Sunday, April 30, 2017

Was Churchill a Hitler? Part 3. Bengal Famine and the Blame Game. Bose and the Nazi Regime. Justice Pal and Tokyo Trials.

This is the concluding part of a trilogy of blogs surrounding the kerfuffle over an Indian politician accusing Churchill of acting like Hitler and the Colonial regime as acting like the Nazi regime. The Bengal famine is often referred as 'man made famine'. True, but who were the men who caused it?

Famine Code and Causes of Famines

The Britannica article on famine quotes India's ancient political treatise Arthasastra as saying famines were an act of God and suggesting, besides propitiating Brahmins and gods (one must never forget the Brahmin), the king should distribute seeds at a lower price and undertake 'food for work programs'. The British when they "occupied India", Britannica's words, developed the first famine codes to classify severity of food availability and the steps the administration ought to take depending on the scarcity.

The chief cause of famines, Britannica says, is war. War disrupts food supplies and inflationary economic trends exacerbate access to food thus resulting in famine. Despite the famine code famines persisted because the causes were misunderstood. Indian Nobel Laureate in Economics was the most influential in re-orienting the understanding of famines when he argued that "Food Availability Decline" is more often not the cause but changes in "entitlements". Called 'entitle failure', Sen's theory now practically governs understanding of famines.

The famine code, the earliest such code in the world, was established in the aftermath of the Great Famine of 1876-78 that ravaged in Southern India. Sir Richard Temple, criticized for liberal assistance during an earlier famine in Bengal, operated on a 'laissez faire' principle and strict guidelines on providing assistance to aggrieved citizens. The policy was heavily criticized by British officials themselves and one of them, William Digby wrote a detailed book, used by historians even today, on the famine.

The curious feature of the colonial regime was that it had detractors amongst its own ranks who wrote detailed, evidence based, books or reports which are used by others today to criticize the regime. While we can justifiably scold the regime for its omissions it is this redemptive aspect that crucially distinguishes it from the murderous Nazi regime. The Nazi regime had no conscience. That the colonial regime had had a conscience was why Gandhi could become the Mahatma he became.

Proximate causes of Bengal Famine and the many theories

Whenever the phrase 'man made famine' is used with regard to the Bengal famine it is often used to pillory the colonial regime, with great justification indeed, of not having done enough to stem the ravages of the famine despite available opportunities. However, it is rarely remembered that one of the chief causes of the famine was the capture of Burma by Japan. Japan which was engaged in a race for supremacy in East Asia had unleashed its share of rapacious invasions and found swift victories in Singapore, Malaya and Burma where the British forces were badly mauled. In Burma the Japanese were welcomed, says Max Hastings in 'All Hell Let Loose'.

The capture of 'Irrawady delta, the most productive estuary in the British empire' by the Japanese inflicted a huge dent in food availability. Compounding that was the 'denial policy' of destroying boats and fishing equipment lest the Japanese, if they crossed to India, would use it. This disrupted the livelihood of many, especially the poor. In 1942 a cyclone destroyed standing crops. Added to all that were wartime priorities of requisitioning food for the army which took precedence over supply to civilians. This was and is common feature of wars.

Khan lists a "range of causes" besides supply, "cover-ups and tardy responses by British, poor leadership, press censorship and propaganda which consistently masked the scale of the problem". "Administrative bungling and inadvertent stockpiling compounded the horrors". Khan is unsparing in indicting the colonial regime, "Some peoples lives were not seen as worthy of preserving. The state was geared in every way to the war and prioritized this at all costs".

Conservative historian Arthur Herman argued that substituting the pusillanimous Linlithgow with battle scarred Wavell eventually turned the tide in the famine and for that reason alone the colonial regime cannot be equated with a Nazi regime. Khan corroborates, "The no-nonsense and taciturn Wavell injected some new vigor into the administration. He brough the famine situation in Bengal under clearer control". Wavell, Kan substantiates, saw clearly that the famine was causing irreparable damage to how the Empire was being perceived.

