rhetorical exercises.

All this, of course, should not obscure two simple points:

  1. There was a terrible famine.

  2. The British, as India's rulers at the time, bear some sort of responsibility for this humanitarian disaster.

P.S. For a nuanced and comprehensive study of Churchill's attitudes to Empire, as they evolved over time, I recommend the book Churchill's Empire by Richard Toye.

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I disagree with you on Churchill's animus towards the Indians. Even before the war had begun, Churchill had opposed Gandhi's meeting with the British king, calling him a "half-naked fakir". He called the Indian National Congress, India's premier nationalist party (and India's current ruling party), a gathering of Bramhins (India's upper caste). These comments were made by him much before the war had begun. If anything, his attitude seems to have mellowed after the war (perhaps out of pragmatism). –  Arani Jun 11 '13 at 9:35
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However, I agree with you that his tirades on India were not actual British policy. But that is because the British cabinet was actually a coalition of three parties, and Churchill's animus towards India was not shared by the other members of the cabinet. –  Arani Jun 11 '13 at 9:37
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This is answered in detail in a book I reviewed on my blog: Churchill's Secret War By Madhushree Mukherjee. This book is a historical investigation into the famine, and has accessed irrefutable records from official archival documents in the UK and the USA, quoting extensively from MOMs from the period, communication between historical figures etc to bring out the truth

I will give an excerpt that will both establish the authenticity of the research, as well as shake the reader from stem to stern...

"Hints of a cover-up abound. Amery's diaries do not contain any mention of scorched-earth... his papers are missing pertinent correspondence... Testimonies submitted to the Famine commission reportedly destroyed... At least one India File, on rice exports to Ceylon, has been destroyed and another one, on Canada's offer for wheat for Bengal, is missing. No figures could be available for rice exports from India in the fiscal year 1943-44. In the minutes of a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff, available on Microfilm at the National Archives of the United Kingdom, a section dealing with shipping to India is blacked out. The cabinet secretaries' notes on War Cabinet discussions, which were released in January 2006, stop abruptly in mid-1943 - just before Churchill, Cherwell, Leathers and Grigg made their August decision to deny relief to famine-stricken Bengal..."

Madhusree Mukerjee was born in India and moved to the U.S. to train as a physicist. She received a PhD in 1989 from the University of Chicago. After a stint as a post-doc she changed careers to journalism and served on the board of editors of Scientific American for seven years. She left the magazine to have a baby and to write her first book, The Land of Naked People, with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship. Her latest book is Churchill's Secret War. She lives in Germany with her husband and son.

Interview with Ms Mukherjee: Churchill’s Dark Side: Six Questions for Madhusree Mukerjee

Words fail me... I consider myself unequal to the task of reviewing this particular book. The moment I take it up, tears well up my eyes and rage fills my heart... it is all I can do to remind myself that there are current, more pressing problems to attend to in life; that the past is best left in the past. But that does not mean that we remain ignorant of the price we have paid for our colonial heritage, and the degradation that we were subjected to, as well as the realities and sacrifices of that era...

The Year: Circa 1942-1943. The Venue of the display of generosity and humanity that lead to the Indian version of the holocaust: Bengal. The Villain? As per the superb research conducted by Madhushree Mukherjee, A certain World War 2 hero known by the name of Winston Churchill, in addition to the entire British Raj. The result? A small matter of an approximated 5.4 Million Indians dead. Small change, really. Peanuts, as compared to 6 Million Europeans.... The sequence of events lead to a British Civil Servant to comment: "Naturally I lost patience and couldnt help telling him that I could not see much difference between his outlook and Hitlers'..." - Leopold Amery to Winston Churchill. Having read the book, neither can I. He continued in his Diary: "The dangers arising from his lack of judgement and knowledge in many respects and his sheer lack of sanity over India make him increasingly dangerous"

The book is more of a historical investigation. It is buttressed with copious amounts of references that you can use - if you have the time and the resources- to cross check the material. It is exhaustive in its breadth and depth, and is tellingly impersonal in its narrative. Like Narendra Sarila, Ms Mukherjee uses extensive MOMs from archival records, buttressed with facts and figures of shipping, food tonnages, harvests, prices etc to build an indictment of The British that it irrefutable. Her calmly phrased but searing approach towards this imperial brutality comes across as gut-wrenching and damning because of the impartial and fact-based narrative. This makes the book even more effective, since the absence of anger or angst means that there is no outlet for the readers' emotions... page after impartial page builds up without any remorse, or value judgements This ends up leaving you, as a reader, free to experience the horror of the narrative in full...

