The colonial splendour of Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata Copyrighted image Credit: Lock, stock and two smoking barrels!! under CC-BY-NC-ND licence
The colonial splendour of Kolkata's Victoria Memorial - but did the Empire let down Bengal in its hour of greatest need?

Audio

Copyright BBC

Text

READING
Let me tell you one story. One day in front of the Municipal Office I saw a little girl trying to drink her mother’s milk. But the girl did not realise that the mother was dead.

READING
I don’t think anyone really knows the whole situation or what is going on in some of the outlying areas but obviously we have got to get to immediate grips or it may get out of hand all together.

READING
I still remember as a young boy seeing those starving men and women and children in the streets. They lay there and they died. As easy and simple and weird as that. They died.

Michael
During this series I’ve generally chosen an event from history well known to us all and argued that we’ve in some way misremembered it. The issue today is different. It’s a catastrophe that in Britain at least is not so much misremembered as completely forgotten. It claimed the lives of millions. The Bengal famine of 1943 occurred when provincial government was largely in the hands of Indians but Britain remained the colonial power. Both the Indians and the British have good reason to forget for it makes uncomfortable listening even today.

READING
“Standing on the Arakan Road, I felt I was standing amid the devastated ruins of a great and ancient civilisation. Under this heap of ruins lay buried all its precious legacy - kindness and compassion, mutual respect and comradeship - all bruised and broken to bits.

Michael
The eye-witness account of the writer Bhovani Shen. It’s as though the Bengal Famine has become lost amongst the massive death toll of World War Two, or overshadowed by the partition of India and Pakistan and their independence from Britain. But even so shouldn’t we be able to remember the wartime event that within allied territory caused by far the greatest loss of life?

Gideon
I discovered that the Bengal Famine actually existed from seeing the film Distant Thunder by the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Michael
Although Gideon Polya, a scientist from Melbourne, Australia seems an unlikely expert on the famine, he’s made it a personal crusade, publishing, lecturing and broadcasting about it to any ready to listen.

Gideon
My father was a Jewish refugee to Australia in 1939. I of course knew about the Jewish Holocaust. And I was quite appalled at the end of Satyajit Ray’s film as we see a backdrop of famine victims slowly moving across the landscape he says that the manmade famine in Bengal in 1943-44, killed five million people. I’d never heard of this. And I went to my history books in my big personal library. It was not there. I immediately went to a local, very large academic library and there the primary documents from Bengali sociologists and academics from American writers and indeed some British writers, it was there in the Achaean academic literature.

Michael
Few dispute that the famine was man-made. There’s less consensus over the final death toll, though nobody puts it below one and a half million. Here’s the view of Professor Christopher Bayly of Cambridge University.

Christopher
Bengal is one of the most densely populated parts of the world. It had suffered quite badly during the depression of the nineteen thirties so it started at a huge disadvantage when the war broke out in 1939. Consequently when Burma fell and Burmese rice exports to Bengal collapsed the situation became even worse. And the problem deepened towards the end of 1942 when there was a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, very similar to the recent cyclone which wiped out huge areas of paddy production.

Sanjoy
The speed of the Japanese advance created panic in India. Huge numbers of Indian, British, Chinese and American soldiers came back into India and everyone expected the Japanese to march into what is now the North Eastern wing of India.

Michael
Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a medical historian at the Welcome Institute in London.

Sanjoy
The Japanese dominated the Bay of Bengal. There were some bombing raids on Calcutta so there was generalised panic amongst the administrators. They actually expected Japanese troops to come in from various directions. In view of this they decided that it would best to destroy food and modes of transportation along areas where the Japanese troops might come in. And the scotched earth policy was intended to actually destroy food stocks and things like boats, bicycles, things that the Japanese Army had used very effectively in Singapore.

Michael
What impact do you think that had on the subsequent famine?

Sanjoy
There can be no doubt that that caused localised shortages of food. And generally it threw the market economy of the affected districts out of gear, completely. There can be no doubt about that.