Raghavan tackles the Churchill-Hitler comparison head on and writes "however appalling Churchill's attitude and devastating the consequence for Bengal, the taproot of the problem was the inflationary financing of the war". The 'General Index of wholesale prices", Raghavan tabulates, was 125 in 1938-39 and it reach 244.1 by August 1945. Interestingly Raghavan notes that RBI was headed by an Indian at that time. 20 Indian economists led by C.N. Vakil wrote a stinging report titled "The Falling Rupee" which called the inflation "most disastrous type of inflation". When Gandhi economist J.C. Kumarappa wrote articles based on that report he was sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Both Khan and Raghavan underscore a little known or little written about subject until their recent books, the contribution of India to the war effort. Nearly 2.5 million men, 'the largest volunteer army in history' (note, the US, UK and USSR all had draft policies and so their armies cannot be accurately called 'volunteer army' though many in US and UK were indeed volunteers). India was a "major military-industrial logical base" for the Empire. The Indian soldiers received letters from home depicting a hellish famine. The correspondences, cited by Khan, show that the volunteers were aware of what was happening. Interestingly despite the Mahatma's call to 'quit India' no organized en-masse exit or strike by Indian soldiers, in response to conditions back home, happened. One wonders. Army unit leaders sensing a seething discontentment ensured pay raises were given so that soldiers could send more money back home.

Winston Churchill - From Time.

Cormac O Grada's "Famine: A short history" is an important book in this context. While Churchill and his government have drawn their fair share of criticism little is said of the provincial government which had Suhrawardy, from the Muslim League, as the minister for civil supplies. In India, especially in the communal cauldron of Bengal, the strife between Hindus and Muslims were never too far. Hindus owned most of the rice shops whereas Muslims were the laborers. Suhrawardy told Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, of the Hindu Mahasabha, "there is plenty of food stuff". Imagine Churchill reading these reports and extrapolate his reactions. Essentially, intra-party squabbling, colored by religious strife, could've played into Churchill's already viciously prejudiced mind.

While the theory of hoarders causing the famine was heavily contested at that time even Indians conceded that hoarding at some level continued to happen. "In the sectarian bear pit of Bengali politics, the hoarding hypothesis suited the Muslim league, since major 'hoarders' were more likely" to be Hindus. Moneylenders, too, were predominantly Hindus.

Sen's hypothesis was largely based on the "Report on Famine" that was commissioned by the Colonial regime. The report, O'Grada, chastises was toeing the official line that there was no alarming decline of food supply. The statistics that later Sen relied to shape his theory were unreliable says O' Grada. He too blames inflation and prices skyrocketing in addition to actual decline in food availability.

The staid British business magazine 'The Economist' wrote that "the best way to end the famine is speedy victory and, however hard the decision, food ships must come secondary to victory ships". Churchill was in good company, if one can call it that.

Picture of Tragedy and Apathy (more photos at

Indian attitudes to the famine and Gandhi at Aga Khan Palace

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Indian literary giant and a Bengali, wrote in his autobiography 'Thy hand great anarch', published in 1987, "The unscrupulous moneymaking was the major cause of the terrible famine which swept Bengal the following year". That was the only reference he makes to what was even then considered a tragedy of biblical proportions. If a Bengali writer can be callous in his reminiscences one can only contextualize the attitude of Churchill amidst a war in which "victory at all costs" was the goal and defeat meant annihilation.

What about Gandhi, the voice of the nation? D.G. Tendulkar's massively detailed biography of Gandhi in 8 volumes gives important details. Ever since Gandhi announced the 'Quit India' movement he was corresponding regularly with the Viceroy and subsequent to his arrest and internment, along with his retinue that include his assistants and wife, in Aga Khan Palace the correspondences continue. The correspondences make for tiresome reading about minutiae over charges and insinuations leveled against Gandhi and Congress by the government. Finally Gandhi announces a 21day fast and refuses the government's offer to get released. For 21 days the country is riveted on the Mahatma's fate. The government had allowed a special medical team to attend to Gandhi, unthinkable under a Hitler regime. Note, in all this fracas there's not a single mention of Bengal or the fact that millions were dying. Both 'Quit India' and the fast were complete failures.

