The Bengal Famine- The lesser known story

Churchill's policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study | World news  | The Guardian
The long lines of people waiting for food

India post colonisation and the legacy the Raj left behind will remain etched in the aeons of history. Stories of atrocities, human rights violations and the oppression by the Raj have been continually retold. One such atrocity that the British to this day continue to be condemned for due to the “alleged British role in causing it” is the Bengal Famine. 

The Bengal Famine of 1943 was undoubtedly the largest famine that took place during the British Colonial rule in India. Taking the lives of almost 3 million Indians, the famine was one of the biggest tragedies at the time. While many believe this horrific famine was manmade and largely exacerbated by the British during the time, there were several other lesser-known, yet significant factors that are often overlooked even today.

The first of these factors was the inflation that was caused by the ongoing demands of the second world war at the time. In a massive attempt to finance the Second World War, the British were attempting to collect money in three different ways from the war economy: Taxing, borrowing from the public and printing currency. The concept of printing currency especially, during the war effort was one that had a number of adverse effects that were not rightly anticipated. This massive increase in deficit financing in the year 1942 led to a surge in demand. Bengal however remained a deficit state that greatly relied on imports for rice and wheat. Since agricultural outputs were not increasing, prices tripled within a span of just two years. Ironically, the brunt of this hike in the price of food was borne largely by the rural classes of India. There were famines in other regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Bombay, Travancore, Hyderabad and Madras also. The extent of inflation in India at the time was so great that on one occasion, the secretary of India’s civil defence department stated that “Inflation at present (1942-43) is a much greater risk to India than either the Germans or the Japanese”. This problem being faced by the Indian Economy at the time, however, is a factor that is often left out of consideration and to this day, the Bengal Famine is the only famine widely discussed of its time, perhaps due to the massive fatalities caused. However, Britain’s poor response to the situation can’t be mitigated in as a factor.

The second lesser-known factor of the Bengal famine was the unprecedented shortage of rice in the region. The Japanese occupation of Burma in the year 1942, resulted in a restriction on rice imports from Burma. Rice, being the staple food of Bengal at the time, coupled with a restriction on “inter-state trade in the region greatly aggravated the issue”. During this time, farmers began to anticipate a rise in rice prices as a result of these restrictions and began to hoard the remaining rice supplies, the brunt of which was once again borne by the labourers and the lower strata of society. Hoarding and black marketeering also precipitated the scale of the famine.

While the Bengal Famine was one that was caused due to several reasons, it could have undoubtedly been ameliorated had it not been for the inefficiencies and negligence on the part of the British, who chose to prioritise a number of other issues over the loss of millions of Indian lives. Winston Churchill, the administrator at the time was fully aware of the extent of the famine in Bengal and yet chose to blame the Indian people for it as he believed it was entirely their fault for “breeding like rabbits”. Neglect and sheer disregard for Indian lives were increasingly evident when the British made no attempt to hide their reluctance to import food into Bengal. 

To this day, it remains well known that the British administration in India, by the year 1943 were not new to famines. Often caused by drought and massive dwellings of people living in abject poverty, by the time of the Bengal famine, the British were well versed with the ways to deal with these situations in India. As early as the year 1880, the British had developed a series of famine codes, one of the earliest famine scales. Yet, for a long time, during the Bengal Famine, the British chose to turn a blind eye without declaring the deaths in Bengal to be a result of the famine. Aid that could be provided from the Indian supplemental reserves at the time to the victims of the famine was denied, as a result causing more thousands more deaths. 

The Bengal famine was unfortunate and marks some of the darkest chapters of human tragedy during the Raj. Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister of Britain has been largely criticized for turning a blind eye and single-handedly allowing the tragedy to reach unimaginable proportions. Over the years, closer analysis has revealed that while Winston Churchill and British policies can be blamed for worsening the crisis, prioritising white lives over Indians and not doing all in their ability to save human lives, the notion that a single person or set of administrators were the sole cause of the famine remains implausible; the Bengal famine was the result of a cumulation of factors.


India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia by Srinath Raghavan