The book traces the roots of the British Raj in India right from its genesis till the beginning of the Second World War in a short but effective prologue. The prologue sets the tone of the thesis that follows, with its precisely researched figures. I can vouch that the figures are readily available, since I subsequently read An Economic History Of India By Romesh C Dutt (written in the early 20th century. Another telling account, but that is another story). It chronicles the systematic rape of the Indian Nation, and enables you to understand how the richest nation in the entire history of Planet Earth came into its current status. It buttresses its arguments with specific examples and figures of looting, tax - revenue (same thing as loot for british India to my mind), governing horrors et al. It enables you to get a specific handle on what it means to be ruled by a brutal and inhuman set of swines. But most importantly, this is the first authoritative source that states and gives credence to my personal belief - the World War was fought as a direct result of Indian occupation by the British; In my opinion, it was the price the west had to pay for the Rape of Greater India, Burma, Ceylon, Africa etc...

The book focusses on the Bengal Famine of 1942 - 1943, and examines in detail its causes. A word of caution here: you will come across some accounts from reviewers (most of them westerners, not unsurprisingly) which state that Amartya Sen has given a different reason for the Bengal famine. Well, he hasnt. Mr Sen's theory is well covered, and the author agrees with its supposition of stock-holding and profiteering. She just goes far, far deeper into the quagmire and pulls out the real causes, the events that lead to stock pile-up of food, the run-up to the famine - the drought, the total absence to relief efforts, and most tellingly the continued exploitation of the people. The author has connected all the dots, and there is no discernible gap left. She also attends to the question of the food profiteering, and why it was not the core reason as well as why it could have been avoided. Furthermore, she also proves the shortage of food stocks.

The facts will make your stomach turn, especially at british hypocrisy and what I can only term as criminal intent and action. Scorched Earth policy was employed by the Nazis they say. Wrong! Scorched Earth policy was implemented by the "gentle" "civilized" "human" British in Bengal, Assam and much of East India. The horrifying impact of this has to be read to be understood! Fact 2: food was continuously sent to Europe to feed the newly-liberated European lands, to build a stockpile for the Invasion, and to buttress British food stocks. This was done even when there was no need for such heavy stockpiling. This was done even as Indians were dying by the millions... if anyone stock-piled food during the famine, it was the British. Food was deliberately not sent to India, or retained in India just so the British could be well-fed. In the same Bengal, the British were eating 5-course meals! The book proves that the British were holding stocks of food that were far in excess of what they required. Thus, they not only caused the problem, they also exacerbated it. Fact 3: Allied food aid to India was deliberately denied. Fact 4: Prices were raised in the middle of a famine. I could go on and on...

The book is full of heart-rending real stories that will, quite literally, make you cry. Stories of people just dying on the streets, corpses lining the streets of cities, stories of planned and systematic gang-rapes of women - entire villages of women, stories of starvation, stories of women selling themselves, stories of mothers selling their children, stories of women being kidnapped and gang-raped every night, stories of people walking long distances just for a bowl of rice soup, stories of the crying of children.... and the stories of corpses.... corpses everywhere, on the roads, in the fields.... and how the authorities did precisely nothing!

The book also enables you to understand the general atmosphere of animosity and outright hostility that existed in India. You get an impression of a land seething with rage and unbridled anger. The steady and systematic breakdown of the imperial edifice has been brought out very well, as is the increasing dissatisfaction in the Indian Army, which was, by 1945 - 1946, almost beyond imperial control. The steady stream of letters, meetings and implorings for food from both Indian and British Civil Servants give you an idea of the steady breakdown of imperialism, as even some of the more decent britishers realised the immoral situation they were in.

It details the cover-up of facts during and after the famine, its examines the eye-wash of the famine commission. It quotes former civil servants in British India, and uses their experiences. It quotes the surviving victims and it bases everything on fact. it chronicles the struggle of the few western people who were fighting the system and trying to procure food, and this gives us a ringside view of the situation as it unfolds,. All in all, an awesome investigation... one which nails irrefutably that real causes of the Bengal Holocaust... sad part is, the culprits got away scot free...

It also states wonderingly, that despite people dying like flies, there were no food riots. People chose to die rather than become thieves.... it shows the strength of our culture, of our value-systems. You are left in tears as you read that people died in front of food godowns, homes and shops - without resorting to violence, May they rest in peace... May God Bless All Those Who Suffered With Moksha is all I can say. In closing, I would also like to give a ray of hope... the book also gives a few stories of children who starved - nearly to death- but survived, studied... and overcome all this to become successful! It chronicles the sacrifices made by families to keep alive... Life goes on, life has to go on.... Whoever you are, wherever you are: I wish you all the happiness you can get....

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