A chilling portrait of India's forgotten holocaust

A chilling portrait of India’s forgotten holocaust

The Bengal Famine of 1943-44 must rank as the greatest disaster in the subcontinent in the 20th century. Nearly 4 million Indians died because of an artificial famine created by the British government, and yet it gets little more than a passing mention in Indian history books.

What is remarkable about the scale of the disaster is its time span. World War II was at its peak and the Germans were rampaging across Europe, targeting Jews, Slavs and the Roma for extermination. It took Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts 12 years to round up and murder 6 million Jews, but their Teutonic cousins, the British, managed to kill almost 4 million Indians in just over a year, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill cheering from the sidelines.

Australian biochemist Dr Gideon Polya has called the Bengal Famine a “manmade holocaust” because Churchill’s policies were directly responsible for the disaster. Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of food grain from India to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in the areas comprising present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh.

A chilling portrait of India's forgotten holocaustAuthor Madhusree Mukerjee tracked down some of the survivors and paints a chilling picture of the effects of hunger and deprivation. In Churchill’s Secret War, she writes: “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”

“No one had the strength to perform rites,” a survivor tells Mukerjee. “Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages.” The ones who got away were men who migrated to Calcutta for jobs and women who turned to prostitution to feed their families. “Mothers had turned into murderers, village belles into whores, fathers into traffickers of daughters,” writes Mukerjee.

Mani Bhaumik, the first to get a PhD from the IITs and whose invention of excimer surgery enabled Lasik eye surgery, has the famine etched in his memory. His grandmother starved to death because she used to give him a portion of her food.

By 1943 hordes of starving people were flooding into Calcutta, most dying on the streets. The sight of well-fed white British soldiers amidst this apocalyptic landscape was “the final judgement on British rule in India”, said the Anglophile Jawaharlal Nehru.

Churchill could easily have prevented the famine. Even a few shipments of food grain would have helped, but the British prime minister adamantly turned down appeals from two successive Viceroys, his own Secretary of State for India and even the President of the US .

Subhas Chandra Bose, who was then fighting on the side of the Axis forces, offered to send rice from Myanmar, but the British censors did not even allow his offer to be reported.

Churchill was totally remorseless in diverting food to the British troops and Greek civilians. To him, “the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis (was) less serious than sturdy Greeks”, a sentiment with which Secretary of State for India and Burma, Leopold Amery, concurred.

Amery was an arch-colonialist and yet he denounced Churchill’s “Hitler-like attitude”. Urgently beseeched by Amery and the then Viceroy Archibald Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.

Wavell informed London that the famine “was one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule”. He said when Holland needs food, “ships will of course be available, quite a different answer to the one we get whenever we ask for ships to bring food to India”.

Churchill’s excuse — currently being peddled by his family and supporters — was Britain could not spare the ships to transport emergency supplies, but Mukerjee has unearthed documents that challenge his claim. She cites official records that reveal ships carrying grain from Australia bypassed India on their way to the Mediterranean.

Churchill’s hostility toward Indians has long been documented. At a War Cabinet meeting, he blamed the Indians themselves for the famine, saying they “breed like rabbits”. His attitude toward Indians may be summed up in his words to Amery: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” On another occasion, he insisted they were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans”.

According to Mukerjee, “Churchill’s attitude toward India was quite extreme, and he hated Indians, mainly because he knew India couldn’t be held for very long.” She writes in The Huffington Post, “Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over.”

In October 1943, at the peak of the famine, Churchill said at a lavish banquet to mark Wavell’s appointment: “When we look back over the course of years, we see one part of the world’s surface where there has been no war for three generations. Famines have passed away — until the horrors of war and the dislocations of war have given us a taste of them again — and pestilence has gone… This episode in Indian history will surely become the Golden Age as time passes, when the British gave them peace and order, and there was justice for the poor, and all men were shielded from outside dangers.”

Churchill was not only a racist but also a liar.

A history of holocausts

To be sure, Churchill’s policy towards famine-stricken Bengal wasn’t any different from earlier British conduct in India. In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared with 17 in the 2,000 years before British rule.

In his book, Davis tells the story of the famines that killed up to 29 million Indians. These people were, he says, murdered by British State policy. In 1876, when drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau, there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the Viceroy, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent their export to England.

