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Madhusree Mukerjee, physicist and former editor of Scientific American, “currently a housewife” living in Germany with her husband and son, has a curious way of writing books: she catches hold of any subject that she wants to learn about, no matter how difficult or complex, and doesn’t let go until she’s ferreted out whatever it takes to answer her questions as a rank outsider. She puts it down to her training in scientific method—Mukerjee lived in Calcutta until she moved to the US to study physics, receiving her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1989. “As a physicist, you are trained to simplify problems so that they become more comprehensible,” she says in a telephone interview from near Frankfurt in Germany.
The first time she strayed away from science journalism was when she decided to learn about the aboriginals in the Andamans islands. “I felt at some point that I understood pretty well the basics of science, but there was a lot about the human environment that I didn’t understand.” For a start, she decided to explore the stories she had heard while growing up in Calcutta of how freedom fighters dumped on the Andamans islands escaped head-hunting savages. “I wanted to understand the reality of that.” It led Mukerjee to the Andamans and her first book, The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, relating the devastating experiences of the hunter-gatherers as they come face to face with modern civilisation.
After finishing that book, the next question—and book—was already approaching. “My basic question was: I now understood how the world treats aboriginal people but I don’t really understand the origins of poverty.” But poverty being such a complex subject, the scientist in Mukerjee determined to break it down to “its least possible dimension—food”. “I felt that if I can understand famine, I will understand poverty.” To make it even simpler for herself, Mukerjee decided to study the Bengal famine of 1943.
Churchill, the book alleges, denied Australian food supplies to the walking dead of the famine by cutting down shipping in the Indian Ocean (Photograph by AP)
Like any beginner, Mukerjee assumed that everything to be known about the Bengal famine was already known. “I thought I had to just go and study it.” But questions formed in her mind that she couldn’t find answers to in any book: could Churchill’s government in London have prevented the famine which took a toll of some three million lives? More importantly, did Churchill deliberately choose to deny food relief to starving Indians? “When I started researching this book—Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War Two—a couple of American historians told me this was not a useful venue to explore because there couldn’t have been a possibility at that point in the war, when the situation was so desperate, of sending relief to India.”
But Mukerjee didn’t give up. She spent years going through the papers in the national archives of UK, finding out that Churchill’s War Cabinet shot down Viceroy Linlithgow’s plea to send grain to India to ward off a catastrophe in July 1943. There was more than enough grain in Australia to feed Indians, but Churchill claimed there was a severe shortage of ships to take the grain to India. Mukerjee then launched another hunt, this time through the papers in UK’s ministry of war transport, to see if there was any truth in Churchill’s claim.
That is when she discovered the scale of Churchill’s prejudice and callousness towards Indians. Far from a scarcity of shipping, Churchill had at his command such a profusion of ships that there was not enough cargo to fill them. Some of the surplus ships were being used to supply white bread to the UK and the rest to stockpile food in preparation for Britain’s planned liberation of the Balkans. The other excuse to not undertake wheat import to India during the famine was the War Cabinet’s conviction that “Bengalis would sooner starve than eat wheat”.
Around three million died in the 1943 famine; lakhs perished on Calcutta’s streets (Photograph by Tarak das)
Of the 6,00,000 tonnes of grain the viceroy requested to avert disaster, India received less than five per cent. Even that stayed in Calcutta for the “priority class”, with small amounts sent to districts for official use. Worse, even at the height of the famine, when hundreds of thousands of villagers crawled towards Calcutta and other towns and died in masses on the streets, 71,000 tonnes of rice was being exported on the directions of the War Cabinet to feed rubber tappers in Ceylon.
“I wanted to understand the famine’s human aspect. I had no idea the book would end up targeting Churchill to this extent.”