It should be noted that the colonial regime imprisoned Gandhi only in name in Aga Khan palace. When Kasturba fell ill the government provided penicillin, a rarity in war time then and allowed any medical treatment she or Gandhi wanted to avail of. For the umpteenth time one has to remember that this is treatment that Hitler would not have provided, at all. Nor Stalin.

Bose meanwhile was shaking hands with Adolf Hitler and had expressed admiration for Mussolini. Bose compared Mussolini's march to Rome with Gandhi's legendary Dandi march. To Bose fascism was merely "an aggressive form of nationalism". Traveling in Vienna as Nazi anti-Semitism was reaching a feverish pitch Bose, a biographer underscores, did not see anything to object in the Nazi program of "elimination of Jewish influence". Nehru, on the other hand, moved a resolution in Congress to to allow Jewish refugees into India. In Bose's mind, much like those running around today making a case that Churchill was no different from Hitler, the colonial and Nazi regimes were interchangeable.

Bose's later alliance with Japan and his grandiose ideas of entering India as a liberator ended up a farce and thankfully so. While Nazi war crimes and especially the holocaust are now widely known the extent of criminality of Japan is less known or comprehended. Iris Chang's very moving 'The Rape of Nanking' only gives a glimpse of the atrocities of the Japanese empire. Ask any Korean about Japan and you'd get an earful. A Japanese liberation of India would have been like how Stalin liberated Poland. Enslavement and annihilation by another name.

Compared to Bose Nehru was painfully aware of the nature of the Nazi and Japanese regimes. Rudrangshu Mukherjee quotes in "Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives", a remark by Nehru in April 1942 "Hitler and Japan must go to hell. I shall fight them to the end and this is my policy. I shall also fight Mr Subhas Bose and his party along with Japan if he comes to India. Mr Bose acted very wrongly though in good faith. Hitler and Japan represented the reactionary forces".

Nehru's writings in the lead up to the war are clear and even stunningly clairvoyant. Writing in 1939 Nehru predicts that if Germany plunges the world into war its likely allies would be Japan and Italy. No historian or strategist, to my knowledge, said that in 1939. In all his writings Nehru bemoans the fact that Britain could enlist a free India in defending democracy and not appear hypocritical in its defense of democracy while holding down India as a subject state.

Also, unlike Gandhi and Bose, Nehru wrote with great anguish about the famine that gripped Bengal. In his 'Discovery of India' that he wrote while imprisoned at Ahmadnagar fort, "there was amazing indifference, incompetence and complacency shown by all the authorities concerned"."In any democratic or semi-democratic country such a calamity would have swept away all the governments concerned with it.""While all this was happening and the streets of Calcutta were strewn with corpses the social life of the upper ten thousand of Calcutta underwent no change". Nehru cites statistics of venal profiteering and statistics about nourishment, or lack thereof.

Governments have always been loath to accept the existence of famines or droughts. Whether it is Lenin or Churchill or Modi accepting that a government cannot feed its own citizens is a shame that no one wants to confess to.

Visiting a drought struck region Jawaharlal Nehru cried and he wrote letters to US president literally pleading for help. An independent India, especially thanks to efforts spear headed by Indira Gandhi, tamed the horrors of famines that plagued India from time to time. This is the difference between a representative democracy and the regime of a titular occupier.

The world at War:

As famine unfolded in Bengal in 1942 Hitler's armies stood athwart all of Europe. From France to within 50 miles of Moscow the Nazi jackboot held the continent under sway. Famines and food blockades, by both Allies and Axis powers, were the norm.

Churchill had blockaded Greece while Hitler blockaded Leningrad. "Food would go to Britain at the expense of the American armed services, whose demands, Roosevelt believed, were inflated". "Churchill to make hulls, available for transatlantic shipments, reduced sailings to India by half, a measure that, in combination with the Japanese occupation of Burma and an ongoing drought, brought Bengal to the verge of famine". Food supplies and prioritizing who gets what was also subject to political calculations. When a shipment couldn't be made to USSR FDR wanted Churchill to deliver the bad news to Stalin. Both FDR and Churchill at that time feared Stalin would separately negotiate peace with Hitler. Stalin meanwhile prioritized evacuating factories from Leningrad than citizens.