In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine, grain merchants exported record quantities of grain. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”. The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within these labour camps, the workers were given less food than the Jewish inmates of Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp of World War II.

Even as millions died, Lytton ignored all efforts to alleviate the suffering of millions of peasants in the Madras region and concentrated on preparing for Queen Victoria’s investiture as Empress of India. The highlight of the celebrations was a week-long feast at which 68,000 dignitaries heard her promise the nation “happiness, prosperity and welfare”.

In 1901, The Lancet estimated that at least 19 million Indians had died in western India during the famine of the 1890s. The death toll was so high because the British refused to implement famine relief. Davis says life expectancy in India fell by 20 percent between 1872 and 1921.

So it’s hardly surprising that Hitler’s favourite film was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which showed a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. The Nazi leader told the then British Foreign Secretary Edward Wood (Earl of Halifax) that it was one of his favorite films because “that was how a superior race must behave and the film was compulsory viewing for the SS (Schutz-Staffel, the Nazi ‘protection squadron’)”.

Crime and consequences

While Britain has offered apologies to other nations, such as Kenya for the Mau Mau massacre, India continues to have such genocides swept under the carpet. Other nationalities have set a good example for us. Israel, for instance, cannot forget the Holocaust; neither will it let others, least of all the Germans. Germany continues to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and arms aid to Israel.

Armenia cannot forget the Great Crime — the systematic massacre of 1.8 million Armenians by the Turks during World War I. The Poles cannot forget Joseph Stalin’s Katyn massacre.

The Chinese want a clear apology and reparations from the Japanese for at least 40,000 killed and raped in Nanking during World War II. And then there is the bizarre case of the Ukrainians, who like to call a famine caused by Stalin’s economic policies as genocide, which it clearly was not. They even have a word for it: Holodomor.

And yet India alone refuses to ask for reparations, let alone an apology. Could it be because the British were the last in a long list of invaders, so why bother with an England suffering from post-imperial depression? Or is it because India’s English-speaking elites feel beholden to the British? Or are we simply a nation condemned to repeating our historical mistakes? Perhaps we forgive too easily.

But forgiveness is different from forgetting, which is what Indians are guilty of. It is an insult to the memory of millions of Indians whose lives were snuffed out in artificial famines.

British attitudes towards Indians have to seen in the backdrop of India’s contribution to the Allied war campaign. By 1943, more than 2.5 million Indian soldiers were fighting alongside the Allies in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. Vast quantities of arms, ammunition and raw materials sourced from across the country were shipped to Europe at no cost to Britain.

Britain’s debt to India is too great to be ignored by either nation. According to Cambridge University historians Tim Harper and Christopher Bayly, “It was Indian soldiers, civilian labourers and businessmen who made possible the victory of 1945. Their price was the rapid independence of India.”

There is not enough wealth in all of Europe to compensate India for 250 years of colonial loot. Forget the money, do the British at least have the grace to offer an apology? Or will they, like Churchill, continue to delude themselves that English rule was India’s “Golden Age”?

~ Rakesh Krishnan Simha



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  • Sir, i read this information holding all the grief in my eyes, can you give me the primary sources or may be the secondary sources.I can’t even believe, are we the real meaning to the human beings…no i don’t know and even i don’t understand how can such holocaust amidst the people like us.

  • Rakesh, I have read this article twice to understand your point. All that could gather to my novice mind is that Churchill was the root cause of all evil in India and second is a message to the Anglophiles that colonialism was not a good idea.
    While instigating others with your thoughts, it would be wise to quote your sources. And while you are at it, please list the names of Maharajas and Landlords who for once forgot to lick the babus and came to the aid of those destitute poor.

  • I remember!
    I will not forget!
    And I honour our great heros like Subhas Chandra Bose, the true deliverer of Bharat Varsha.

    Thank you for reminding people of our past.

  • I understand and read extensively on Bengal Famine, but i am not understanding your point of view. I agree Churchill was the evil ,but what is point in raking it out now he is long gone and dead.

    Do you want India to go on war with UK or stop investing in that country. Aren’t we leaving in 21st century where we are independent and the country can take its own decisions.

