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From A World to Win News Service

Book Review: Churchills Secret War in India

by Susannah York
April 11, 2011. A World to Win News Service. Madhusree Mukerjees book, Churchills
Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (Basic
Books, New York, 2010), is a deeply moving read. Her subject is the 1943 famine that
ravaged India for over a year, snuffing out the lives of 3 million people. Mukerjee argues
that the figure should be adjusted upwards to over 5 million. When thinking about the
millions of dead resulting from World War II, many atrocities come to mind: the 6 million
Jews killed in the concentration camps, half a million Roma, 20 million Soviet citizens, 8
million Chinese, to name only some examples. Not so well-known, especially to people
from the imperialist citadels, are those who suffered and died from what Mukerjee calls
the man-made famine in India, a human catastrophe that could have been easily
prevented if Churchill had not refused to assign available ships from Australia to carry
their surplus grain to the Bengal region. This famine gets rarely mentioned in British
A former writer/editor for Scientific American and a trained scientist in her own right,
Mukerjees preoccupation with the question of hunger and famine led her to delve deeply
and thoroughly into the archives of the British War Cabinet and the Ministries of War and
Transport, the correspondence between the various major British players, and their
memoirs during World War II. Much of this material was first made available in the mid2000s. Among them are Britains Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Secretary of State to
India Leopold Amery (who thought that the British Empire should be contiguous and
stretch from Cape Town through Cairo, Baghdad and Calcutta to Sydney) and the
successive viceroys to India, Lords Linlithgow and Wavell. In an interview, Mukerjee
acknowledges that given where her investigation was leading, she knew that if she were
not especially careful, she would be torn apart by those who hated her conclusions.
Mukerjees prologue provides background to how the British government subjugated
India in 1757 and continued robbing it through steep taxation, theft of resources, unequal
trade and the exploitation of its people for 200 years under colonial domination until its
independence in 1947. Peasants were forced to pay the British East India Company rent
for the land they farmed and to turn over a large percentage of the crop yield. The once
prosperous exporters in the Bengal region of North-East India (including what is now
Bangladesh) became impoverished as British-bound ships loaded with gold, silver, silks
and other valuable commodities sailed off to London.
Mukerjee spells out many interpenetrating features that contributed to the famine,
contextualizing it in the raging world war and the independence movement against
Britain then gathering force. Among those factors was the fall of Burma to the Japanese;
the hoarding of rice by brokers from Bengal, other Indian provinces and also Ceylon,
creating exorbitant prices; Churchills intense racism and hatred of Indians and above all,
in this reviewers opinion, his ruthless determination to preserve the British empire. With
the onset of World War II, maintaining the empires interests was Churchills uppermost
goal, and he took decisions around the war effort accordingly. India was already
contributing to the war effort on many fronts, from soldiers fighting in the Middle East to
sending grain and other exports.
The British army had thousands of troops stationed in India, both British and Indian.
The very large Indian army was poorly trained by the British for fear the guns would be
turned on them. Feeding the soldiers as well as those involved in industries considered
essential to the war effort was considered a priority. This included workers in industries in
other colonies like the rubber workers in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). Feeding other
civilians didnt fit into the calculus of the war effort.