It took Hitler less than 60 days to smash through Belgium, Netherlands and capture France. In less than a month, from the start of Operation Barbarossa, German army was within sight of Kremlin. Yet, from D-Day, June 1944, it took the allies, in a pincer movement from East and West, a year to reach the bunker in which Hitler was ensconced. Even after Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was over Japan inflicted very heavy losses to American army in Iwo Jima. Between 1941-44 when Bengal was being ravaged by famine the unsavory fact is the allies could very well have lost the war to Hitler and Hirohito. It was this fact that still makes even Indian historians like Yasmin Khan and Srinath Raghavan not to join a mindless chorus in calling Churchill a Hitler.

Wartime realities

Could Churchill have done more to save Bengal? Yes, but the certainty is a bit muddled too. The military situation was indeed precarious and very complex. The War had many such situations and posed in later years many "if only" questions. Of all the questions that the war later threw  up one that still agonizes many is could the Allies have bombed transit lines  to Auschwitz earlier. There are even those who allege that FDR was not keen on it. Again, historical evidence suggests otherwise. Another big 'if only' question was could Stalin have saved the Warsaw Jews or did he deliberately deny help. Historian Alexander Werth and others offer evidence that contrary to popular opinion Red Army was not really in a position to save the Warsaw uprising.

"A beastly people and a beastly religion"

Churchill's words characterizing Indians, specifically Hindus, burns the sensibilities of any Indian today. Of course any Hindu today could cite with great justification the blood soaked history of Christianity and return the compliment paid by Churchill. Papal armies killed Jews with shouts of "Deus Vult", 'God wills it'. In York, England nearly 2000 Jews were burnt alive for the sin of being Jews. Then there is the gory slave trade, annihilation of natives in the Americas. But, all that was in the distant 16th,17th and 18th or even 19th century and England and, notably, United States of America, had progressed towards becoming liberal democracies where the citizens had rights and even separation of church and state.

In 1923 a group of Hindus approached the court to rule that lower caste Hindus, in fact they were so low in the hierarchy that they were not even considered Hindus or treated as human beings, should not use earthenware to collect water and should use only palmyra pots and such pots should not be cushioned upon the heads with cloth but only with a bunch of straw. Pariah men working in the fields could wear only a loincloth. Another notorious case concerned the rights of women to wear a cloth to cover their breasts. Such were the cases that went before colonial judges. One could utmost say that Churchill's remark was like the pot calling the kettle black but Churchill's comment was actually in line with remarks by India's own Ambedkar and other reformers like the firebrand agitator from south E.V. Ramasamy. It is specious to hold Churchill to a different standard.

Incidentally the Colonial regime actually showed more sensitivity towards local customs and in framing laws that were in consonance with prevailing customs. Warren Hasting and William Jones played a signal role in codifying Hindu law by enlisting Brahmin pandits in Bengal to translate Hindu scriptures that they then used to write the Hindu laws governing property.

The colonial regime was a very mixed bag of blessings and curses when it came to its style of governing and relating to the country. While one can have an informed debate about that it is sheer intellectual dishonesty to equate, nonchalantly, the colonial regime with the Nazi regime.

India has retained so much of the colonial era, laws, colleges, educational methods, the parliamentary system and even asked the last British viceroy to remain as independent India's first governor general. No country that suffered occupation under Hitler had any modicum of affection for the Nazis let alone imbibe anything of note from Nazis.

Justice Pal and the game of moral equivalence

The game of moral equivalence in equating colonial regimes with Nazis is an old one. The victorious allies conducted the famous Nuremberg trials in which many Nazi generals were tried, convicted and executed for war crimes.

Were the Nuremberg trials 'victor's justice'? Yes, to some extent. When Yugoslav leader Milan Djilas complained to Stalin about the atrocities committed by Red Army, including rape, Stalin cooly asked him to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to understand the motives of the soldiers who sought revenge and were trudging thousands of miles fighting a merciless enemy. The soldiers of western allies too were guilty of rape, albeit at a far lesser rate. Tragically amongst those accused of rape only black soldiers were convicted and executed. While there are no saints in this sordid saga it is facetious to dismiss all of them as interchangeable sinners. The Nazis perpetrated unique horrors. Not even the Red Army was guilty of crimes that Dr Mengele committed in concentration camps, medical experiments on children.