    • you are part of the problem, Sir. The reason for this article is was to educate the public at large so that it is not repeated again. If and when it repaets you may be affected. How will you fight back? Jewish league will make you remember the Jewish Holocaust every year and every occasion. Hindu Indians are complacent and too good to ignore the past except for the thousands of Gods.

    • Kg Mani: I agree with you. But yet today there are many traitors that lived in India. We need a new Arjuna to restore Dharma in Mankind. NWO is cooking a new World War. This is not a joke. Firangi white people knows that their empire is finished.

    • Mr rao,

      History is learned so that it doesn’t repeat. The adage that history repeats itself when people forget it. History has this social function as a subject studied.

  • This must be thoroughly probed: How come
    This piece of history background to Bengal famine has gone unnoticed : Historians should find the true facts above this and bring it to the public domain

  • Thanks for this great article. I respect my great people from the past, I remember their sacrifice. They are martyr. May God give them eternal peace.

  • Important is to ensure that no repetition of such incidents ever, besides the knowledge about the facts now part of History.

  • Thanks for shedding the light on the past in India and the sacrifices made by our elders.

    Every Indian should read the articles similar to this and understand the way of life and the responsibilities that we owe to take.

    Great hidden resources.

  • The British should never be forgotten or forgiven .they destroyed India culturally,economically physically and in all possible means.They must be taught a lesson.

  • Namaste,

    the link to what can authenticate that “WC ignored pleas for emergency food aid for millions in bengal left to starve as their rice paddies were turned over to jute for sandbag production and supplies of rice from burma stopped after japanese occupation” is available in telegraph

  • The history should be made known to whole world.A powerful publicity is required. Indian should quit commonwealth or expel Britain.Also an apology should be called for.The actual image of Churchill should be cleared before world.

  • Dear Sir, a very well articulated piece of writing, which should be known to every Indian, large chunk of which is suffering Front he blind imitation of West and complete disregard of our culture and rich heritage. They should know the deaths the have been caused by the Imperial structure in India and should atleast be ready to take them head on when the time comes. (I am not meaning violently, but national pride and ego must be upheld). Last month Chinese PM when visited UK, he complained officially that the carpet from the plane to the lounge was one feet short. In view of the context, he was only abolishing the artificial pride of UK authorities and showing them his stature as a representative of an important nation.

  • The atrocities committed by waves of invaders over India had only increased with each wave. Somehow the British being the worst have also got off the most lightly and are pretending to be conscience keepers of the world as their language now commands International trade and all scientific discourse in most countries is conducted in English and has made them respectable. The generation left immediately after independence forgot to teach the next generation about the atrocities and as English was embedded into our culture with our language diversity we forgot what we lost or how we lost it. We think that the moghuls and their unending 700 year rule stifled India, but little did Indians know that there was more to come. We have now got to believe that every national icon was built by the Moghuls or the British and nothing worthy was left behind in Hindu Bharat. When I visited Delhi there was nothing of Hindu artefacts that was left anymore, everything was Moghul this or Moghul that despite the fact that all these artefacts were constructed by ancient Hindu India and later through a sheer act of graffiti (changing the surface inscriptions) the Moghuls claimed it as their own work (there are probably no worse examples of plagiarism in history). One thing I’m delighted is that we know what both these civilisations were capable of- which is really nothing much except some military hardware and chest beating puffed up pride. Nothing to show in lasting achievements. Both empires will crumble. Indians need to be aware of this and start building their relationships in our region based on common cultural ties with countries like China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan. We should call it the HBJ link: Hindu, Buddhist, Jain links which focusses on the common cultural bonds and work for the peace of our region. We can abandon the west and middle east and the misery it brings.

  • Namaste,

    Well nicely presented article, we are missing source of various vital info. Appreciate if you can share the same.

  • I was so happy to read about a phase in history that we were very ignorant about. However your mentioning of the”systematic massacre of 1.8 million Armenians by the Turks” grieves me. Have you read enough to be able to give such a large number, how many people lived in Anatolia at that time? I would strogly advice you to read more on the subject. ot that it matters but from the perspective of being a credible academician.