Michael
I was speaking to Sanjoy Bhattacharya in the British Library in London where we’d come to look at an official report commissioned by the British government and published in 1945. It put the death toll at between one and a half and two million, but Sanjoy believes the figure is much higher.

Sanjoy
The Bengal Famine started in Bengal. But as panic responses from the state tried to bring the famine under control in Bengal localised famines were created in provinces surrounding Bengal. So that six to seven million figure includes the deaths that happened in let’s say the provinces of Bihar, Orissa and Asam.

Michael
Six to seven million.

Sanjoy
Million people. There are elements of the report, if read carefully and specially if you read the first draft of the report which is available at the National Archives of India, there were many people then who believed that supply actually had fallen only by about six per cent so should not have resulted in the level of deaths that ultimately occurred. And that is something someone else well known as Amartya Sen has also argued that it wasn’t a question of supply I was a question of changing entitlements.

Michael
Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize winning economist, argues that although the rural communities of Bengal, sandwiched between the Japanese in Northern Burma and the Allied forces massing in Calcutta were in a perilous position, starvation was not inevitable.

Amartya
The war efforts had expanded the income of a lot of people, particularly urban areas who benefiting from what was effectively a war boom. This is what in my classification is what is called a boom famine as opposed to a slump famine. So there was a boom going on. Lots of people getting more income, buying commodities including primarily food and prices were shooting up. So that was the primary reason. The government for some reason at the centre in Delhi had prevented trade between one state and another. And that bit of mistaken economics didn’t help very much because Calcutta was insulated. And the government was absolutely keen to keep Calcutta normal and quiet. So they had decided that the entire population of Calcutta will be covered by “ration shops at fair prices” quote unquote, which really meant that they would buy from the rural areas rice at whatever price they could get and then subsidised they would sell into the urban areas. So that of course made the food prices shoot up in the rural areas enormously more.

Michael
What’s interesting about your description is that it doesn’t appear to rest upon a shortage of rice.

Amartya
No it wasn’t. I think I have to say the British Indian government was callous. I don’t think they were criminal but they were certainly extremely callous and didn’t really worry too much about it. And secondly they were badly misinformed. What had happened is that there was a considerable expansion of demand for food because of the war boom. And with the same supply they were having rising prices. So it wasn’t connected with food deficit at all.

Michael
Indeed there’d been a far more serious crop failure in 1941 without any subsequent food shortages. The high demands of the war caused inflation in the price of rice and the uncertainty brought about by Japan’s military successes encouraged hoarding, particularly in urban areas. The Journalist, now BBC World Service Executive Editor, Nazes Afroz got first hand accounts of the famine’s development when he visited rural Bengal, now divided between Bangladesh and North-East India.

Nazes
The staple food was rice. So they would grow rice and they would keep a third of that for their own consumption and they would sell the rest to buy other essential things. But suddenly all these people came to the villages and they were offering high price for the rice. So they thought okay, we could sell them now and we would be able to buy rice when we needed them. The Bengal Gazette at that point, every week, it used to give the price of essential commodities which included rice as well. And if you look at the price the way they jumped and then within weeks it was beyond their means.

Amartya
When people started dying in the rural areas there was mass migration into urban areas, especially Calcutta on the presumption, mistaken as it happens that there will be relief provided in the city of Calcutta.

READING
I was the oldest among my siblings. I used to work to survive. I worked as a day labourer. At that time I left my father in the village and took my brothers and sisters to Calcutta. They only had some flour available as food. We went wherever food was distributed. I saw many people suffering in the streets of Calcutta. I saw mothers carrying their sons in their arms who were actually dead. But the mothers were still sprinkling them with water, trying to revive the children. I saw many things. People ate grass, snakes. I lost two sisters and a brother.

Nazes
These are the people who are farmers, agriculturists. They’re not beggars so they did not even know how to big. They have huge self respect. So they came, they just sat on the pavements and they died there. And when that picture hit the people of Calcutta, at that point suddenly everyone understood the scale of the disaster.

