Monday, June 02, 2014

Madhusree Mukerjee on Churchill

Rajan pointed me to Madhusree Mukerjee's 2010 book "Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II".   I found an interview with Mukerjee here.
My indictment is based on what Churchill did, not on what he said.
Of the six questions to Madhusree Mukerjee, I reproduce three here:

4. The central thesis in your book is that Churchill and the War Cabinet took a series of decisions which led inexorably to the starvation of between 1.5 and 3 million persons in 1943. You do not, however, charge that it was their conscious intention to starve these people to death—unlike what the Nazis did in east central Europe about this same time, when starvation was a conscious policy objective. But do you believe that they knew or should have known that this catastrophe would follow from their decisions?

The War Cabinet received repeated warnings that famine could result from its exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort—and ignored them.

The Japanese occupation of Burma in March 1942 cut off rice imports, of between one and two million tons per year, to India. Instead of protecting the Indian public from the resultant food shortage, the War Cabinet insisted that India absorb this loss and, further, export rice to countries that could no longer get it from South East Asia. As a result, after war arrived at India’s borders, the colony exported 260,000 tons of rice in the fiscal year 1942-43.

Meanwhile India’s war expenditures increased ten fold, and the government printed paper money to pay for them. In August 1942 a representative of India’s viceroy told the War Cabinet that runaway inflation could lead to “famines and riots.”

In December 1942, Viceroy Linlithgow warned that India’s grain supply was seriously short and he urgently needed 600,000 tons of wheat to feed soldiers and the most essential industrial workers. The War Cabinet stated that ships were not available. In January 1943, Churchill moved most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, in order to build up the United Kingdom’s stockpile of food and raw materials. The Ministry of War Transport cautioned him that the shift would result in “violent changes and perhaps cataclysms” in trade around the Indian Ocean. (In addition to India, the colonies of Kenya, Tanganyika, and British Somaliland all suffered famine in 1943.) Although refusing to meet India’s need for wheat, Churchill insisted that India continue to export rice.

With famine raging, in July 1943 Viceroy Linlithgow halted rice exports and again asked the War Cabinet for wheat imports, this time of 500,000 tons. That was the minimum required to feed the army and otherwise maintain the war effort. The news of impending shipments would indirectly ease the famine, he noted: any hoarders would anticipate a fall in prices and release grain, causing prices to fall in reality. But at a meeting on August 4, the War Cabinet failed to schedule even a single shipment of wheat for India. Instead, it ordered the buildup of a stockpile of wheat for feeding European civilians after they had been liberated. So 170,000 tons of Australian wheat bypassed starving India—destined not for consumption but for storage.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s stockpile of food and raw materials, intended for shoring up the postwar British economy, reached 18.5 million tons, the highest ever. Sugar and oilseeds overflowed warehouses and had to be stored outdoors, under tarpaulins.

Of course Churchill knew that his priorities would result in mass death. In one of his tirades against Indians, he said they were “breeding like rabbits” anyway. On behalf of Indians, the War Cabinet ignored an offer of 100,000 tons of Burmese rice from freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose (who was allied with the Japanese), discouraged a gift of wheat from Canada, and turned down rice and wheat volunteered by the United States.

The War Cabinet eventually ordered for India 80,000 tons of wheat and 130,000 tons of barley. (Barley was useless for famine relief because it had no impact on prices.) The first of these meager shipments reached India in November. All the while, the Indian Army consumed local rice and wheat that might otherwise have fed the starving. The famine came to an end in December 1943, when Bengal harvested its own rice crop—at which point Churchill and his friend Cherwell renewed their demand for rice exports.

5. Another figure who comes in for a shellacking in your book is Frederick Alexander Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, an Anglo-German known as “the Prof,” who exercised a powerful influence over Churchill. You describe Cherwell as an impressive scientist but also someone who harbored some rather sinister Malthusian ideas with a latent racist component. What were these ideas and how did they contribute to the famine?

Judging by a lecture that Cherwell gave in the 1930s, he regarded colonial subjects as “helots,” or slaves, whose only reason for existence was the service of racial superiors. In drafts of this talk, he outlined how science could help entrench the hegemony of the higher races. By means of hormones, drugs, mind control, and surgery, one could remove from slaves the ability to suffer or to feel ambition—yielding humans with “the mental make-up of the worker bee.” Such a lobotomized race would have no thought of rebellion or votes, so that one would end up with a perfectly peaceable and permanent society, “led by supermen and served by helots.”

In November 1943, Cherwell urged Churchill to hold firm against demands for famine relief. Else, he warned, “so long as the war lasts [India’s] high birthrate may impose a heavy strain on this country which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food.” That is, he blamed the famine on the irresponsible fecundity of natives—and ignored the devastation of the Indian economy by the war effort. He also elided the fact that the War Cabinet was preventing India from using its ample sterling balance or even its own ships to import sufficient wheat.

By Cherwell’s Malthusian argument, England should have been the first to starve. It was being kept alive by massive imports. In 1943 the United Kingdom imported 4 million tons of wheat, 1.6 million tons of meat, 1.4 million tons of sugar, 409,000 heads of live cattle, 325,000 tons of fish, 131,000 tons of rice, 206,000 tons of tea, 172,000 tons of cocoa, and 1.1 million gallons of wine for its 47.7 million people—a population an eighth that of India.

To Cherwell and also to Churchill, colonial subjects were worth saving only if they made a direct contribution to the war effort. According to Field Marshal Wavell, Churchill wanted to feed only those Indians who were “actually fighting or making munitions or working some particular railways.” The rest were dispensable.

6. Arthur Herman argues that you rely too heavily on Leo Amery’s diaries, recording Churchill’s intemperate outbursts, and pass by the fact that Churchill took decisive steps to ameliorate the famine. “Without Churchill,” he says, “the famine would have been worse.” How do you respond to this?

My indictment is based on what Churchill did, not on what he said. The Ministry of War Transport papers, the Cherwell Papers, and the official histories of British wartime food supply, shipping, and economy are my key sources. They show, for instance, that the War Cabinet scheduled eighteen ships to load with Australian wheat in September and October, 1943. Not one of these ships was destined for famine-stricken India.

Had anyone else been prime minister, he would have striven to relieve India’s plight instead of consigning wheat to stockpiles.

Churchill’s diatribes, as recorded in Amery’s and others’ diaries, are, however, useful in understanding why he acted as he did. Famine had failed to temper his hostility toward Indians. Churchill would tell his secretary that Hindus were a foul race protected by their rapid breeding from “the doom that is their due.” He wished Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”