The Forgotten Holocaust - The 1943/44 Bengal Famine
THE FORGOTTEN HOLOCAUST - THE 1943/44 BENGAL FAMINE: impelled in part by global warming concerns, an account by Dr Gideon Polya of the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943/44 and the unresponsiveness of the world at the time to both the Bengal Famine and the Holocaust in Europe; the total or near-total ignoring in many historical texts and in global public perception of the Second World War Bengal Famine and other such horrendous events such as the Great Bengal Famine of 1769/1770, other Indian famines, the Irish famine (1845/46), genocide in Tasmania and mainland Australia in the 19th century and the genocide of the Armenians (1915); history ignored yields history repeated and global warming through greedy industrial profligacy may next century visit even worse disasters on Bengal and on other low-lying regions such as deltaic Egypt, Thailand, Louisiana and Holland. Remarkably, one of the biggest mortality events of the mid-20th century (that has been written about extensively by Amartya Sen (1998 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics) and which was the subject of the film “Distant Thunder” by world-famous Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray) remains UNKNOWN to most in the English-speaking World - due to extraordinary, continuing academic and media holocaust denial involving self-censorship, lying by omission and intrinsic, covert racism.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2 and the world will reflect on the human cost of this conflict. In particular we will remember the enormous loss of civilian life, particularly in Poland (6 million dead), the Soviet Union (20 million dead) and China (35 million dead). The Holocaust involving the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews and half a million Gypsies has seared the human conscience, never to be forgotten. However a major man-made tragedy of similar proportions that occurred in Bengal in World War 2 has been effectively ignored by the world from the time it occurred. The man-made famine in Bengal in 1943-1944 killed an estimated 3.5 to 5 million people [1-7].
Famine in British India
While famines had occurred in the Indian sub-continent before British occupation, in many instances the consequences of monsoonal failure and resultant drought were addressed urgently by the indigenous rulers. Thus irrigation works, public works employment and food purchase and distribution were useful responses to such impending disasters.
The British brought an unsympathetic and ruthless economic agenda to India. Economic exploitation damaged the indigenous Indian economy and resulted in a decline in the standard of living. The British disinclination to respond with urgency and vigour to food deficits resulted in a succession of about 2 dozen appalling famines during the British occupation of India.
These famines swept away tens of millions of people [1-10]. One of the worst famines was that of 1770 that killed an estimated 10 million people in Bengal (one third of the population) and which was exacerbated by the rapacity of the East India Company [1-3,10]. Bengal suffered further famines in 1783, 1866, 1873-74, 1892, 1897 and 1943-44 .
The extraordinary continuing aspect of this 2 century Holocaust was the exacerbation and indeed the creation of famine by the sequestration and export of food for enhanced commercial gain. Thus in severe Indian famines in the mid-19th century (by which time the British authorities were thoroughly familiar with this sort of event) export of grain was permitted on the grounds of non-intervention in trade 6. This horrendous scourge [8,9] continued into the 20th century. Thus Rajasthan suffered a succession of severe scarcities and famines from 1899-1941, a very severe famine occurring in 1939-1940 . The culmination of this saga of immense human suffering was the Bengal famine of 1943-44 [1-7].
Profiteering, export, denial and death
With the entry of Japan into World War 2 and its conquest of South East Asia, including Burma, the British authorities took strategic steps that affected the availability of food in Bengal. Food was required for soldiers, workers in industrial cities such as Calcutta and for export to other parts of the Empire. The grain import requirement of nearly 2 million tons to make up for deficiencies in Indian production was progressively cut back to a disastrous degree.
Loss of rice from Burma and ineffective government controls on hoarding and profiteering led inevitably to enormous price rises. Thus it can be estimated that the price of rice in Dacca increased about 4-fold in the period from March 1943 to October 1943. Bengalis having to purchase food (e.g landless labourers) suffered immensely - thus it is estimated that about 30% of one particular labourer class died in the famine.
The effects of the famine were exacerbated by a strategic policy of "denial" of potential resources from the Japanese. This involved acquisition of surplus food stocks from parts of Bengal together with the seizure or destruction of tens of thousands of boats crucial for fishing and for food acquisition and distribution in a waterway-rich country.
