Independence & the Bengal famine

This year marks not only the 56th anniversary of Independence but also the 60th anniversary of the Bengal Famine, in which 2.1 million people died. In 1943 the Raj ignored the drought in Bengal, claiming preoccupation with the war effort against the Japanese. The consequent famine was castigated by our independence movement as outrageous colonial exploitation.

A different interpretation comes from historian Indivar Kamtekar (State and Class in India, 1939-45). He analyses the war effort and famine through the lens of neither imperialism nor nationalism but of class. He shows the Indian upper class, which helped lead the independence movement, in an unflattering light. In Britain, the upper classes sacrificed much for the war effort and there was social levelling. But in India, the propertied classes benefited enormously from the war, while casual labourers suffered terribly. The Raj needed to harness the Indian upper classes for the war effort, and so pampered them while placing crushing burdens on the poor. The Bengal Famine was an outcome of this arrangement.

Wars are typically financed by high taxes and forced savings. In Britain, an Excess Profits Tax with a peak rate of 100% checked business profits. Universal rationing curbed the consumption of the rich while ensuring supplies to the poor. The war effort ensured full employment and improved nutrition to the working class. Not so in India. The war increased public spending threefold, but the Raj had neither the inclination nor will to extract large sums from the propertied. Gandhian tactics had created resistance to taxation, and London feared that draconian taxes would be resisted violently in India, paralysing the war effort. So London began paying India for part of its war contribution of goods and manpower, payments which left India with an astonishing 1.3 billion pounds in sterling balances at the end of 1945.

But this was not remotely enough to finance war spending by the Raj. Efforts to induce subscriptions to government loans failed. So the Raj resorted to the printing press. Massive deficit financing increased money supply by 650% during the war.

Massive inflation was the inevitable outcome, something that did not happen in Britain itself. The food price index (1937=100) shot up to 311 by 1949 in India, against 193 in the US and only 108 in Britain. The data reflect the rationed price of food in India: the black market price was even higher.

Now, inflation is very good for producers and asset owners. All property owners saw property values skyrocket. Rising agricultural prices benefited all landowners, and even small ones got out of debt and bought fresh land. Many new salaried jobs were created by the war, and the problem of the educated unemployed disappeared.

Above all, the business class flourished. The war required unprecedented quantities of every sort of manufacture. Lack of shipping constrained competition from imports. The price of cloth rose five-fold before the colonial state imposed price controls: its top priority was to encourage production, not worry about janata cloth. Business fortunes were made, and new giants like Telco and Hindustan Motors emerged in this period. Tax evasion was widespread and not seriously checked by the authorities. Indeed, some businessmen defended tax evasion as “patriotic” non-cooperation with the Raj!

But the very scarcity that helped the propertied classes hit casual labourers. It also hit pensioners and others on a fixed income. The real wages of factory workers declined 30% between 1939 and 1943. By contrast, British real wages rose 49%, a levelling up.

The rural landless in India were the worst hit. They had neither access to the new urban jobs or rationed urban supplies. Ranging from a quarter of the rural population in Bengal to over half in Madras, they bore the brunt of spiralling prices.

The Bengal Famine occurred against this backdrop. Drought meant that impoverished labourers had no work or income, and boarded trains to wherever they thought succour might be available. The shortfall in grain production was modest, but those without income died like flies on the streets of Calcutta. Statisticians argued about the extent of death. Estimates varied by one million, showing how little was known about the dead.

Kamtekar says, “In a situation where franchise was based on property and education, they (the rural poor) were not on the provincial voters’ lists. Although many died on the streets of Calcutta, none actually belonged to the city. City dwellers were safe, covered by various food schemes: it was the rural poor who came to the city to die. For all their misery, they remained marginal (to the political scene). The dead were not articulate actors in the theatres of modern politics. The Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, when 5000 people were slaughtered, threatened the Bengali bhadralok, and a furore followed. But the children of the Bengali Renaissance were unharmed by the Bengal Famine… The Great Bengal Famine was a colossal human tragedy, but, cynically, no cause for political panic. Those who died could not even be counted properly, because they counted for so little.”

This is a harsh indictment of the class that led our independence movement. It suggests that it was no accident that Mahatma Gandhi was also a personal friend of GD Birla.

Yet class analysis has its limits, and must not be carried too far. Kamtekar says the legacy of those days continues: the state still cannot extract resources from the dominant classes. This ignores the fact that zamindari was abolished in the 1950, and Indira Gandhi finished off the feudal and business classes in the 1970s. The backward castes have become politically dominant in most states. Poverty has fallen from around 56% at Independence to 24% today.

Yet in one respect Kamtekar‘s case remains strong. According to the Direct Taxes Enquiry Committee of 1958-59, not a single Indian was convicted of tax evasion in the decade after Independence. The situation has not improved since.

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