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1843 famine, Calcutta
1943 famine, Calcutta

This week, 93 years ago, India finally abandoned any hope of living in peace with the British Raj. When British guns blazed frenetically in the Punjab shedding blood in the holy city of Amritsar, our awkward, abusive marriage was well and truly over.

But the horrendous violence that was wrought upon unarmed villagers on the 13th of April 1919, assembled at the Bagh mainly for Baishakhi and quite unaware of the curfew in place, isn’t the actual crime though. The killing and injuring of hundreds even thousands of men, women and children; the firing without warning straight into the crowd and then into the thickest part of it when it broke up and people ran in a complete panic towards absent exits — to be crushed underfoot or against walls; shooting continuously until they ran out of ammunition, executing people wholesale and then leaving them there in piles of bodies, to die, if they weren’t already, of their injuries; the utter and deliberate disregard for human life and for humanity itself – these aren’t the real crimes.

The real horror is in the way that this act of terrorism (by Churchill’s own admission) was applauded by large sections of British society, both in India and in the UK. In the clubs across India, in the homes, barracks, and offices, prim, polite Englishmen and Englishwomen were sipping drinks served by their ‘native servants’ and celebrating the temporarily ranked Brigadier-General Dyer’s firm handedness in dealing with these local upstarts, who had had the cheek to confront British authority or worse, challenge the white man’s unquestionable right to bear his ‘burden’. Surely these Indians would think again now.

They certainly were thinking again. Thinking again why 43,000 Indians died fighting for Britain in the World War I, why Indian politicians remained loyal to the UK, assuaging fears that we would use this opportunity to revolt while they were committed militarily in Europe. We were also thinking again about why nearly 1.25 million Indian soldiers and labourers served the war effort, and why our independent Princes sent food, money, and ammunition of their own accord, to help Britain in her time of need. But mostly we were thinking again about why we ever expected the British to honour their agreement and give Indians more legislative liberty once the War was over.

The end of the British Raj in India, 1947.
The end of the British Raj in India, 1947.

But what happened there, in Amritsar, was something that no one quite expected. Not even the British. In a 1920 speech to the House of Commons by Winston Churchill – then Secretary of State for War – and showing uncharacteristic sympathy for Indians, answered questions about how it would be ‘un-English’ to punish Dyer for simply doing his part to protect the Empire with these comments,
‘It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.
… An unarmed crowd stands in a totally different position from an armed crowd. At Amritsar the crowd was neither armed nor attacking. I carefully said that when I used the word “armed” I meant armed with lethal weapons, or with firearms. There is no dispute between us on that point. “I was confronted,” says General Dyer, “by a revolutionary army.” What is the chief characteristic of an army? Surely it is that it is armed. This crowd was unarmed. These are simple tests, which it is not too much to expect officers in these difficult situations to apply.

… There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called “frightfulness.”What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.

… Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things.’

Dyer was relieved of command and forced to retire, but he was never punished and enjoyed the support of many higher officials, including the Army Council and the Deputy-Governor of Punjab Micheal O’ Dwyer – who formally congratulated him. In fact nothing at all might have happened to him, had it not been for Lord William Hunter, who relied on his conscience and not on popular sentiment to deliver his judgement — sentiment that was echoed in the House of Lords, and even, sadly, by Rudyard Kipling who started a fund for General Dyer as recompense for his loss of pension.

Churchill may have thought the ‘British way’ was infallibly honourable, in the supercilious, super-silliness of the age I suppose he had to, a bit like the Americans have to today. But in reality, the British Empire in India was a particularly ignoble endeavour, and there was nothing at all isolated about that sinister, monstrous event. In fact just two days later, on the 15th of April, another gathering at Gujaranwala, protesting the massacre at Amritsar, was set upon by the British, this time with aeroplanes and machine guns, killing 12 more people including children.

Indians were routinely subjected to all manner of violence, from being publicly flogged, to being tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to bits. Summary executions were common, so was torture and exile. And of course apart from the physical violence, there were the psychological and the economic ones as well. In 1943, three million Bengalis died slowly of starvation, because Churchill didn’t think it worth his while to send food to them. In fact the frequency and intensity of famines during British rule in India was consistently higher on both counts than it had ever been in years prior, or has been since. So callous was Britain’s attitude towards the loss of life in India that when Florence Nightingale put out a series of publications during the late 1800’s with the hope of educating the British public about the human cost of their luxuriant Empire, it had little effect.

Before the British arrived, famines occurred mostly in drier parts around Delhi and Sindh, not in fertile and agriculturally endowed areas like Bengal or South India. Yet in British times these are exactly where they happened, resulting in extermination on a scale that makes the Nazi’s look like sloppy amateurs. A staggering number of people were allowed to die. Each famine killed millions – nearly 10 million in the Great Famine of 1876-78, and ten years before that in 1866, nearly a third of the population of Orissa at the time. Various theories exist about why this was the case, but the general consensus seems to be that it includes the following: land usage for industrial crops like indigo, jute and cotton at the expense of food grain and livestock, the commoditisation of grain, export agriculture for foreign revenue with little thought about domestic subsistence, inadequate transportation, heavy taxation, ridiculously low wages, a redirection of resources towards military spending and British upkeep, a conspicuous absence of any accountability or system of representation for Indians and more tellingly, an absolute lack of care for Indian life.

