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India Famine Was Not Churchill’s Finest Hour

It’s 1943, and the streets are full of the dead and the half-dead.

Women fight off their children for a ladle of thin gruel. Dogs and maggots prey on the barely living skeletons that litter the streets. Amid the delirium, a baby sucks fruitlessly on his dead mother’s breast. The people are hopeless and enervated to the point of quiet submission, at the mercy of a brutally jingoistic and racist leader. Millions will die by the time it’s all over.

This is not the ghettos or concentration camps of Nazi Germany. This is British colonial India under Winston Churchill, during one of the most devastating famines in human history — and one of the most preventable.

In “Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II,” Madhusree Mukerjee uses a wealth of historical records to stake the claim that Churchill willfully sacrificed as many as 3 million Indian lives to ensure that Britain and its military stayed more than adequately fed during and after World War II.

Mukerjee portrays the situation as something more sinister than mere collateral damage from a tactical allocation of resources. In fact, Churchill called Indians “blackamoors” and “babus,” knowingly turning a blind eye to the suffering of a subcontinent and huddling closely with an adviser who espoused a stratified society based on eugenic ideas and one who experienced “physical revulsion” at the sight of black people.

“Naturally I lost patience and couldn’t help telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s, which annoyed him no little,” his secretary, Leopold Amery, wrote in his diary. “I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India he is really quite sane.”

That conversation happened in August 1944 as a result of Churchill’s outrage at Amery negotiating with “a thoroughly evil force,” Mahatma Gandhi. At that point, India — eastern Bengal in particular — was struggling to emerge from a yearlong famine that was started by a devastating cyclone but was a long time coming, caused by Britain’s extraction of massive amounts of rice and grains for little compensation.

The United Kingdom got two-thirds of its food as imports, which put it in constant fear of low stockpiles — and made it aggressive toward India’s resources. The U.K.’s per capita income was also 20 times India’s, allowing Britons, in the name of free trade, to price Indians out of their own produce. The imperialist power came to rely on this system, settling a third of its trade deficit with the Western world using India’s exports. This allowed English citizens to have an average life expectancy of 48 in 1920 — twice as high as India’s.

Not only was Britain importing more grains than it needed, but it was also allowing Indian government-allied companies to hoard food in order to increase prices, and then blaming the famine — when it acknowledged it — on them. Churchill even rejected other countries’ offers of aid for India, in contrast to Nazi Germany, which allowed humanitarian agencies to enter and help famine-stricken Greece in 1941.

The strongest protagonists in this account appear to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lobbied Churchill hard for Indian independence, and many of Britain’s envoys to the country, who were overwhelmed with sympathy for the Indians’ plight upon seeing it firsthand. Japan, too, comes out of this book looking admirable compared with Britain, as it supported nationalist Indian forces with the promise of turning over to them any Indian land it helped them conquer. But Churchill, whom many of us know as the bombastic, inspirational and crucial wartime ally, emerges from the book a man who is genuinely hard to like.

In the eyes of modern Americans, Churchill remains a “romantic visionary,” as writer Adam Gopnik describes him in a recent New Yorker profile. In the 6,400-word piece, the word “India” appears only twice, once to describe how much Churchill hated Gandhi and once to show how much he loved imperialism. (But justifiably, of course: “For Churchill, imperialism and progressivism were parts of the same package.”) Something doesn’t quite connect between Mukerjee’s narrative and Gopnik’s reading of four new Churchill biographies: Churchill “kept the Empire together by making sure that its very different peoples felt cared for by a benevolent overseer at home.”

Mukerjee’s work is an important tool in repudiating the dominant legacy of Churchill, which she claims has been crafted largely by Churchill’s own memoirs.

“Revisionism,” Gopnik writes, “the itch of historians to say something new about something already known, has nicked Churchill without really drawing blood.” Consider this book a stab to the gut.

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