Posted on: 24 October 2013

The Bengal Famine 1943-45

A massive humanitarian tragedy - but one which barely gets remembered just sixty years on. Listen to 'The Things We Forgot To Remember' on the Bengal Famine.

Michael Portillo (Guest), Nazes Afroz (BBC, Guest), Professor Christopher Bayly (St Catharine's College, Guest), Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya (The Wellcome Trust Centre For The History Of Medicine, Guest), Gideon Polya (Guest), Professor Amartya Sen (Harvard University, Guest)

Duration 30 mins
Published on: Monday 14th January 2008

Listen to The Bengal Famine:

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Thank you John Martin for this link.

Yes humans forgot, animals dont

Thank you for posting this.

Tragedy? Yes. War crime -- yes.

Most educated Indians (that's millions) are aware of this, and have moved on; we can and justly do.

The Bengal famine of 1943/44 - while undoubtedly a tragedy of epic human dimensions - was caused primarily as a result of the chaos that followed in the wake of an apocalyptic global war. No more, and no less. To attribute ' blame ' in such circumstances is disingenuous. I have seen and read some ridiculously anti-British comments at this site over the years (one of my favourites was that Robert Clive “ran away to India to escape trial in England, where he was wanted for stealing a sheep”!) – but several of the remarks further down this page plumb new depths (See comment thread : Digital Rare Book: Open letters to Lord Curzon on famines and land assessments in India. By Romesh C. Dutt.) Might I suggest, that those who would casually bandy around words such as “holocaust” or “genocide” would do well to keep their thoughts to themselves – certainly until they have reached a deeper understanding of what is actually meant by these terms? A certain type of sanctimonious post-colonial critic has arisen in contemporary India who alleges that famines were virtually non-existent in the bountiful days of the sub-continents various indigenous rulers, and that famine was a special scourge introduced only by the British. Others, not quite so ignorant of the common facts of history, allege that the severity of famines increased under British rule due to economic mismanagement (an assertion for which there is much evidence – certainly, for example, if we look at Bengal in the years c.1760-80) or to excessively high taxation (an assertion that contains no truth – rates of taxation in India were considerably lower under the British than they had been under the Moghuls, and they were considerably lower than those imposed post-1947). But before we start to demand the extradition of – well, the extradition of who exactly, the entire British race one by one, or just certain individuals? - to the Hague to face a war crimes tribunal, perhaps it might be an idea to look at the broader picture rather than simply at specific details, such as the shocking photograph above, that outrage our modern sensibilities. There are some ' inconvenient truths' that must be acknowledged : (1) Famine, it may be taken as having been proved conclusively, has always existed on the Indian sub-continent – since the days of ancient antiquity. It has usually been caused by lack of rain (or, at times, excessive rain) – and has usually been accompanied by outbreaks of disease, that have further increased mortality rates. Famine may not exist or manifest itself in India today in quite the same fashion as it did in the past – but there are still 400 million people living at or near starvation levels in modern India according to U.N. statistics – a figure that is greater than the entire population of India pre-1947. There are more malnourished children in India today than there are in the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa. Is this all the fault of the cruel and callous British, as some of your more cravenly nationalistic politicians would have you believe? (2) The British colonial authorities in India did more to prevent famine on the sub-continent - and to reduce its frequency and to relieve and mitigate its effects – than had ever been done up until that time. Before 1877, it is certainly true, that British efforts to combat famine had been largely inconsequential and ineffective. Famine was ‘bad for business’ but the officers and the civil servants of the E.I.C. had little idea of how to cope with it – they lacked the knowledge of local conditions, and the logistical ability (and the funding) and the wide-scale organisation that effective relief operations would have required. With the improvement of India's infrastructure, communications and transport that slowly took place throughout the 19th century, so a practical science of famine relief became a more realistic proposition. It was the incompetent response to the famine of 1877 – which caused a great deal of shame to the British administration both in Calcutta and, more importantly, in London - that changed famine relief from a peripheral issue to a priority. In 1883 the ‘ Famine Codes’ were drawn up, and after every succeeding famine inquiries were held as to the cause, and knowledge was pooled in an effort to prevent reoccurrence. Enormous irrigation schemes were commissioned in order to increase food production and a sum of £ 1,000,000 per annum (a large figure at that time) was set aside by the government (in good years and bad) to be used in times of want. Other measures included restrictions on the export of food stuffs during periods of famine, and the establishment of food reserves to be held in storage. All of these efforts were far in advance of anything that was being done anywhere else in the developing world at that time. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ I do not suggest that these actions were entirely successful, nor that m

I fully agree with Julian Craig about anti British comments. There is no place for such comments in present civilized world. one should learn from history about how the things were in the past, how to cope up with the future and not the hatred towards any person, community or incidence.