Michael
Even in the autumn of 1943, both Imperial and provincial governments, aware of the Japanese threat, didn’t want to destabilize the area by admitting that there was famine. But the editor of the English language newspaper, the Statesman, broke ranks publishing two fiery editorials. His name Ian Stephens.

Amartya
Ian Stephens could not keep his silence any more on grounds of war effort being in there because he thought he was totally failing as an editor. And there were really vitriolic editorials on the fourteenth and sixteenth of October.

READING
This sickening catastrophe is man-made. A shameful lack of planning capacity and foresight by India’s own civil governments, central and provincial.

Christopher
Ian Stephens was a very interesting figure. He had tremendous sympathy with Indians. He’d been in India for some long time. And he was highly critical of the Bengal government which of course by this stage was an Indian government though advised by British officials with a British civil service still underneath it. And he was appalled by the lack of public awareness across India and across the world of the emerging famine. So rather than just writing editorials against the policies of the government he actually began to publish pictures of people dying.

Michael
I’m looking at some of the shocking pictures that appeared in the Statesman. One here that was printed on the twenty seventh, second of August 1943. And the caption read “A young mother with a child clasped to her breast, weak from want of food, lies on the pavement of a Calcutta street while a man apparently on the verge of death is in the background”. That rather carefully phrased caption doesn’t do justice to the images of entirely emaciated people who seem really to have lain down in the street to die.

Christopher
This immediately changed the perception. It actually started a wave of humanitarian effort. But it also forced the government, both the government in Calcutta and the government of India to confront the situation. There were questions raised in Parliament immediately. And the India Office began to go on the defensive. It was really under great pressure. So it was no longer possible to keep this swept under the table.

Michael
Although the Bengal Famine is all but forgotten now that isn’t because of some government cover up in Britain. The papers published under the thirty year rule are all there to be read in a volume which is actually entitled The Famine In Bengal. The Secretary for India back in London was Leo Amery. He did not have a place in the War Cabinet of course. He writes to the newly appointed Viceroy, Field Marshall Viscount Wavell on the twenty first of October 1943:

“You know as well as I do the military preoccupations of the War Cabinet and the difficulty of diverting shipping from the first duty of winning the war. As you remember the last War Cabinet decision was that the matter should be reviewed at the end of the year. I’m not sure that that’s not leaving things too late. And if you can manage at an early date to visit Bengal yourself or even apart from that, feel that you should weigh in with a strong demand for early reconsideration I hope you will do so”.

READING
October the 29th, 1943

Michael
Writing in his private journal Wavell reports that he did just that.

READING
Returned from three days at Calcutta. I found things on the whole much as I had expected from what I’d read and heard. Widespread distress and suffering. I don’t think anyone really knows the whole situation or what is going on in some of the outlying areas. But obviously we have got to get to immediate grips or it may get out of hand all together. I saw all the ministers yesterday evening, told them they must get the destitutes out of Calcutta into camps, which should have been done long ago. Got them to accept a Major General and staff to help with the transport of supplies and the assistance of the army generally. I also urged them to get on with their rationing schemes and put before them the proposal to take Calcutta out of the Bengal food problem and feed it from outside. The Ministry is obviously a very weak one. And the Acting Governor Rutherford rather disappointed me. No fire in him.

Michael
Rutherford was standing in for the dying Governor of Bengal Sir John Herbert, and was replaced by the end of the year. Meanwhile Wavell, the first official actually to call the situation a famine, concentrated all his efforts on providing extra food for rural Bengal. Christopher Bayly again.

Christopher
Apart from real concern for the Indian people because he did go to Calcutta and he did see the devastation, he did see the people dying on the streets there, he was concerned to build up India for the war effort against the Japanese. And as a soldier he could see that food was as he put it a munition of war. And it was absolutely essential to get the people fed because otherwise the morale of the army which of course was sixty per cent an Indian army on that Eastern Front, the morale of the army would collapse, quite apart from the difficulties of transport, of getting food to the front if the population was in such dire trouble.