The British empire was taking a beating in the South Asian theater of war. In 1942 the
Japanese captured Singapore, then Burma, one of the largest rice exporters to British
colonies and the UK itself. Burma provided 15-20 percent of Indias rice consumption. The
conquest of Burma also meant that Japan was at Indias doorstep, with the threat of
imminent invasion.
The British response, euphemistically called the Denial Policy, was meant to deprive
the Japanese of any useful material they might seize in an invasion. All along coastal
Bengal, vehicles of any kind (trucks, cars, thousands of bicycles and boats, bullock carts,
etc.) were requisitioned by the military authorities and rice stocks were destroyed or
removed. In addition, 35,000 families lost their homes and livelihoods to military barracks
and air strips.
As Mukerjee describes it, Boats were the primary form of transport of riverine
Bengal. Most villagers were so poor that they either walked or boarded a ferry. Boats took
traders to the market, fishers to the sea, potters to their clay pits, and farmers to their
plots, which were often marooned between vast swathes of river. Even the viceroys
secretary Leonard Pinnell understood that demolishing boats meant destroying
livelihoods. He said for anyone who knows the Bengal cultivator it was a completely
heart-breaking job.
With the fall of Burma, not only did India have to get by without the usual tonnage of
rice imports, she also supplied rice to those parts of the British Empire that previously
received rice exports from Burma. With the scarcity came the hoarding by Indian
businessmen who stood to make huge profits when the rice price skyrocketed.
As evidence of impending disaster grew, on several occasions Viceroy Wavell and
Secretary to India Amery appealed to Churchill, the War Cabinet and Shipping Ministries,
warning them of the impending food crisis. To Amery, Churchill replied, If food was so
scarce, why hadnt Gandhi died yet (Gandhi, a leader of the Quit India movement
imprisoned along with others seeking independence, was on a hunger strike at the time).
To others, Churchill claimed that there were no boats. Previously German U2 submarines
were sinking British supply boats. But by 1942 that problem had ceased once the U.S.
began building ships for British use and sending airplanes to protect British convoys
against German subs. Rather than not enough ships, there was a surplus of ships that did
not have enough cargo to fill them, documents Mukerjee. She argues that this was the
critical moment when Churchill could have allocated the shipment of wheat from Australia
to India. (Canada and the U.S. also volunteered to provide aid.) It would have made
hoarding unprofitable and food accessible to the rural population of Bengal province.
To complicate matters, in October 1942, a major cyclone hit Bengal, flooding the land
with salt water, destroying every house and tree on the flatlands adjacent to the sea,
sweeping away farm animals and leaving a layer of sand that flattened the rice crop. The
moisture caused pest infestation, destroying the meager amounts of grain that the
peasants had acquired. Some local survivors date the famine as starting from this storm.
Cyclone relief was withheld by the British authorities because the population was
infested with Quit India movement supporters. Instead they went to ferret them out and
set fire to those homes still standing and burned any rice that survived the storm.
The famine struck ferociously in rural Bengal. Mukerjee vividly describes its effect,
drawing on interviews with survivors. Many suicides, mercy killings and cases of child
abandonment took place among families who could no longer bear to see the wild-eyed,
starving faces of their children. Mass prostitution by village mothers, wives or daughters
with anyone who had grain often saved whole families. Brothels for soldiers were serviced
by the starving young girls from the countryside. Many were lured by promises of a real
job and then forced into servitude, in much the same way as today women are forced into
prostitution around the world.
The streets of Calcutta were flooded with skeletal figures waiting in soup kitchen lines
for a thin gruel, which often failed to keep them alive. One agitated mother appealed to

relief workers, Please, take us first for her babys sake, but by the time she finally made
it to the front of the queue that was full of others equally desperate, her baby had died.
The situation became so serious that people at evening parties attended by the upper
classes began discussing remedies. Bodies, dead and nearly alive, were carted out of the
city to keep them out of sight as much as possible. Even the dogs preyed and feasted on
those near death. Amidst this tragedy, hotels in Calcutta continued to serve five-course
meals to those who could afford them.
Much heroism also occurred in confronting the lack of food, with neighbors or older
siblings somehow keeping younger ones alive. Children made up half the refugees
flocking to Calcutta. They often appeared alone, with no one knowing what village they
came from or what happened to their parents. Babies were left abandoned on hospital
doorsteps in hopes they would be saved. One survivor, Gourhori Majhi, recounts how he
lived by the grace of one relief worker. He told Mukerjee, the food served at the relief
kitchen was like water. The family had sold its utensils and would accept the soup in
cupped leaves, but others would snatch even these out of their hands. The child
(Gourhori) was fortunate, though, in that his swollen belly caught the eye of a gentleman
with the relief operations, who called him aside. He gave me a few grains of rice and
watched me eat them. Day after day for months the man had fed him, in secret and a
little at a time, so that the body slowly recovered. Officers reprimanded sympathetic
rank and file soldiers (Indian and British) stationed there who gave their rations to the
While the Japanese bombarded the city of Calcutta, they never invaded. The Japanese
army was bogged down in China, which proved to be a tough piece of meat (as Mao
Tsetung said) for the occupiers. Unlike Churchill, who feared unleashing the subjugated
Indian soldiers, Mao did not fear mobilizing the Chinese masses who saw it in their
interests to fight the invading Japanese army, eventually routing it, just as the Soviet
masses had broken the back of Hitlers army.
In the backdrop of the complexities of the war situation, the struggle for
independence from Britain escalated. The Indian National Congress led by Nehru and
Gandhi were part of the backbone of the Quit India movement. The Congress was willing
to trade Indian independence in exchange for supporting the British war against Japan.
While Gandhi wanted to keep the movement against the British non-violent, his position
would have meant dragging the Indian people even deeper into the warone in which
British aims were to keep Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and other colonies.
Nevertheless, the independence leaders were arrested and thousands imprisoned for
what was considered to be impeding the war effort. I have not become the Kings First
Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire, Churchill famously
In 1940, the British War Cabinet had stated that if conflict with Congress should
arise, it should appear as an outcome of war necessity rather than as a political quarrel
unrelated to the war. Mukerjee says that the rise of the independence struggle led
Churchill to hate Indians more than ever. But actually, Churchill understood what was
objectively at stake. A strong independence movement was a threat to the British empire
and India was one of many rebelling colonies wrestling for independence from the
The intensity developing in the independence struggle was met by the police killing
insurgents and burning down homes and possessions, including the remaining grain that
the peasants still had, and gang-raping women. In some rural areas, the insurgents
organized the peasants to prevent grain from being sent to businessmen hoarders in
Calcutta and were met with a hail of police bullets. As part of the divide and conquer
approach of the British and Churchill, the police encouraged Muslims from different
villages to join them in looting better-off Hindu homes.