I don't think it's about hatred of any person or community. It's about righting a wrong. That's why there were trials of Nazis after WWII. Do the wrongs of present day politicians justify the even worse wrongs of colonial looters? I think not. As for The Hague, that is the forum for such questions, is it not?

I don't see much difference in the posture of the above argument to that adopted by the, so-called, Indian nationalists. Each seems to paper over the serious lapses of the other side while disclaiming culpability of one's own actions. I'm going to take the liberty of pasting an earlier comment of mine on the the issue of famines here, focusing on lapses by the British administration. Not only have these not received the attention (in popular histories) that they merit, Indians too are unaware of the enormity of these tragedies, caused, in no small part, due to the neglect of the British parliament to the recommendations of their own servants on the field in India. For example, see Wedderburn's addresses to parliament in 1900 on the conditions, beginning from page 32 here: All of the below is sourced from "Late Victorian Holocausts" by Mike Davis and "Churchill's Secret War" by Madhusree Mukerjee along with Wedderburn's writings. "It is completely incorrect to state that Queen Victoria's proclamations (both post-Mutiny in 1858 and post-Coronation in 1877) did anything to change the social, economic, political or agricultural landscape for Indians. The promises made or implied towards them were subverted or ignored. That such proclamations pricked British conscience towards the colony, causing it to be just and benevolent in its dealings is an imperial myth that has been breathlessly propagated and eagerly consumed... Coming to irrigation, not only was the acreage under such schemes marginal to the total number under cultivation and done at a rate below that of land taken up for such activities, it attracted only a fifth of total public expenditure, 90% of which was used to irrigate the Punjab and North-Western Provinces for commercial crops like cotton, opium, sugarcane and wheat for which the financial returns were the highest. The revenue rate on such lands were 10 to 15 times that of dry farmland, which actively discouraged peasants from using them for anything but cash crops, causing large numbers to abandon irrigated fields for ones of their own, irrigated with indigenous methods (like wells). These wells too, sunk on the peasant's own land, on their own money and labor, were taxed. Moreover, the canal systems either led to a burgeoning of water-tables that caused such wells to collapse, or to taint its saline balance rendering it unusable. The huge, stagnant water systems in these canals directly led to malarial epidemics in the famine years. Research has proven - much to the vindication of native practice and informed British opinion of servants on the fields - that indigenous, small-scale irrigation systems are a lot more advantageous over expensive canal-driven ones. Significantly, this was how the Green Revolution in the Punjab happened - where fields were irrigated by local tube-wells and not canal systems. Arthur Cotton himself estimated that just in the district of Salem in the Madras Presidency "8,864 wells, 218 dams, 164 small channels and 1017 small tanks" had been abandoned and that in Madras alone, "1,262,906 acres of once-irrigated land had reverted into uncultivated waste." His canal based irrigation projects, largely well meaning, were opposed by his fellow servants in favor of local water harvesting methods. British engineers themselves praised the local rulers for their prescient and generous support for irrigation. Here is Col. J. Anderson of the Madras Engineers in “Famines and Floods in India": "In no other part of the world has so much been done by ancient native rulers for the development of the resources of the country. The further south one goes, and the further the old Hindoo polity was removed from the disturbing influence of foreign conquest, the more complete and elaborate was the system of agriculture and irrigation works connected with it.... Every available source of supply was utilised, and works in advance of supply have been executed, for tanks [reservoirs] have been very generally constructed, not only for general rainfall, but for exceptional rainfall.... Irrigation from rivers and channels, or by these and combined, was also carried on." It is also known that centuries of Mughal and Mahratta warfare did not interfere with such systems. Indeed, in a policy wholly opposite to that introduced by the British, their chieftains could not claim ownership of any part of tillable land but for portions of its produce. The Tughlaqs and the Mughals too were well-know canal builders. Increased reliance on cash crops for subsistence, demanding taxations and no system of agricultural credit have been credited for the famines caused under colonialism. In 40 years since 1870, it is estimated that 30 million Indians have perished due to hunger and pestilence, hardly lending credit to their excellence that is spoken of here. Under the shadow of such calamities,disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan were bein

