5 January 1943
On 5 January 1943, Winston Churchill ordered the tonnage of shipping allocated for the Indian Ocean area to be slashed by 56 per cent, despite grave concerns expressed by Lord Linthigow, the Viceroy, that India faced a crippling food shortage. By contrast, Britain’s food reserves still exceeded, by at least fifty percent, the minimum deemed necessary as a safety margin against any unexpected disruption to supply by German u-boats or diversions of shipping required for military purposes.1 There was no imminent danger of hunger or even bread rationing in Britain, which was not introduced until after the war. The prime minister’s goal was rather to bolster the country’s longer term influence on the world stage. He planned to build up stocks which would be more than ample for large scale military operations, even if the Americans refused to support them, and which would also help mitigate the austere economies which would soon be necessary to pay off Britain’s post-war debts to the United States.
As Churchill authorised the selective belt-tightening, the situation across the subcontinent, and particularly Bengal, deteriorated rapidly. By 10 January it was already sufficiently serious to make the headlines in British newspapers, with the Sunday Chronicle reporting that ‘millions are facing famine in some of India’s main cities… (as) black markets are cornering big quantities of grain before it reaches the city markets.’3 The paper did not mention that the biggest black marketeers were British government officials, who were making huge forward purchases knowing that the price of grain would rise. In February they were ordered to ‘go to any place and purchase at any price.’ Much of this was requisitioned for military use and some for export.
Historian Madhusree Mukerjee noted that ‘whereas India annually imported at least a million tons of rice and wheat before the war, it exported a net 360,000 tons during the fiscal year April 1, 1942, to March 31, 1943,’ with a disastrous impact on market prices.4 Even as late as 5 March, the war cabinet’s shipping committee turned down a desperate request from the viceroy not to continue to divert shipping to Britain. The predictable consequence of this persistent indifference and delay was one of the worst famines in India’s history. Between two and three million died either from hunger or fatalities from diseases related to the malnutrition, mass migrations and overcrowding. Only the dogs and jackals benefited, feasting on the piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages.5
- Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Basic Books, New York, 2011 pp. 110-127.
- ‘Millions Facing Famine in India,’ The Sunday Pictorial, 10 January 1943, p. 3.
- Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Basic Books, New York, 2011 p. 130.
- Soutik Biswas, How Churchill Starved India, BBC News, 28 October 2010 accessed online at url http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/soutikbiswas/2010/10/how_churchill_starved_india.html
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