Churchill's famine

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By ANASUYA BASU
  • Published 19.12.10
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Madhusree Mukerjee tells real-life stories of the Bengal famine of 1943 in Churchill’s Secret War.

“Everywhere in the world famine has resulted in cannibalism. But not so in Bengal. Villagers here would rather die,” said Mukerjee at the launch of her book at Oxford Bookstore on Friday.

Stories of the famine abound in Bengali literature. Vivid descriptions of hordes of villagers, little better than skeletons, thronging the streets of Calcutta, begging “Phyan dao ma (Give me some rice starch)” are a part of the city’s memory. While most have laid the blame on the colonial government and World War II for this man-made famine that killed three million in rural Bengal, Mukerjee has very pointedly fixed the responsibility of this massive human tragedy on Churchill and his war cabinet.

While it is known that the British prime minister during World War II nursed a hatred towards Indians “who bred like rabbits”, it still comes as a shock that shiploads of wheat from Australia bypassed the Indian subcontinent to head for the Balkan states to add to the stockpile of foodgrain there.

“Churchill just ignored every plea, including that of Viceroy Linlithgow, for foodgrain shipments to India,” says Mukerjee.

While such shipments would not have been enough to feed the hungry masses, they would have done their bit to bring down the price of rice that had shot up because of black markets and hoarding.

Mukerjee, a physicist by training and a science journalist by profession, took up writing a few years ago. Churchill’s Secret War is her second book, the first being The Land of Naked People on the aborigines of the Andaman islands.

“We should sit back and think whether it is prudent to urge the rapid urbanisation of our villages because when people are taken out of their cultural context, they inevitably will lose their values,” said Mukerjee.

The book was released by Mahasveta Debi.