A major feature of this famine was the inability of the authorities to keep rice prices down to affordable levels and hence make food available to the suffering millions. For a variety of reasons the rice market "froze" with dealers and millions of producers retaining supplies. Lack of supplies from other Indian provinces due to self-regulating food control powers given to the provinces in 1941 (enacted a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) compounded the problem for Bengal. Heavy handed government intervention, a massive overall Indian food deficit, the determination of the authorities to adequately feed Calcutta and the military and the consequent fear and uncertainty of producers led to an appalling disaster for rural Bengal [1,2,5,6].
Decline of complex pre-colonial social relationships vital to disaster survival , overwhelming under-nourishment 6 and a greatly increased body of "landless" rural Bengalis [1,5,6,11] led to a nightmare for the 20% of rural Bengalis most vulnerable in this famine. Not surprisingly fishermen, deprived of access to fishing grounds and hence food and cash for rice, were among the worst affected [1,2,5,6].
Increasing population and lack of commensurate food production had yielded a pre-war situation in which India needed to import about 1.8 million tons of grain per year in the immediately pre-war years to make up the shortfall [1,6]. Nevertheless rice exports from India in the financial year 1942-43 were at near-record levels. A crucial factor, however, was the huge decrease in foodgrain imports to only about 20,000 tons in the financial year 1942-43 .
Starving people flocked into Calcutta, victims dying in a city with well-provisioned markets. The British authorities (at times forcibly) removed tens of thousands of destitute, starving people from Calcutta and other urban areas in late 1943. These people were relocated to die in the country, out of sight, out of mind .The reluctance of destitutes to leave derived from the inadequacy of relief gruel when it became available and the additional availability of food from rubbish and from begging householders for "rice water" from the cooking of rice.
Responses to a disaster
The British government, the Central Indian authorities headed by the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow and the Bengali provincial administration (critically interfered with by Governor Sir John Herbert) were grossly derelict in dealing with the situation and its genesis. However a new and effective Viceroy Lord Wavell took up his position in October 1943 , this being complemented by the arrival of a new, vigorous Governor of Bengal, the Australian R.G.Casey, in January 1944 [7,12].
Lord Wavell (unlike his predecessor) visited famine-wracked Bengal and within his first week took the key decision ensuring that Calcutta would be fed by the rest of India and not by starving rural Bengal. This energetic and concerned man pleaded continually with the British Government for requisite grain imports, demanding (unsuccessfully) 1 million tons for 1944. He was insistent about the need for additional supplies to bring down the price of rice and to prevent further disasters.
The release of thousands of boats was agreed to from April 1944 and more effective measures directed to relief, mass health intervention and to controlling food supplies and prices were also introduced. Eventually the excess mortality due to famine declined to the "normal" level of mortality associated with an impoverished, disease-ridden society living on the edge of starvation.
Interestingly famine was not actually declared by the authorities in 1943 despite the enormity of the circumstances. The famine was debated in the House of Commons, one of the key sessions being attended by less than 10% of the members. These appalling events eventually disappeared from public view, if indeed they had ever effectively appeared.
Various estimates of the total number of famine deaths have been made that range up to 5 million [1-7]. A very detailed American analysis of this tragedy estimated 3.5 to 3.8 million as the excess mortality due to starvation and attendant disease in 1943-1946 . The magnitude of this event and its continuing consequences can be gauged from the increase in population of West Bengal plus East Bengal (Bangladesh) of only 3 million in the period 1941 to 1951 as compared to a population growth of 11 million in the period 1931 to 1941 .
Repeated requests for food imports into India (Indian population 400 million; Bengal population 60 million) in 1943 and 1944 resulted in only about half a million tons of grain being imported into India in this period [1,6]. In contrast the food stocks of the U.K. (population about 50 million) rose by about 10 million tons in the latter half of 1943.
Churchill repeatedly opposed food for India and specifically intervened to block provision of 10,000 tons of grain offered by Canada6. The U.S. declined to provide food aid in deference to the British Government6. The British Government rejected Lord Wavell's request for 1 million tons of grain in 1944 and also rejected his request that the U.S. and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) be approached for assistance.
