CHURCHILL’S SECRET WAR: THE BRITISH EMPIRE AND THE RAVAGING OF INDIA DURING WORLD WAR II
By Madhusree Mukerjee
Basic Books, $29.95, 400 pages
The year 2010 has been rough on the reputation of Sir Winston Churchill, the wartime leader of Great Britain. In the spring, “Winston’s War,” a book by the respected military writer Max Hastings (author of “Armageddon” and “Retribution,” among other works) tore so many holes in Churchill’s reputation as a strategist that one reviewer wondered that had he died in 1942, “Germany might have been defeated sooner.”
Now comes the India-born Madhusree Mukerjee with a savage indictment of Churchill’s policies towards her homeland - then part of the British Empire - that likens his conduct to that of the genocidal barbarism of the Nazis. Drawing heavily on British Foreign Office documents, she asserts that his conduct, directly or indirectly, led to the deaths of 3 million Indians during the war, chiefly through starvation. She points out a cruel irony: While Britain and its Allies fought to “free” European nations from “captivity,” Churchill and other British leaders strongly opposed the nascent Indian independence movement, imprisoning such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi.
The horrific story that Ms. Mukerjee relates has been largely ignored in the vast volume of Churchillania produced in the last half-century. Her first sentence quotes a truly audacious lie from Churchill’s six-volume history of the world war: “No great portions of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan,” he wrote. (By Hindustan, or Land of the Hindus, he meant India.) Left unmentioned, among many other things, was a 1943 famine in the eastern Indian province of Bengal, in which 1.5 million persons perished, by official estimate, or 3 million, by Indian statistics.
Some of Churchill’s disdain for the Indian separatists stemmed from World War I, when Subhas Chandra Bose of the Indian National Congress offered to mesh Indian goals with those of Germany. At the time, German policy strongly supported Indian independence. Its agents went so far as to dispatch a shipload of arms to Bengal revolutionaries, a plot foiled by the British Secret Service. Bose tried again in the 1940s, arguing that with proper help, a force of 50,000 persons could topple the British Raj. But Hitler refused to link “the destiny of my people” with what he called “a coalition of cripples.” Nonetheless, Gandhi and other separatists saw the war as a means of ending the control Britain had exerted over India for centuries. (Churchill so feared the still-active Bose, exiled in Turkey, that he ordered the Special Operations Executive to murder him. SOE failed.)
As Ms. Mukerjee documents, Britain feasted on India for centuries, with its imperial instrument, the East India Company, exacting fortunes of commodity riches, plus exorbitant taxes levied on the populace. “John Company,” as the enterprise was known, even maintained its own army. The idlyllic “Jewel in the Crown” depicted in books and movies ignore the misery that was its economic foundation. Life expectancy was only 24 years as late as 1920, when the age began a slow increase.
Churchill’s attitude toward Indians was outright racist. He told one associate, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Any talk of harmony between competing Hindus and Moslems he considered to be “distressing and repugnant.” His chief adviser on Indian affairs, Lord Cherwell, was so deeply racist that the presence of any black persons evoked “physical revulsion which he was unable to control.” And it was Cherwell to whom Churchill turned when dealing with the logistics of shipping and allocating food supplies. Churchill told War Cabinet members that he would rather “give up political life at once, or rather go out into the wilderness and fight, than to admit a revolution which meant the end of the Imperial Crown in India.”
But Britain did not hesitate to rely on India for soldiers, recruiting some 50,000 men a month. A largely-Indian army won early victories against the Italians in Italy and seized control of vital oil fields in Iran and Iraq. Britain continued to rely on India for much of its food, some two-thirds of which had to be imported. One can appreciate Churchill’s dilemma: He needed shipping and food to keep Britain alive. So his expedient was to let India more or less fend for itself and ship vast quantities to Britain even as people starved. But by 1943, American shipbuilding had progressed to the point where not enough cargo could be found to fill vessels destined for Britain. So they lay idle. “If ever during the war was a window open for saving lives in Bengal - at no discernible cost to the war effort - this was it.”
To make matters even worse, a catastrophic famine stunned Bengal in 1943. Descriptions of the resultant mass starvation are sickening, and Ms. Mukerjee fills page after page with details that compelled me to put down her book on several occasions and go for a walk.
The daughter of middle-class parents, Ms. Mukerjee as a young girl was appalled by the poverty of her parents’ servants. At age 12, she befriended a neighbor in his 70s - Dadu, or grandfather - who “whispered about a man-made famine” he experienced years earlier. As “Dadu” explained, “grain was taken away so the Japanese wouldn’t get it.” The comment stuck in her mind, but books on the war mentioned no famine. Her curiosity eventually led her to Bengal, where aging survivors recounted the horrors she describes in her book. And her archival research convinced her that Churchill was the “person who presided over - indeed, played the pivotal role in - a war crime of significant dimensions.”
That Churchill saved wartime Britain is undeniable. But even heroes can be flawed, and Churchill’s prejudice against Indians carried a ghastly price. “Churchill’s Secret War” is a disturbing read, and one that I recommend.
Joseph C. Goulden is a Washington writer.