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The Things We Forgot To Remember - The Bengal Famine

Updated Friday, 7th December 2007

Why did Bengal starve during the Second World War? Michael Portillo investigates for the BBC/OU series The Things We Forgot to Remember

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The Partition of India was the last act of the British Raj. It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands: but it was not the worst disaster to hit India in the 1940s. That was the Bengal Famine of 1942-4, which left around a million dead: it was a famine that happened on Britain’s watch, and gave the lie to the claim by the British that their rule had eliminated famine from India.

In 1942, a war boom in Calcutta had driven up the price of food, pricing the poor out of the market. When the harvest failed for two years running, the British rulers on the spot called for aid from London.

In response to the desperate pleas from the Viceroy and the Army, some was given, but more was withheld: Churchill’s War Cabinet did not want to slow down the prosecution of the war.

When Indians asked for help, guns came before food. Yet in 1940-41, at a crisis in the Battle of Atlantic, the UK had faced the same choice. Then, Churchill had ruled that feeding the people of Britain took priority. Indians, noting the failure of the Raj to respond to their crisis, were reinforced in their desire to be rid of it as soon as possible. The Famine, the largest single loss of life in the British Empire in World War II, was forgotten.

First broadcast: Monday 16 May 2005 on BBC Radio 4

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