Justice, too was not always dispensed in similar measures. While the Nuremberg trials are well known a little known similar trial is the "Tokyo Trials" and particularly unknown is the role of an Indian judge.

At Nuremberg all the Nazi top brass were convicted and many were hanged. In the Tokyo Trials, thanks mostly to Douglas MacArthur, the Japanese emperor Hirohito was declared free of guilt though he was indeed the head of a very militaristic regime that had unleashed equal horrors like the Nazis in South East Asia. Realpolitik dictated that decision. Any attempt to try and convict the Emperor would've rendered the American occupation and the attempt to reform Japan not just impossible but even led to grotesque end.

Judge Radhabinod Pal was invited by the allies to be part of a team of justices to do in Tokyo what was done in Nuremberg. Justice Pal refused to not just condemn or convict any Japanese accused he, in later years, even visited those sentenced to imprisonment. He thus earned the admiration of Japanese who commemorated him with a monument in the notorious Yasukuni shrine. Justice Pal labeled the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as 'war crimes'. To the Chinese, Filippinos and Koreans Justice Pal would appear as a despicable hair splitting legalist more intent in burnishing his place in history than in understanding or dispensing justice.

People like Justice Pal and Sashi Tharoor can serve to warm the cockles of ill informed intellectually lazy Indians but they are pathetic examples of self-righteous and pompous grandstanding.

Justice Pal (From Wikipedia)

Lessons Indian school children don't learn but should

Sashi Tharoor was generous in suggesting that British school children should learn about colonialism while he forgot that one could say, with far greater justification, that Indian school children learn very little of the dark chapters of their own history.

I grew up in a town where 44 women and children were burnt to death in a caste clash and all the accused were acquitted by courts of law. It is an incident that is burned into the memory of the populace in that area but it is not found in any book let alone school textbook. Tharoor's own party orchestrated a genocidal killing of 4000 Sikhs in the nation's capital in the aftermath of the assassination of the Prime Minister. The incumbent Prime Minister, son of the previously assassinated leader, crassly said that when a large tree falls the earth is bound to shake and he placed the accused ring leaders of the massacre in key positions in the cabinet. This ghastly incident is not in any Indian school textbook.

Ask any Indian whether India had slavery akin to what the US had and he/she would say, "not at all". Yet, the truth is otherwise. A section of India's population was treated as less than slaves, as mere objects. Colonial regime refused to use the word 'slavery' in its descriptions because they wanted to pretend that slavery was abolished in all the colonies. Of course prior to the colonial regime there were simply no record keeping let alone any such identification. However, now historical evidence of living conditions of the pariahs points to slavery.

One could go on. The list is long. At least one can find good books on colonialism, by authors of all political and ideological hues but many atrocities and dark pages of Indian history are documented mostly by western historians or Indians under the aegis of western institutions.

Churchill's place in history

Historian Richard Evans draws an important distinction between Churchill and Hitler. Hitler and the Nazis were hell bent of imposing Nazi ideology in conquered lands. Watching a documentary on the construction of Auschwitz I wondered if only Hitler had concentrated on the war he might have won. The concentration camps, the shipping of millions of prisoners from one end of Europe to another and shuttling them between camps and all the while accounting for each prisoner was an unimaginable drain on the war effort. At a Gestapo prison in Cologne I saw scribblings on the wall by a Russian prisoner brought from deep within Russia. Cologne is practically the western border of Germany and to bring a prisoner from Russia to there is no small joke. Anne Frank was arrested in Amsterdam and transported to Auschwitz in Poland and from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in the outskirts of Berlin. Such an effort if focused on the war would've made it almost impossible for the allies to win.

Churchill, Evans points out, was least interested in any social program even within England for the duration of the war. When Churchill said "you ask what is our aim? I say, 'Victory'. Victory at all costs. For without victory there is no survival" he was not speaking for the sake of rhetoric.