  • The one takeaway from this information about what happened to India and Indians and this great Vedic civilization is work relentlessly to bring back the backbone of India – Her true Spirit which guided the whole world and brought peace and prosperity, Her spirituality which brought tremendous inner strength and outer world riches – all the British looted savagely. The biggest destruction caused was not the millions of tonnes material wealth that was plundered, but the tradition that was belittled in the minds of Her very children who now don’t even recognize the true Mother India languishing as Her knowledge, culture, tradition, has been literally raped. Instead Her brainwashed children are seeing the cunningly imposed “culture” of the uncultured but cunning tyrannical British as a source of pride – there can’t be a bigger delusion, paradox or shame than this. India never waged a war on any country but ruled the world with the power of Her knowledge, spirituality, enlightenment and highest aspirations and achievements, which led the whole world to prosperity and peace. Today, the world is reduced to the capitalistic “culture” of the West, which instead of “produce more and share more” is teaching us it is smart and intelligent to “produce as little as possible and market what is not even there”.
    It is high time true Indians wake up to the reality of who we are, what we are.

  • To think people Winston Churchill was the person who saves England. So he did by strarving & killing millions of my fellow beings.

  • hitler and nazis are better than churchhill and britishers. but unfortunately our polticians are worse, who are destroying whatever has remained of india.

  • Those die hard pro British Indians who hail Winston Churchill must read this article and then come to a conclusion. Winston Churchill should have been tried for Human Rights Violations by the International Court of Justice in Hague.

  • They did the same thing to the Irish. They don’t care

  • The Indian History being taught in Indian schools, thanks to the pseudo secular English loving, self proclaimed liberal intelligentsia, does not provide insight into the actual history of India’s freedom struggle. In a conscious effort to adulate and deify a single dynasty, the historians have ignored the trials, tribulations and misery of millions of Indians. Thanks to this article for bringing out the facts of Bengal famine to general public. It is in light of such aberrations and distortions of historical events that a thorough new writing of history is required, which teaches our children about India and Indian ethos, from Indian perspective and not from the perspective of European oriented historians. As far as the perpetration of such heinous crimes against millions of Indians by the British is concerned, I believe a time has come when India must assert itself in the international arena. Nothing can be got lying down, aggressive pitch and approach is required. I believe with Narendra Modi government at center, we can hope for a proper perspective towards our past, present and future.

  • Why was the Holodomor not a genocide?

  • Have you checked the Wikipedia account of the Bengal Famine of 1943. I think wikipedia is one of the first places today’s generation looks-up to, to find information. It seemed like all hogwash to me. Can you put up a better explanation for the event on the wikipedia page, so people get their facts straight.

  • thanks for this article . even wikipedia telling false stories abt this femine .

    after the 1857 revolution, britishers became more furious toward indians .

    i want to copy some statements from this article but there is no such option , can u provide some . hope SANSKRITI does not believe in ‘patent ‘ concept .

  • An interesting article. Thank you for posting. As a half English, half Irish British citizen I was surprised to find out more about britain’s diabolical treatment of the irish, so this article is no surprise. However it may have been improved (and thus easier to share – making it more effective) by adding your sources and taking out the emotion. It’s easy to judge others with hindsight but whatever we think about this atrocity, we cannot really know all of the facts and what actually motivated them. Our own opinions are valid but they dilute the message. However misguided Churchill was in his actions, I personally do not believe he should be likened to Hitler. Don’t forget that this insane man was on a mission to rid the entire human race of non Arians. Had he won the war (and without Churchill, he most certainly would have done, there would be no more India, or Indians, or indeed any other religions or creeds. Worth considering.

  • I am a grade student and I happened to come along this article when I was researching about the Holocaust. This is the first time I have heard about the Bengal Famine and it truly makes my heart ache that it is. Despite me having no relations with India or Britain. I still feel this should be known because it’s history and I have lived most of my life knowing that “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Which is why I feel the importance of not forgetting the people who had to suffer so wrongly and feel the need to speak out instead of staying silent. Thank you for writing this because it does make a difference.

  • After WW2, there were Nurenberg Trials which focussed on Jewish Holocaust, I am surprised that the dispensations which ruled our country after 1947, never ever thought of something on the same lines. No amount of reparations can fulfil the loss of human life