To prove her point, Mukerjee cites many statistics from a broad range of sources
about food shipments through the war years, the number of boats available for shipping,
and the changed situation in 1943 when the famine became virulent. While
acknowledging many contributory factors, she exposes Churchills monstrous lie that no
ships were available when there was a glut of ships available, sailing around with halfempty hulls.
Churchill pit the Muslim League against the National Congress, fanning religious fury
and other rivalries, encouraging them to insist on the creation of a separate state for
Muslims (todays Pakistan and Bangladesh). With the Congress leaders in prison, the
Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah (who had promised support for the British war effort
in exchange for British recognition of his Muslim League as the only organization
representing Indian Muslims) commanded the political stage in India. Appealing to Muslim
nationalism, the idea of creating a Muslim state inflamed passions and encouraged
bloodletting between Muslim and Hindus. Again, ever watchful for the interests of empire,
Churchill thought that the creation of Pakistan would make that state beholden to the UK,
thus enabling Britain to keep a foothold in the South Asian region.
While even today polls in the UK hail Winston Churchill as a great statesman, perhaps
the greatest ever, many people remain unaware of his war crimes. Yet Churchill never hid
his desire to keep the British Empire intact. Many of his statements openly state his
strongest motivations. In the Spanish Civil War, at first Churchill sided with the fascist
General Franco against the Republicans, but he overcame those gut feelings in the
interest of the British empire. Hugh Thomas book The Spanish Civil War (Harper & Row,
1961) quotes Churchill: Franco has all the right on his side because he loves his country.
Also Franco is defending Europe from the communist dangerif you wish to put it in
those terms. But I, I am English, and I prefer the triumph of the wrong cause. I prefer that
the other side wins, because Franco could be an upset or a threat to British interests.
Churchill had a bull-dog grasp of what was best for the interests of British monopoly
capital, both at home and in the colonies and neo-colonies where superexploitation built
up the wealth of the empire. The economic and social relations embodied in capitalism
requires brutal forms of exploitation and oppression of the people and colonies it
subjugates in its effort to ever expand. For profit and empire, there is no horror or crime
that a statesman for a capitalist-imperialist empire will not commit. The armies of all the
imperialist powers criss-crossed the globe in a war over how it would be divided up
between them. The significance of this books title, Churchills Secret War, in this
reviewers opinion, is that Britain was both using India to wage war against Japan and at
the same time waging a no less deadly conflict against the Indian people, who were the
booty both sides in World War II sought.
Despicable and criminal as it was, Churchills racism no doubt spared him of any
anguish over the deaths of millions of subjects to Her Majesty, the Queen of England.
From the viewpoint of the interests of British imperialism, a famine in India just didnt
The days when European powers enjoyed direct and open government over colonies
may be over, but imperialism as an economic and political system in which a handful of
countries dominate and bleed the world is still in force. While today is not marked by a
war between the imperialists, their invasions, occupations and other armed actions in the
name of humanitarian ideals and democracy are driven by the same kind of interests,
even if in different circumstances than those that Churchill so viciously embodied.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a
political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary

Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the worlds Marxist-Leninist-Maoist

parties and organizations.
Revolution #230, April 24, 2011