Nobody makes the case that Churchill was an egalitarian or a reformer or an emancipator. Men, sometimes women too, rise up to a moment in history for a specific purpose and everything else they do in life is but a sideshow. Gandhi's raison-de-etre was liberation of a nation. Nehru's mission was to lay the foundations on which a republic could be created and nurtured. Lincoln, no egalitarian himself, was meant only to end a grotesque evil that even the great founding fathers could not find the will to end. FDR, though his methods arguably failed to resurrect the economy, rose to comfort a nation that found itself in the abyss and later to be its leader facing a world at war.

Churchill has earned his place in history not only for being, as his biographer called the last volume of a trilogy, "defender of the realm" but for being clairvoyant, not once but twice. First, nobody but Churchill saw the danger that Hitler and Nazism posed. Second, nobody but Churchill saw the danger that Communism posed. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent". Very rarely in history does a man identify evil with such unerring eye, twice.

The British, notably the servicemen and women in the military, voted Churchill out of power recognizing that while he saved Britain in wartime he was ill-equipped to lead the country in peacetime. He was heckled as a 'war monger'. The servicemen and women who served in theaters of war across the world probably felt the incongruence of defending freedom only to come back and see their leader still deny the colonies their right to self government.

So why did a recent poll of Britons find them choosing Churchill as the greatest Briton? Simple, British empire came to its darkest moment in the war and only one man was fit enough to be their leader and only man persevered in defending the realm and everything they hold dear. Even as Hitler was crushing the world Lord Halifax was making the case to Churchill and the cabinet for a negotiated settlement with Hitler. Only the indomitable Churchill refused and for that the British and the world at large owe Churchill a thanks.

The colonial regime, as I've endeavored to show and possibly succeeded, is NOT interchangeable with the Nazi regime. The regime took much from India and gave too. An honest discussion of the nature of the regime can only say, as I've often said, it was a mixed bag.

As this controversy flared another drama unfolded in New Delhi. A group of farmers from Tamil Nadu encamped in Delhi and demanded to meet the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to voice their grievances regarding a draught and the dire economic conditions they are in. Failing to be able to meet the PM they group has resorted to dramatic protests, including running naked in the streets of Delhi. In free India an aggrieved citizen could not get to meet the leader of the country. It is a cliche that "Good government is no substitute for self government" but these farmers would give anything to get a Lord Ripon or a Nehru. Alexander Pope said 'for forms of government let fools rush. what is best administered is best'.

Sadly Indian democracy barely lives to the promise that it should have lived up to. And that's a shame.


My earlier blogs:

1. Part 1
2. Racism of Indian leaders


  1. The Last Lion - William Manchester (Vol 1 and 3 chiefly)
  2. All Hell Let Loose - Max Hastings
  3. The Reich trilogy by Richard Evans
  4. Gandhi and Churchill - Arthur Herman
  5. Mahatma - D.G. Tendulkar (Volume 6)
  6. Mein Kampf - Adolf Hitler
  7. Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives -- Rudrangshu Mukherjee
  8. Discovery of India -- Jawaharlal Nehru
  9. The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and caste society in India -- David Mosse
  10. The Pariah problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India -- Rupa Viswanathan
  11. India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia - Srinath Raghavan
  12. India at War-- Yasmin KHan
  13. Famine: A short history - Cormac O Grada
  14. Lenigrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-44 -- Anna Reid
  15. Conversations with Stalin - Milan Djilas
  16. Appropriation and Invention of Tradition: The East India Company and Hindu Law in Early Colonial Bengal -- Nandini Bhattacharya-Panda
  17. British Policy in India - S.Gopal
  18. Viceroyalty of Lord Ripon - S. Gopal
  19. Thy hand great anarch - Nirad C. Chaudhuri 
  20. Justice Pal - New York Times article
  21. Justice Pal
  22. Indian famine codes
  23. History of famine scales
  24. Famine -- Encyclopedia Britannica
  25. Great Famine of 1876-78–78
  26. Gandhi breaks 21 day fast -- Indian Express clipping,4555643

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