Even when Congress (after extensive lobbying) altered legislation to permit UNRRA aid for India, no plans were in place for such assistance because the British authorities had not requested it . An offer of 100,000 tons of rice from the Axis collaborationist leader Subhas Chandra Bose was ignored [6,13]. Lord Wavell records in his diary R.G.Casey's intelligence relating to the Argentinian use of 2 million tons of surplus wheat in their railway system in lieu of coal (of which there was a world-wide shortage) . Churchill finally requested U.S. assistance in mid-1944 in terms that he was "no longer justified in not asking for such aid" - with a resultant negative response from Roosevelt .
It should be appreciated that India made a major contribution to the war effort. 2,400,000 Indians served in the British forces6 and thousands of Indian, and particularly Bengali, lascars served in the Merchant Navy (the pay being £5, £15 and £22.10.0 a month for Indian, Chinese and British sailors, respectively) .
The Second World War involved the following British losses: 303,000 British armed forces personnel killed, 109,000 Commonwealth losses, 60,000 civilians killed in air raids and 30,000 Merchant Navy sailors killed . Against this we can set the forgotten "Allied" millions of Bengalis who died agonizing deaths, the toll amounting to 50 to 100 times the civilian losses in Dresden, Hamburg, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo or in German bombing raids on Britain.
Differential victimisation - children, women and famine-enforced sexual abuse
Detailed demographic analyses of Calcutta destitutes and other famine victims reveal distressing discontinuities [1,2,5,6]. Young children were by far the most vulnerable in this famine and young adults the least so [1,2,5,6].
A nearly 2-fold difference in the percent mortality increase of males as compared to females in the age groups of 10-15 and 15-20 years has been taken as evidence of substantial young female survival through sexual submission. A similar conclusion has been drawn from the greatly decreased ratio of females to males in the 10-15 year age group among destitutes in Calcutta during this period [2,6].
The distressing testimonies of famine victims attest to the famine-enforced sexual exploitation of women . There was a major military presence in Bengal and the Military Labour Corps was an avenue of survival for starving women, the price of survival being sexual submission and abuse and venereal disease .
Testimonies of victims and observers describe horrendous realities: dogs and vultures devouring the nearly dead, bones and bodies littering roadsides, desperate attempts to find sustenance, starvation-enforced prostitution, sale of children and even infanticide by despairing, deserted or widowed, starving mothers and tortured deaths in a lush countryside or in well-provisioned Calcutta [1,2,5,6].
Famine relief was belated and grossly insufficient [5,6]. Thus before the famine the average Bengali in 1 year consumed about 140 kg of rice (the crucial staple) and a bare-subsistence rural farming family consumed 90 kg per head each year. The famine relief diet amounted to 30 kg of grain per person per year. There were major added complications of disease, notably malaria and cholera, the shortage of medicine and the malabsorption of food [1,5,6].
Lest we forget
The Holocaust of European Jews has not been forgotten because of a numerous, world-wide diaspora of articulate and resolute survivors. Nevertheless continued postwar mass killing events in Europe, Africa, Asia and America point up the continuing incompetence of the world as a whole to deal promptly with large-scale inhumanity.
An extraordinary feature of the appalling record of British imperialism with respect to genocide and mass, world-wide killing of huge numbers of people (by war, disease and famine) is its absence from public perception. Thus, for example, inspection of a selection of British history texts reveals that mention of the appalling Irish famine of 1845-6 is confined in each case to several lines (although there is of course detailed discussion of the attendant, related political debate about the Corn Laws). It is hardly surprising that there should be no mention of famine in India or Bengal in these texts [15-18]. The famines in Bengal are absent from other texts dealing with modern British imperial history [14,19].
In my own well-stocked personal library the 1770 Bengal famine rates a mention only in a major encyclopaedia . The 1943 Bengal famine is totally missing except for a brief reference, namely "famine strikes Bengal" in a massive German chronology of world events and developments, being listed under the category "daily life" for the year 1943 .