Even when decent men like the writer William Digby who witnessed the tragedy of 1876 first-hand, insisted that there be some policy change or some sort of famine relief, he was defeated by the Viceroy’s pompous assumption that it would only make the Indian workers lazy – ‘demoralisation’, I think is what he called it. I suppose it offended his principles less to exploit them thoroughly, before starving them to death. Around the same time that Indians were experiencing an agonising and skeletal demise, this celebrated and Right Honourable Earl of a diplomat, held a banquet for almost 60,000 guests, while exported tons of rice and grain to the UK and the USA as part of policy of non-interference with free trade – England’s lifeblood, siphoned off from the varicose veins of an atrophying India.

No one sums it up better than the American scholar Mike Davis who calls the famines ‘late Victorian Holocausts’, and says,
“Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.”

Far from being a well-ordered example of British administrative prowess, and without much of a ‘civilising mission’ anywhere in sight, the Raj was in fact a shabby and mismanaged disgrace, excelling only at dispassionate plunder cleverly disguised as government. Bengal, for instance, with all its wealth and abundance, whose people had never before experienced such acute want, were robbed to the point of being beggared, copping it badly on both ends – at the start of British occupation and at the finish. In 1770, only 13 years after the British orchestrated a regime change in Murshidabad, the richest province of the Mughal realm experienced a famine so severe that a third of the population, possibly 10 million people, perished in only 10 months. And as a parting gift, just 5 years before they left, while Hitler was putting into place his ‘final solution’ for the Jews, Churchill cut off supplies of rice and other staples to Bengal to deprive the Japanese Army of sustenance, should they break through the Eastern gate after the fall of Myanmar. This ‘scorched earth’ policy was among other disastrous strategies concocted by the British government to protect all sorts of priorities in India, none of which were the lives of Indians, who were instead slaughtered by the millions at the alter of administrative oversight.

To put things into perspective, since the British left there hasn’t been another famine of such unconscionable proportions anywhere in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan. Ever. If that isn’t the last word on all that then I don’t know what is.

The 1878 famine had, as one might expect, a profound and permanent impact on Indian affairs. It led to the end of the Raj in fact. British civil servants in India like William Wedderburn and A.O. Hume distraught by how the Government in India regarded Indians as little more than disposable labour, and India’s first political leader the formidable Bal Gangadhar Tilak as well as Gopal Krishna Gokhale joined forces to form the Indian National Congress, less than a decade later in 1885. The rest is history, or rather, the present, as the Congress party is still going strong and is to date the most successful horse in the Indian race.

In April 1919, Amritsar became the tipping point in our struggle for Freedom. Kobi guru Robindronath Thakur returned his knighthood, the slogans gradually changed from “Home Rule’ to ‘Quit India’, and Gandhiji was finally incensed enough to see the futility of believing there could ever be a relationship of two adults between the UK and India. The chord was cut. Dominion status would no longer do and only full independence was acceptable. Britain would have to be forced to stand entirely on its own feet; it would have to be weaned completely off the effusive Indian tit on which it had grown so very fat.

Zeeshan Khan writes from Brisbane, Australia.

3 Responses to “The Starvation Raj”

  1. fugstar

    I read Madhusree Mukherjee’s book on the 1943 famine (Churchill’s Secret War) and was absolutely livid.

    The 1973-4 famine in Bangladesh and the mass NGO orgy post Independence leads me to beleive that we arent so far from famine anymore and we havent really addressed what we need to.

  2. Fazle

    Zeehsan, great article, I especially liked the last line….

    • Azizul

      Zesshan, thanks for the article. Well written! I know it’s a public writing and there is little scope to elaborate and go deep into the historical debate. However, it would be nice if you would clearly state that what you intended to achieve in this article. Yes, of course, you raised some important questions which were, unfortunately, unanswered in your essay. For example, while the other parts of India would from time to time saw famine, ecologically balanced Bengal, particularly eastern Bengal, never endured acute food crisis before 1943. Certainly, the question may interest one is — why it experienced famine in 1943. The general and simplistic assumption is– war. Yes it might be one of the immediate reasons as because of war and the imperial policy Bengal could not import food grains from Burma or elsewhere. But, for me one needs to go beyond this reason. If you observe you will see that at the turn of the 20th century food production decreased in eastern Bengal. And especially during the 1930’s eastern Bengal had to import food grains from Burma that it did not need in the nineteenth century or before. It would rather export food grains to other parts of India. Consequently the question interests us is that why food production decreased in Bengal especially at the turn of the 20th century.

      Some historians argue because of the permanent settlement, which by abusing and over exploiting peasants led a detrimental effect on Bengal agriculture as whole. But we may find another plausible reason. This is the systematic destruction of ecology of Bengal, especially eastern, by the British Raj by constructing railways, as to establish railway, the government needed erect many embankments which certainly had damaging effect on the environment. If you consult government reports, you will find the complaint of water logging very often. And water hyacinth was another ‘monster’ that had a serious effect on the ecology. Thus because of this destruction of balanced ecology of Bengal, precisely eastern Bengal, agriculture significantly deteriorated.

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