churchill's secret war: the rape of india during world war ii
sep 9th, 2010
Publication Date: August 10, 2010 Churchill’s Secret War The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II By Madhusree Mukerjee
“[W]ell-researched…This gripping account of historical tragedy is a useful corrective to fashionable theories of benign imperial rule, arguing that a brutal rapaciousness was the very soul of the Raj.” —Publishers Weekly
“An important though uncomfortable lesson for readers who think they know the heroes and villains of World War II.” —Kirkus
* * * Winston Churchill—protector of the British Empire, loyal ally to the United States…and brutal war criminal? History often turns a blind eye to the most calamitous events, hiding heinous deeds under the guise of brilliant genius or bravery. However, once we are no longer obstructed by bias or hindsight, the ugly truth of even our most beloved historical figures is illuminated.
In Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (Basic Books; August 10, 2010) Madhusree Mukerjee offers a meticulously researched account of Churchill’s questionable decisions and destructive actions that led to the death of some three million Indians during WWII. While previous accounts of the war have overlooked the famine in the Indian province of Bengal, Mukerjee sheds light on the avoidable devastation that was justified as a means to defeat the Axis powers and maintain colonial control over India. When the United Kingdom entered the Second World War in September 1939, so did India as its longtime colonial claim. A common imperialistic theme, the British envisioned their rule abroad in South Asia as benefiting an inferior civilization.
Such entrenched condescension certainly shaped Winston Churchill’s perception of India and its people. Harboring intense racist sentiments, Churchill exclaimed to a close advisor in 1943, “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion.” Words aside, Churchill’s actions more than illustrated his disregard for Indian lives, as he in effect caused the death of millions by callously refusing them shipments of wheat and rice.
Due to myriad factors associated with the United Kingdom’s – and Churchill’s – wartime aspirations, adequate provisions were withheld from India in the summer and fall of 1943. While all of the contributing forces cannot be identified, Mukerjee asserts three main explanations for the UK’s inaction: · However excessive, British officials were determined to accrue 27 million tons of civilian imports for the UK during 1943. Churchill had an aversion to austerity when it came to his people, so he did not want to impose restraints on the quantity and variety of food available. He also built up the supply of provisions to protect against inevitable post-war economic shocks. ·
Churchill was also committed to maintaining a stockpile of food for the Balkans. These reserves were meant to feed the Greeks and Yugoslavs that the UK intended to liberate, so shiploads of wheat from Australia passed by famine-stricken India en route for storage.
· Ego. Churchill wanted to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to American officials that he controlled enough resources, in terms of ships and grain, to relieve a colony imperiled by hunger. Had adequate relief been sent, Mukerjee writes, it “would have proved to Americans what they had suspected all along: the British had extracted a lot more shipping than they really needed.” Regardless of the specific rationale, it is certain that some three million people died in a man-made famine.
In addition to outlining why the famine broke out, Mukerjee also provides a broader overview of India’s internal divisions along primarily religious lines, while situating the famine in the larger context of India’s fight for independence. Churchill sought to exacerbate the rift between the country’s Hindu and Muslim populations in an effort to divide and conquer, but the discord (heightened by the turmoil of war – particularly the famine) eventually led to violence that expedited the UK’s disengagement with India.
While independence was won following bloodshed, Hindu leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had previously endeavored to end British rule peacefully through the Quit India campaign. On the other side, Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League sought to establish an autonomous nation for India’s minority Muslim population – Pakistan – and achieved that end in 1947.
As Mukerjee writes, “So it was that WWII sowed the seeds both for the independence of India and for its division.” Considering the human toll of the Bengal famine and the impact that it had on India’s post-war composition, it is hard to believe that it has until now been largely overlooked by history. More shocking still is the exposure of Winston Churchill’s complicity in the death of so many Indian people. A humane and richly detailed account of this gruesome chapter in India’s history, CHURCHILL’S SECRET WAR is essential reading for anyone seeking to uncover one of history’s buried truths.
# # # ABOUT THE AUTHOR Madhusree Mukerjee won a Guggenheim fellowship to write her previous book, The Land of Naked People. She has served on the board of editors of Scientific American. She lives near Frankfurt, Germany.
ABOUT THE BOOK CHURCHILL’S SECRET WAR The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II By Madhusree Mukerjee Published by Basic Books Publication date: August 10, 2010 ISBN: 9780465002016 $28.95 / $34.50 (Can.)