Nevertheless detailed and expert academic accounts and analyses of the 1943 Bengal famine were prepared shortly after the event despite severe war-time and economic constraints [1,2] and other very detailed accounts have appeared [5,6]. The Satyajit Ray feature film "Distant Thunder" is an immensely moving account of this tragedy seen through the lives of a Bengali intellectual and his wife in a Bengali village setting . The diaries of Lord Wavell give a powerful insight into this period .
Australia, the world, "greenhouse" and historical repetition
As an Australian I am very conscious of Australian connections with these appalling events. A significant reason for British settlement in Australia in 1788 (and the consequent decimation of the indigenous aboriginal people) was the need to protect the lucrative British interests in India from its European foes, especially the French [21-23]. The first decade of the colony coincided with appalling famines in India . Wheat from India was imported into Australia in the 19th century .
Australia was intimately linked to the defence of the British Empire (and hence the protection of the lucrative slave empire in India) for 2 centuries. The mass destruction for which the British were responsible in India was reflected in numerically far less significant enormities inflicted by Australian colonists on the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania and mainland Australia and on the indigenous people of the nearby Pacific islands [21-24].
Australia has a more recent Bengal connection. The Bengal famine of 1943-44 coincided with the critical defence of this part of the world against the Japanese advance. The distinguished Australian R.G.Casey became Governor of Bengal in 1944 in the diminishing phase of the famine ( the appointment by his own account being initially locally unpopular because of the prohibition of entry of Indians into Australia) [12,25].
History has an excellent chance of repeating itself if its realities and lessons are ignored. Tied historically to the British Empire, Australians are extraordinarily ignorant of their own (albeit surely unintended) negative global impact in the service of Britain. Thus the xenophobic extermination of the best part of one million Armenians - precipitated by the Allied attack on the Dardanelles - commenced with the roundup of Armenian intellectuals and other community leaders in the day or so before the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in 1915 [26-28]. This unintended consequence of Australian heroism is apparently unknown to most Australians. The recent Gulf War, in which Australia also participated, had similar (and again, no doubt unintended) consequences for Shiites and Kurds.
History may yet repeat itself with respect to the Bengalis. Australia is per capita one of the most profligate contributors to "greenhouse" gas emission and hence global warming. There is unfortunately a current bipartisan political consensus in Australia opposed to effective short-term reduction of such emission. The recent Berlin Climate Change Conference, heavily influenced by the U.S. and similarly-inclined Australia and Canada, concluded with no agreed targets on greenhouse gas emission and produced merely a motherhood commitment to continuing assessment . While global warming may have advantages for some , there is a widespread concern that global warming and consequent sea level rises will have a major impact on low-lying regions such as densely populated and impoverished West Bengal and Bangladesh [31-35].
It is quite conceivable that continuing global greed and irresponsibility in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, desertification and forest destruction will have an even more devastating impact on Bengal in the 21st century [31-35] than that of ruthless imperialism in past centuries. We must learn from the appalling consequences of the blindness, complacency and insensitivity with which the world responded at the time to the Jewish Holocaust [36-38] and to the now-forgotten Bengali Holocaust.
1. Ghosh, K.C.(1944) Famines in Bengal 1770-1943 (National Council of Education, Bengal, Calcutta, 2nd edn, 1987).
2. Das, T.(1949) Bengal famine (1943) as revealed in a survey of the destitutes of Calcutta (University of Calcutta, 1949).
3. Maloo, K.(1987) The history of famines in Rajputana (1858-1900 A.D.) (Himanshu Publications, Udaipur & New Delhi).
4. Satyajit Ray, director, "Distant Thunder", a feature film.
5. Greenough, P.R. (1982) Prosperity and misery in modern Bengal. The famine of 1943 - 1944 (Oxford University Press, New York).
6. Uppal, J.N. (1984) Bengal famine of 1943. A man-made tragedy (Atma Ram & Sons, Delhi).
7. Moon, P. (ed.)(1973) Wavell. The Viceroy's journal (Oxford University Press, London).
8. Kachhawaha, O.P. (1985) Famines in Rajasthan (1900 A.D. - 1947 A.D.) (Hindi Sahitya Mandir, Jodhpur).
9. Merewether, F.H.S. (1898) A tour through the famine districts of India (1985 edn, Usha, New Delhi).
10. History of the Indian sub-continent. Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol.9, pp 334-430 (15th edn, 1977, Chicago).
