Churchill a bigot, but don’t blame him for 3m deaths

Shashi Tharoor has slammed the Oscar given to Gary Oldman for portraying Winston Churchill in ‘The Darkest Hour’. Tharoor quite rightly castigates Churchill for favouring the “terror bombing” of Dresden, plus poison gas and “killing without quarter” of coloured races. Churchill was a racist bigot, calling Indians “beastly people with a beastly religion”.

Tharoor’s biggest criticism is of Churchill’s “colonial holocaust,” diverting food from drought-stricken Bengal in 1943 to feed Allied armies, thus causing 3 million deaths. I have not read Madhusree Mukerjee’s book, ‘Churchill’s Secret War’, which Tharoor cites. But almost all Indians blame Churchill for the Bengal famine.

As an incorrigible contrarian, let me offer a different angle. Today, we believe in taxing the rich to alleviate poverty and hunger. But through history, kings and nobles paid no tax, and instead heavily taxed the poor peasantry to support their expensive wars and lifestyles. High taxes, often paid in grain, kept peasants dirt poor. They survived in normal monsoons, but died like flies in droughts. Up to 10% died in the worst Indian droughts, holocausts representing routine feudal oppression.

Historically, no ruler anywhere diverted food from armies fighting life-or-death battles to starving peasants. Quite the contrary.

A famous example came in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Russian generals avoided decisive battles and kept retreating, even abandoning Moscow. Using scorched earth tactics typical of the age, Russian troops burned all food and fodder in the countryside as they retreated, starving the peasants. This tactic deprived Napoleon’s troops and horses of all local food and fodder. Hunger became a French military problem, sparking occasional mutinies. Ultimately, lack of food forced Napoleon to retreat, harried by Cossacks as he fled.

Russians view this as a great, heroic victory. No tears are shed for the peasants that starved. Nobody knows how many starved: they counted for so little that they were not even counted.

Most readers probably think that, if India had been independent rather than a colony when attacked by Japan in 1942-43, the management of the Bengal famine would have been dramatically different. I am not sure at all, having seen the Chinese film, ‘Back to 1942’.

In 1942, China was independent, not a colony. It was under invasion by Japan, something that soon happened to India. China had a terrible famine in Henan province in 1942 in which 3 million died, as many as in Bengal the next year. Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek got military supplies and support from the US and Britain for defence against Japan, just as colonial India did soon after.

You might think that Chiang in the 1942 famine behaved very differently from Churchill in Bengal in 1943. But the film grimly depicts the stark, horrifying choices involved. It starts with a local Henan official welcoming provincial governor Li, and pleading for food for his starving county. Li replies sorrowfully that his orders are not to offer relief, but seize 750,000 tonnes of Henan’s grain for the army.

Next, the film shows Time magazine reporter Ted White asking a Chinese minister to combat the famine. He replies that China can eat enough only by first evicting the Japanese.

Next, Governor Li meets Commander Jiang, heading Chinese troops in Henan. Li says drought-stricken Henan cannot give 750,000 tonnes of grain to the army, so please cancel the order. Jiang replies “I agree. On two conditions. First, get the Japanese to leave. Second, get Chiang Kai-shek to order my troops out of Henan.” A stunned Li protests that millions in Henan are starving. The general replies that millions of his troops are also moving to the Henan front. “A dead refugee won’t lose the war for us. A starving soldier is another matter.”

After reporter White highlights Henan’s horrors in Time magazine, Chiang sends some relief grain for starving refugees. But it makes only a marginal difference to mass starvation. To keep up Chinese morale, Chiang’s aides give the official death count in Henan at just 1,062. It’s actually 3 million.

Would an independent India, under Japanese attack, have handled the Bengal famine better than Chiang handled the Henan famine? Hindu nationalists, certain of Hindu superiority, would say yes. I have my doubts. I suspect Indian handling would have been little better than China’s, so millions would have died regardless. Churchill can be blamed for increasing the death toll, but not for the entire 3 million deaths.

Gary Oldman deserves his Oscar for fine acting, regardless of one’s opinion of Churchill. ‘Back to 1942’ also deserved an Oscar, but did not get one.

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