Mukerjee holds Churchill responsible for “deliberately deciding to let Indians starve”. He was also partly to blame for causing the great famine, she says. “Churchill contributed to the famine by removing the shipping from the Indian Ocean area in January 1943, even though India was already suffering.” With neighbouring Burma under Japanese occupation, and almost all of south-east Asia under their thrall, the British disabled and impounded all transport in the coastal regions (much of it in erstwhile East Bengal), including boats and bullock carts, to prevent its use by the enemy. “The government in India was already demanding imports because of shortages, saying that if we don’t get imports, there’s going to be a catastrophe. Even then, Churchill removed the shipping. And that, to some extent, is explained by a kind of panic that was generated in the War Cabinet. They reduced shipping to 40 per cent of what it was, and (claimed) there were no ships to transport grain to India from Australia, where there was plenty. Once the Indian officials realised that there wasn’t any shipping, and they were rapidly running out of wheat even for the army, they panicked and lifted all price controls. They started buying at whatever price was demanded and that actually destroyed market conditions. The price of rice went through the roof; the famine began. By February-March you’re already seeing starvation deaths,” Mukerjee says. “At that point, it was just callousness (on Churchill’s part). It was basically preserving Britain at all cost, even at the cost of Indian lives.”
Mukerjee blames Churchill’s almost insane hatred of Indians and the Indian freedom movement for not only the famine but also for the bloody Partition that followed. While some critics, like Max Hastings in the Sunday Times, have accused her of exaggerating Churchill’s role in the Partition, Mukerjee says: “If Churchill hadn’t been there, things might have gone very differently. For instance, soon after Churchill became prime minister and appointed Leopold S. Amery as secretary of state for India, Amery suggested that they reach an accomodation with the Congress. But the price to pay would be the promise of independence. Churchill shot it down. If it hadn’t been Churchill as PM at that time but someone like Lord Irwin, they might have been more amenable to an agreement. Then, we wouldn’t have had the Quit India movement, wouldn’t have had Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, the entire Congress leadership spending the war years in prison, leaving Jinnah as the only significant politician outside prison. Jinnah looked powerful—obviously you look powerful when the powers back you. And he used that to his advantage to push through his idea of Pakistan.”
Churchill also had a hand, Mukerjee says, in sabotaging the Simla talks in 1945 by urging Jinnah to hold out for everything he wanted. “Jinnah told a couple of friends: ‘they are telling me to hold on to the demand that every Muslim on the Viceroy's council should be a Muslim League member.’ That was more than even the British could give.”
And yet, Mukerjee says, when she started out, “I had no idea that the book would end up targeting Churchill to the extent it did”. What she was trying to do, she says, “was to understand the famine from the human aspect”. So, her first priority was to find eye-witnesses. “This was very difficult.” Her family still lived in Bengal, but were of little use: as part of the middle class, protected either through ownership of land or jobs in the railways and industry, they hadn’t suffered during the famine. Then she met a remarkable woman, Ashoka Gupta, who was involved with famine relief and was with Gandhi during the Noakhali riots in 1946. “We saw wave after wave of women and children coming, and some old people. They came along the road, falling, limping, getting up, falling again,” Gupta recounted. “There was a hospital behind our house, and every morning some mothers would have left their babies on the steps, in the hope that they would be saved.” Brothels saved the lives of some thousands of the millions of children under ten who were starving during the famine.
The trail that began at Gupta’s door eventually led Mukerjee to a village, Kalikakundu, where a freedom fighter, Chitto Samonto, not only shared his experiences with her but took her around to meet the elderly people who told their horrific stories—babies abandoned “like stray cats”, children picking undigested grain from faeces, corpses lying in such big heaps on Calcutta’s streets that disposal became a problem.
Not all Britishers were as callous as Churchill. Mukerjee found the famine account of one British soldier, Clive Branson, particularly moving. In her book, Mukerjee quotes from his letters home as their train entered Bengal: “One long trail of starving people. Men, women, children, babies, looked up into the passing carriage in their last hope for food.... As we pulled towards Calcutta, for miles, little children naked, with inflated bellies stuck on stick-like legs, held up empty tins towards us...the ordinary, decent people in England must do something—this is their Empire.” Unfortunately, Branson never reached home: he was killed in the war. “It’s tragic,” Mukerjee says, “that someone like him should have to die whereas someone like Churchill exits the war so triumphant.”
The book took Mukerjee seven years to research and write. “It’s been a huge amount of research distilled into a small book. It took time, and I had the time to understand everything with a great deal of depth. I think no one has looked at the famine at such depth.”
But with her second book finished, the questions are still coming. “I now want to understand how imperialism works in the present-day world because I don’t think it ever went away.” So on to Book Number Three.