Michael
In the context of homeland Britain Churchill had argued that food supplies were vital for maintaining national morale. He told the War Cabinet on the thirty first of March 1941 that it was essential ‘to import sufficient to maintain the staying power of the people, even if this meant a somewhat slower development of our service programmes.’ But two years later the War Cabinet wasn’t prepared to divert shipping and food supplies to ease Indian hunger. Amartya Sen.

Amartya
There was the general sense of callousness. Churchill permitted himself to make the remark that the Indian population bring it onto itself by breeding like rabbits. And there was another statement of his when he said that he was well aware that the Indian people were the beastliest in the world, next to the Germans. It cannot be said that the central government was full of sympathy.

Christopher
That is the general impression. Even Leo Amery his Secretary of State accuses him of being opposed to Indians. And of course this again emerged out of several things, out of his long experience of India and his dislike of the Gandhian Movement and his absolute fury at the Quit India Movement of 1942 which he saw as a stab in the back to Britain when it was facing its worst crisis. So there’s no doubt that Churchill is not favourable to India. But then I think it’s difficult to blame Churchill for everything. I mean of course this is the problem with Churchill’s reputation. Either he’s the great saviour of the western world or he’s a figure of blame. But this is a Cabinet, after all, a Cabinet decision and others took that decision and the government of India and the local government were also involved in these decisions. But as far as shipping was concerned there’s no doubt that food was still being exported from Bengal to other war fronts until very late in the day. And there was no question of sending in food until the Autumn of 1943 by which time many, many hundreds of thousands of people had died.

Michael
Moving into February 1944 Wavell’s warning has become even more dire. He writes to Leo Amery again “I warn His Majesty’s government with all seriousness that if they refuse our demands they are risking a catastrophe that will have irretrievable effect on their position both at home and abroad. They must either trust the opinion of the man they’ve appointed to advise them on Indian affairs or replace him”. And then he takes it up with the Prime Minister Mr Churchill. “You will see my telegram of today to the Secretary of State about food imports. I fully realise the difficulties of shipping. But the situation will be really serious if we cannot command imports we have requested. I’m sure you will agree that we cannot possibly risk another breakdown and famine which will be on a larger scale than nineteen forty three. Please help me all you can”. The Prime Minister replies twelfth of February 1944 – this is from Mr Churchill to the Viceroy Wavell – “Cabinet will consider matter again officially on Monday. I will certainly help you all I can but you must not ask the impossible”. Well in my time I’ve certainly read a lot of diplomatic telegrams, some of it quite impassioned, but I’ve never read anything quite like this. For Wavell to make his demands to be supported, to make his demands for food supplies and the diversion of shipping in such an impassioned way, to take in a sense such a risk with his career goes beyond anything that I’ve ever read.

READING
Arun Mohan Das, a relief worker. “I with a small party of my colleagues reached the Terapekia Bazaar situated on the River Haldi. There I saw nearly five hundred destitute of both sexes almost naked and reduced to bare skeletons. Some of them were begging for food or asking for p..., small coins from the passers by. Some longing for food with piteous look. Some lying by the wayside approaching death hardly with any more energy to breathe. And actually I had the misfortune of seeing eight peoples breathe their last before my eyes. It shocked me to the bottom of my heart.

Michael
I’m looking at a copy of the Times newspaper for the eighth of May 1945 with its seven columns crammed with news. And perhaps reading this helps to explain why the Bengal Famine disappeared so quickly from our national memory. The first column is headlined - Celebrating the Victory – night crowds in Piccadilly. And goes on to talk about the preparations to mark Victory In Europe Day. In the third column the first report of the Russian claim that four million people died in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. And it’s only over in column five that we get the headline ‘Bengal Famine - Report of Inquiry Commission - Government mistakes’. A good day to bury bad news.

Christopher
It is a story which isn’t to nobody’s advantage whatsoever. I mean certainly the British government, it was one of their worst failures. It was a moral failure on a massive scale - in London, in Calcutta and in Delhi. And of course this time there were Indian ministers in government in Bengal. So even for Indians this is a rather difficult thing to remember. Until Satyajit Ray’s film I think that even Indian opinion was very quiet on this issue. It’s still remembered. It’s still a horrific thing. But to some extent it was again, it was kept quiet about.

