1943 was an annus horribilis. I remember being in Calcutta at that time. Life was a constant battle. We had to stand in different queues to procure things needed for daily survival—one queue for rice, another for coal to cook the rice, and so on and on. We were in the grip of one of the worst famines in Bengal (undivided Bengal in1943). Madhusree Mukerjee, journalist and winner of a Guggenheim fellowship for The Land of the Naked People, takes the reader to that painful era in her deeply researched history Churchill’s Secret War. She uses both interviews and historical scholarship to bring to life the inhuman treatment of a subject nation by the imperialist British Raj.
While Gandhi emphasized non-violence as the cardinal principle of the Indian independence movement and, for the longest time, was willing to co-operate with the British in World War II in return for political freedom at the end of the war, there was a movement in Bengal, centered in Midnapore and Tamluk, where Indian activists were not as patient. The reason was obvious. Once one of the richest regions in India, Bengal suffered severe famines since the start of the British dominance over that province. Mukerjee describes one of the worst famines on record, in 1943, in great detail. She provides a human face to the enormous tragedy that resulted from the inhuman policies of the British War Cabinet, dominated by Winston Churchill. Nearly two million Indians became victims of famine and died of starvation. The narrative is made dramatic with vivid real life examples.
Secret War casts Winston Churchill as one of the principal architects of the “divide and rule” policy that led to the partition of the Indian sub-continent. While Churchill may have been a hero to westerners because of his brilliant war strategy during World War II, in Secret War he comes across as a callous racist, obsessed about winning the war at any cost. Indians were useful to him only as cannon fodder for World War II and as producers of grain and military supplies for Britain’s war. Churchill was influenced by Malthus and the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest. His beliefs led him to withhold food supplies from the starving populace and ship grain produced by Indian farmers to feed the British and their European allies during the war. Mukherjee meticulously records Churchill’s scorched earth policy of destroying industrial facilities and burning down rice supplies to prevent the Japanese takeover of the eastern seaboard of India, and the denial policy of confiscating all forms of transportation, which made it impossible for people in Bengal to get even minimal supplies of food grains. The irony was that the people in this province, a major producer of rice, were given as little as 400 calories a day, the amount that the inmates of Buchenwald received in the concentration camps at that time. Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi recalled that it was routine to see “dead people being picked up in government trucks, tossed in like logs. She also heard “[the dead] were being burnt in furnaces of factories.” Shades of Auschwitz and other Nazi atrocities come to mind.
Churchill’s Secret War also describes in detail the evolution of the Indian Independence movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. One of the interesting digressions is a reference to Subhash Chandra Bose, whose importance in the history of India’s struggle for independence is often downplayed.
Mukerjee’s history is not just a dry catalog of dates and war statistics, although most of the events she is dealing with fall within the framework of World War II. It is a significant contribution to our knowledge of Indian history, shedding light on this crime against humanity. It also reveals the involuntary sacrifices made by Indians during World War II, both by serving in a war that was not of their making and by becoming the helpless victims of unimaginable cruelty and neglect by those we consider the victors today.
Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.