The Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history, killing by some estimates as much as four percent of the world's population in 1940, or four out of every hundred people alive at the time. Some people might be surprised to find out that less than a third of those losses were combatants, soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were fighting the conflict. But there were also those civilians who were killed as a result of combat, like the forty thousand Britons that died in the Battle of Britain, the dreaded blitz, or ten times that number that died in Europe as a result of allied strategic bombing. A staggering estimated 10 million Russian civilians died as a result of combat activities in the Soviet Union. Apart from this, civilians were killed by deliberate crimes against humanity, like the five to six million Jews that were killed in Hitler's Holocaust. But least remembered, are those civilians that died not because of bombs and bullets, but died of disease and starvation as a result of war. Wars destroy cities, they destroy factories, farms, and homes, and they cause mass migration and refugees who lose access to shelter, food, and clean water.
In the Second World War, as many as 28 million civilians died not by bullets and bombs, but
by rot. And a forgotten example of that was the 2 million Indians who died in the 1943 Bengal famine. A part of the world that was barely touched by combat, but devastated by
war. It is not an easy history to discuss, but it is history that needs to be remembered.
Famine was not new to the subcontinent, the nature of the soil and land meant that agriculture was particularly susceptible to climate. Some 60 million Indians died due to
famine in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But lessons were learned in the 1880s,
the British government created famine codes that were designed to predict, and thus
prevent mass famine events. The system failed, there were mass famines again in 1897, and then again in 1899, but by the 20th century, it seemed like the government finally had a handle on it. There was a risk of famine in 1901, but there wasn't another major famine event in the 20th century, until 1943. The Bengal presidency was the largest colonial subdivision of British India, with its capital in Calcutta. The population in Bengal was already stressed before the events of the Second World War. The population had grown but agriculture was stagnant. Agriculture was not modernized, as it was highly dependent on regular monsoon rainfall, for example, rather than controlled irrigation, and land productivity was among the lowest in the world.
The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 is considered one of the worst famines in the history of Modern India. There were up to 3 million casualties as a result of starvation and diseases aggravated by malnutrition and lack of healthcare. But this disaster wasn’t natural, it was manmade and caused by a heartless British administration, whose wartime policies diverted food grains from India leading to the catastrophe. The Famine Inquiry Commission appointed by the government of India in 1944 to investigate the calamity concluded that the shortage in rice production was the major reason. However, it was discovered and argued by Madhusree Mukherjee in her book “Churchill's Secret War”, the British empire, and the ravaging of India during World War II. She writes that the scarcity was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use on the battlefields and consumption in Britain. Over the years, India exported more than 70 000 tons of rice between January and July 1943. Even as the famine set in, the British were so focused on the second world war and feeding their army that they let shortages in India get out of hand. Furthermore, wartime inflation, speculative buying, and panic hoarding diverted goods from an open market to the black
market. This led to prices skyrocketing and beyond the reach of poor people.
Death came in two great waves, first was starvation, and then disease. Starvation was the biggest killer in 1942 but was overtaken by disease striking those weakened by the famine in 1943. Malaria was the biggest killer but there was also cholera, smallpox, dysentery, mass migration, and dislocation conditions were awful, lacking even basic sanitation. The exact death count may never be known, records were poorly kept and migration made accounting nearly impossible. There's no way to know how many hundreds of thousands died on the road seeking food or assistance.
Already impoverished families were destroyed, selling their few valuables first, and then more necessary items like the doors and roofs of their houses, and finally even selling their children. Men abandoned their families to join the army, women turned to prostitution to buy food, and families disintegrated. Government attempts at relief were insufficient and misdirected, a good harvest in 1943 finally started to alleviate the problem, although disease continued to kill people well into 1943. Estimates vary, but in the end, what was a minor crop shortage, that should have been alleviated, wreaked untold social harm, and killed more than 2 million people. In the end, the great tragedy of the 1943 famine is that it was preventable. The barriers that were preventing relief for food shortages and inflation were political. The government was distracted by war and focused on its troops. Afraid that even admitting the problem would damage morale and pandering to special interests to forestall political unrest.
The next preferential distribution was given to workers in high-priority war industries to prevent them from leaving their positions thus diverting supplies from calamity-struck villages. Moreover, the British military ordered the removal or destruction of rural boats in anticipation of a Japanese invasion via the eastern Bengal border. Fishermen were not only out of jobs but this broke down the transport system for the movement of rice. In March 1942, the occupation of Rangoon by Japan cut off the import of Burmese rice into India. To add to the misery, a severe cyclone storm in October 1942, ravaged crop plants and fungal spores dispersed across the region resulting in the spread of crop disease. British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, though a war hero in Britain, has been severely criticized for his handling of the Bengal famine. He was downright callous as he ignored the fervent pleas for relief measures required in India saying it wasn't his responsibility. What's more, his statements during the period were obnoxious and unforgivable. His response to
an urgent release of food stocks for India was- “if food is so scarce why hasn't Gandhi died yet?” He believed that no aid would be sufficient as famine or no famine, Indians would breed like rabbits. After the mishandling of the famine and its disastrous fallout, the British administration made matters worse by not accepting their folly.
Economist Amartya Sen writes in his book, “Poverty and Famines”, one curious aspect of the
Bengal famine was that it was never officially declared as a famine which would have brought in an obligation to organize work programs and relief operations. This was specified by the Famine Code, thus the response to the Bengal Famine of 1943- by both the Bengal provincial government and the Government of India was slow. Meanwhile, it was several private groups and voluntary workers that came forward with donations of money, food, and clothes and the situation started to improve only at the end of the year. The survivors began to harvest a new rice crop, but the famine impact would be felt for decades after the calamity destroyed the social fabric of Bengal.
Scholars disagree over things like the extent of the food shortage, and the relative importance of inflation versus poor distribution, but they generally agree that the famine could have been prevented with resources that were available at the time. From 1942 to 1944, the Indian government begged the British War Cabinet for food assistance, and the cabinet refused all requests or reduced them to the point of being insubstantial. The British War Cabinet even refused offers of aid from foreign governments, arguing that there was a lack of Allied shipping available, even though millions of tons of shipping were going by India every day on their way to the Mediterranean. Even just a few food shipments could have stabilized food prices, but in the wartime calculations of the British War Cabinet, the starving and poor public of Bengal province were at the bottom. There was so much apathy that there's some argument that it might have been antipathy, that the deaths might have been deliberate. The extent to which the cabinet ignored the problem is difficult to discount, and certainly the British mistrusted the population of Bengal province, which they saw as a hotbed of resistance to British rule. Transcripts of cabinet meetings at the time showed a shocking lack of respect for the Indian people. Ironically, many scholars argue that it was the Famine of 1943 that made the collapse of the Raj inevitable, as it galvanized the Indian Independence Movement.
Families were torn apart, many sold their small holdings, and millions of homeless migrants headed to cities in search of relief and work. Only a few were able to escape poverty and destitution; it would be only appropriate to call the Bengal Famine one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the British empire in the India.