Mark Collins – The British Raj and The 1943 Bengal Famine: A Crime Against Humanity?

This horror has been hard on my mind for about half a century.  Active Hitlerite or Stalinist mass murder aside (and see Mao at the end of the post), keep in mind the three million or so Soviet prisoners of war who died in the captivity of the–non-Nazi–German Wehrmacht during World War II, mainly by starvation.  They were, especially in 1941 when the most massive number of prisoners were taken, simply a racially inferior impediment to the military’s war effort.  Rather as the British saw the desperation in Bengal.

It astounds me that Bengalis, Indians, and Pakistanis seem generally to have forgiven, if not forgotten.  From Raghu Karnad’s The Farthest Field: A Story Of India’s Second World War, pp. 162-166:



That there had been famine in Bengal was kept out of the papers even till late August [1943], by which time the company [of the British Indian Army] was preoccupied in Monghyr.  They were warned, but never prepared for the sight of it.  At the Alipore station, the platform was thick with imploded bodies.  The squeal of the train brakes pulled the jointed skin and bone onto its feet, and dragged it alongside till the train was at a halt.  Then the arms and huge eyes were at the bars, scanning the sappers’ own eyes for wayward hints of charity.  The VCOs [Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers, authority over Indian soldiers only] went carriage to carriage, slamming down shutters, shouting orders that the men were not to hand out rations.   

At the gates of the freight yard, while they waited for transport and Bobby [an Indian Parsi] checked inventories, he watched figures diving onto the road behind each departing lorry to search the ruts for fallen rice…

In Calcutta [the capital of Bengal], civilisation stood before a fun-house mirror. Part of it bulged out past recognition and the other part collapsed inwards.  There was high life and piteous death, both gross and gaudy, two worlds not colliding but sliding past each other like trams on parallel tracks [remember there were a large number of white Commonwealth and US forces in the city too]…

Two thousand were dying every month in Calcutta alone.  The earlier they were into starvation, the more difficult it was to look, because they were still trying–searching for susceptible soldiers, for rancid army scraps, for water that had been used to boil rice.  The families were still families, and were still able to share.  Despite their leathery skin and boar hair, they recognized themselves.  The shade of prettiness still lay over women’s features.  Later they only repelled you.  Then the municipal trucks came around to pick up their corpses, and carried them out of the city for mass burial.

…The famine was born in the easternmost districts, to a conspiracy of nature, war and human prejudice.  It began in 1942 with the loss of Burma, and with it, the Burmese rice surplus on which Bengal’s population had long relied…

…A cyclone hit in October, inundating the region up to forty miles in from the sea.  In Chittagong, to pass the time, RAF airmen filled their pockets with incendiary rounds and walked out onto the dykes above the river.  They settled down, wearing gas masks against the stench, and took turns shooting at the bloated corpses rolling in the flood.  When they hit one escaping gases popped with flame.

The cyclone ruined harvests, and farmers ate their seed stores.  By the spring of 1943, church and civil groups were warning officials about starvation deaths.  Bengal’s [British] government…refused to listen.  Following their prime minister, they took the view that Britain had endured shortages since 1940, with unity and resolve; Indians could do the same, or else pay the cost of their own venality.  At a meeting of his War Cabinet, Churchill declared his view that only those Indians directly contributing to the war effort needed to be fed [a defence of Churchill here].

…The famine would consume 3 million lives before it was over.  The newly generous Indian Army rations only made the situation look worse.  The mercenaries feasted among the starving slaves…

What a wonder it is to make much of man.  And then the Chinese mass killer extraordinaire who still gets a pretty free pass (note links at end, esp. “36 million dead”):

Dead People, Chicoms, or, Would Anyone Write Thus about A.H.? Part 2

Recently, also based on Raghu Karnad’s book:

Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) After WW II: The Indian Army and the Raj

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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