11. Chatterjee, P. (1984) Bengal 1920-1947. The land question (Bagchi & Co., Calcutta).
12. Hudson, W.J. (1986) Casey (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
13. Gordon, L.A. (1990) Brothers against the Raj (Columbia University Press, New York).
14. Thomson, D. (1965) England in the twentieth century (Penguin, London).
15. Trevelyan, O.M.(1952) History of England (4th edn, 1952, Longmans, London).
16. Wells, H.G. (1951) The Outline of History (1951 edition, Cassell, London).
17. Carter, E.H. and Mears, R.A.F. (1960) A history of Britain (Clarendon Press, Oxford).
18. Langer, W.L.(1956) (ed.) An encyclopaedia of world history (3rd edn, 1956, Harrap, London).
19. Porter, B. (1975) The lion's share. A short history of British imperialism 1850-1983 (Longman, London).
20. Grün, B.(1975) The timetables of history. A chronology of world events (1975 edn, Thames & Hudson, London).
21. Ross,J.(1993) (ed.) Chronicle of Australia (Chronicle, Melbourne).
22. Shaw, A.G.L. (1960) The story of Australia (2nd edn, Faber & Faber, London).
23. Frost, A. (1987) Towards Australia - the coming of the Europeans. Ch. 9 in Mulvaney,D.J. & White, J.P.(eds) Australians - a historical library (Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, Melbourne).
24. Clark, C.M.H. (1962) A history of Australia (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne).
25. Murray-Smith, S.(1974) (ed.) The dictionary of Australian quotations (Heinemann, Melbourne).
26. Gürün, K.(1985) The Armenian file. The myth of innocence exposed (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London).
27. Walker, C.J. (1990) Armenia. The survival of a nation (2nd edn, Routledge, London).
28. El-Ghusein, F. (1917) Martyred Armenia (Pearson, London).
29. Pearce, F. (1995) Don't stop talking about tomorrow. New Scientist, 15th April, p4 (see also Editorial, ibid, p3).
30. Moore, T.G. (1995) Why global warming would be good for you. Public Interest, vol. 118, 83 - 99.
31. Eastwood, P. (1991) Responding to global warming (Berg, New York).
32. Edgerton, L.T. (1991) The rising tide. Global warming and sea levels (Island Press, Washington).
33. Leggett, J. (1990) (ed.) Global warming. The Greenpeace report (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
34. Mitchell, G.J. (1991) World on fire. Saving an endangered earth (Macmillan, New York).
35. Myers, N. (1990) The Gaia atlas of future worlds. Challenge and opportunity in an age of change (Penguin, New York).
36. Weissberg, A. (1958) Advocate for the dead. The story of Joel Brand (Andre Deutsch, London).
37. Laqueur, W. (1980) The terrible secret. Suppression of the truth about Hitler's "final solution" (Penguin, London).
38. Wasserstein, B. (1980) Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939 - 1945 (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
Dr. Gideon Maxwell Polya
29 Dwyer St., Macleod, Melbourne, Victoria 3085, Australia
22nd May 1995
An edited version of this account has been published :
Polya, G.M.(1995) The famine of history: Bengal 1943. International Network on Holocaust and Genocide vol.10, 10-15.
POSTSCRIPT, July 2005: The US and its close ally Australia still refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and about a year ago a substantial part of Bangladesh was under water from monsoonal run-off. The Anglo-American mainstream media still overwhelmingly ignore the World War 2 Bengal Famine (4 million victims) just as they continue to ignore the horrendous post-1950 avoidable mortality in the World (1.3 billion), the non-European World (1.2 billion) and the Muslim World (0.6 billion). Mianstream media continue to ignore the post-invasion avoidable mortality in US-occupied Iraq (0.4 million) and Afghanistan (1.5 million).
A detailed, wide-ranging account of the Bengal Famine was published by me in 1998 (now out of print but available in some major Anglo-American libraries):
Gideon Polya "Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability" (Polya, Melbourne, 1998).