Sanjoy
I think the timing of the release of the Famine Inquiry Commission Report is important. It’s nineteen forty five. Congress leaders are being released and the British government is beginning negotiations with both the Muslim League and the Congress about transfer of power. People are also beginning, both the Congress and the Muslim League are beginning to prepare for fresh elections. Fresh elections required money. So they had to again go back to the main funders. And therefore in my view it becomes inconvenient for everyone involved at that stage to talk too much about the death of so many people and try and find scapegoats. Because there was a realisation that none of the parties involved would have come out smelling of roses had there been a detailed follow up to the Famine Inquiry Commission Report.

Michael
Sanjoy Bhattacharya - implying that many of those who had at least exacerbated the famine by hoarding grain, were now amongst the biggest funders of political parties. But according to Nazes Afroz, even the rural Bengalis have to some extent forgotten to remember their own tragedy.

Nazes
The famine ended in ‘45. Then came Independence. With that came the partition of Bengal. And the beginning of partition of Bengal happened in Calcutta with ten thousand people being killed in inter-religious riots in two days. Actually there is a lot of memory of that. And possibly the historians of that time were too busy. The Jewish genocide was much more real to them. I mean it should have come from the Bengalis. But also that did not happen because India and the Bengali community, they got divided within two years. And that overshadowed our memory, our writing of history even.

Michael
This is a time of global catastrophe. Fifty million people die in World War Two. Ought we to remember it better than we do?

Nazes
I think so. I think it’s important to remember the Second World War. It’s important to remember the joint allied enterprise that allowed the war in the East to be won. And part of that history is this Bengal Famine.

Christopher
The British Indian armies fought superbly against the Japanese but for what purpose? That was the question that was asked and particularly at the end of the war the British troops, let alone the Indian troops were saying what are we doing here. Why are we still fighting after the end of the war in Europe. Why are we forgotten. And of course what I would want to say is, it’s not just the British soldiers who were forgotten but so many other people and so many other populations that were forgotten by at least the authorities in London and by the British population in general.

Richard Dimbleby - Archive recording from Open Space Belsen
I have just returned from the Belsen Concentration Camp where for two hours I drove slowly about the place in a jeep.

Archive recording from Open Space Belsen
I had to go to the cook house to try and work out how to make up the Bengal Famine mixture. And we had to .. I can remember now a recipe we had ..

Archive recording from Open Space Belsen
The British medical teams that went into Belsen remembered well what had happened in India. They fed those starving in the concentration camp with a formula called Bengal Famine mix, developed two years earlier.

Archive recording from Open Space Belsen
We got it all over our clothes and everything like that. We had to take it in turns to, to make it up, this awful porridge stuff in cauldrons. And bless their hearts, they took it didn’t they.

Michael
Rightly we recall the annihilation in Belsen, a horror that perhaps leaves no space in our memories for the millions who in Bengal starved largely due to administrative failure. What lessons could governments learn from the disaster? Gideon Polya, the Australian scientist who’s campaigned to put the famine back into the history books, and Armatya Sen who was born in Bengal.

Gideon
This isn’t simply an argument about rubbing out history. Scientists can help society through what is called rational risk management. It successively involves A, getting the accurate data. B, doing a scientific analysis. And then C, recognising this, taking action, changing the system, whether it’s a national system or a global system, to avoid a repetition.

Amartya
I think the fact that famines happen when they’re so extraordinarily easy to prevent – nothing in the world is easier to prevent – affects me. Being a Bengali I can’t say that it adds especially to that because this seems to me to be a basic human sympathy at seeing suffering all across the world which are completely needless.

READING
Three million Bengalis died all over the state. Many on Calcutta’s streets. Not a single loaf of bread was reported stolen from the bakeries and confectioner’s shops that ... and the new market. And I wonder then what was this.

This edition of The Things We Forgot To Remember was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7th January 2008