The British people love Winston Churchill. To most of us, Churchill represents triumph in the face of all odds; of plucky little Britain’s ability to defeat Nazism and, in many ways, to save the world. He has been heroically depicted in everything from Doctor Who to Young Indiana Jones and with two major biopics about Winston Churchill released within the last six months, it comes as no surprise that a BBC poll found him to be ‘The Greatest Briton of All Time’.
However, despite the noble and heroic character popularised in European and American media, Churchill’s role as leader of the British Empire, which was directly responsible for four million Indian deaths, is woefully ignored in Britain. For a fifth of the world’s population however, it is the single action for which Churchill is most infamous. Madhusree Mukherjee’s recent book, ‘Churchill’s secret war’ reveals the true extent of both his racism and his involvement in the Bengal famine of 1943.
Only two hundred years previously, Bengal – the fertile region in Eastern India and Bangladesh – had been the economic heart of the great Mughal empire. Known as The Paradise of Nations, the region accounted for 12% of the world economy and boasted better wages and living standards than anywhere in Europe. However, as the East India Company, and later the British crown, began to exert power over the region, it’s wealth was sent off to Britain, leading the region into a period of slow relative decline.
In 1943 a famine hit. The Second World War was in full flow and Bengal, now predominantly agrarian – a result of two centuries of forced colonial deindustrialisation – was hit with a major shortage of food. It was in the midst of this famine that the British government, fearing a Japanese attack, enacted a scorched earth policy across Bengal, burning boats and fields of crops en masse, to ensure that the Japanese would not be able to hold the land. But, the Japanese never arrived.
Hoarding began and soon starvation gave way to cholera, dysentery, malaria and smallpox. The British government held large reserves of wheat, and this would have been an obvious time to use them, yet despite it being a direct result of colonial policies in the region, no help was given to the victims of the famine. Indeed, Churchill, the British prime minister at the time, ordered that the Indian food reserves be diverted to buffer reserve stocks in countries such as Greece instead. Historians Professor Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper write in their 2005 book “The prime minister believed that Indians were the next worst people in the world after the Germans. Their treachery had been plain in the Quit India movement. The Germans he was prepared to bomb into the ground. The Indians he would starve to death as a result of their own folly and viciousness.”
Mukherjee explains how Churchill refused to send aid to Bengal, or indeed let others help, ‘in spite of repeated appeals from two successive Viceroys, Churchill’s own Secretary of State for India and even the President of the United States’. In response to a telegram from Delhi regarding the millions dying of starvation due to the famine, Churchill simply asked “Why isn’t Gandhi dead yet”.
“I hate Indians,” he proclaimed to Leopold Amery, the Indian Secretary of State. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”.
By the time the famine ended, an estimated 4 million people had died, three times more than during the Rwandan Genocide. That autumn, food stockpiles in the United Kingdom swelled to 18.5 million tonnes.
Despite the mass of films about Winston Churchill’s youth, his physical health and his relationships with his family, there is yet to be a single film revolving around his relationship to empire and the Indian Subcontinent. His reputation as saviour and embodiment of British values has yet to take into account his role as leader of the largest empire the world has ever seen.
With post-Brexit Britain relying so heavily on its relationships with the Commonwealth, it is more important than ever for us to address our shared colonial past. To many in the Indian subcontinent, Churchill’s reputation is parallel to that of Hitler in Europe. Indeed, prominent Indian politician Shashi Tharoor has proclaimed, “This is the man who the British insist on hailing as some apostle of freedom and democracy, when to my mind he is really one of the more evil rulers of the 20th century, only fit to stand in the company of the likes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin”.
The Bengal Famine is not the only smear on Churchill’s reputation. Further cited ‘war crimes’ include the bombing of Dresden, the handing over of the whole Eastern block to the USSR and the awarding of £26,000 (over a millions pounds today) to Brigadier Dyer, the mastermind behind the brutal Amritsar massacre.
And yet, in September 2016, only eight months after the Oxford Union voted in favour of tearing down the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the walls of Oriel college, Winston Churchill’s face crept onto every five pound note in the country. This new move attracted no controversy.
A year and a half on and two popular biopics later, Churchill is still widely regarded as ‘The Greatest Briton of All Time’. Once again it is time for the British to look in the mirror and begin questioning its Imperial past.