Re: " It's about righting a wrong "... That any such ' wrong ' is in need of ' righting ' is very much a matter of opinion - and it is a controversial opinion at that. It is an opinion that continues to be widely discussed and debated -often with surprising results. One can find Indians who will defend the record of ' the Raj ' come hell or high water - just as you will find Englishmen who will condemn that same record in no uncertain terms ... It is the arm-chair pundits - who discuss this important issue in clumsy and ill-considered generalities, and who simply mouth the popular ' politically correct ' platitudes' of the day, and who seem to believe that their own particular moral perspective carries more weight than any other point of view - who tend to get under the skin. We are all capable of indignation - we are all capable of having our sensibilities and our cosy assumptions offended by a contrarian point of view. So long as such opinions are expressed in the spirit of thoughtful inquiry - rather than under a thinly disguised veil of bigotry - than all is well and valuable discussions can take place. In Britain, and elsewhere in the ' West ' , many scholars are particularly incensed at the way in which the past three or four hundred years worth of global history has been interpreted and presented in post-colonial societies, and the palpable bias with which it is taught therein i.e. with an overwhelming emphasis on the negative rather than on the positive. This is in many ways understandable but it is no less exasperating for that ! India is a notable example of a nation where this phenomena - of the construction of an, essentially, artificial history that accords with contemporary forms of ' patriotism ' - has been wide-spread and prevalent . But the past is not an issue on which many people take the time to reflect in anything other than the most perfunctory and superficial manner - and so distortions and manipulations are perpetuated with very little scrutiny outside of dusty academic corners ( and ' agendas ' exist even there). --------------------------------------------------------------------- On another note : It often amuses me (well, perhaps, ' amusement ' is the wrong term) when I see various commentators availing themselves of ' the Facebook ', and of forums like the RBSI, to disseminate their anti-British, or anti-Western, or anti-Capitalist or anti - [ X , Y or Z ] prejudices to a wider audience, while inadvertently acknowledging their debt to a platform that is provided via the good graces of a gigantic American corporation !

I agree with your conclusion Julian Craig... ..."But the past is not an issue on which many people take the time to reflect in anything other than the most perfunctory and superficial manner - and so distortions and manipulations are perpetuated with very little scrutiny outside of dusty academic corners ( and ' agendas ' exist even there)."

Julian, the facebook thingy is a bit like saying "why do you use english to flog the brits". Because it is a way of getting the message across to more people

What is so wrong with using a platform designed in America? They cast off the British too - because they were fed up of the way they were treated. And these are people who were direct descendants of the British, and related to them, unlike in the case of Indians. Lastly, there is no bias here. There can only be one side to the history of colonialism. It was wrong. When people thousands of miles away dominate and loot another country for material gain, it is plain wrong! At least the Americans have had the grace to apologize and make amends for slavery; the Germans for the holocaust; no such apology has come forth from the UK.

Re: " ... there is no bias here." Oh dear. This statement contains such a staggering degree of naivety that it hardly seems necessary ( or polite ) to pass further comment ... Suffice to say : the partisan twist - the nationalistic ' spin ' - that is embedded within the Indian education system, within her print and electronic media, within her film industry etc & so on - is so glaringly apparent to most foreign observers, that it is a cause of a good deal of hilarity - as well as a cause of genuine concern. I do not wish to imply that one will not find ' propaganda ' presented as history elsewhere in the world - in both the East and the West - for you most certainly can and will - but in India, politically orientated historical ' revisionism ' has been raised to the level of an art form.

That's your opinion, Julian and you know what they say about opinions! Who could be more nationalistic than the British? Yet you protest when Indians (who are among the most self-critical in the world) choose to be so. What's sauce for the goose..... Glad to know you find all this hilarious - one would never guess that from the content of your posts.

When I said there was no bias here, I meant that it's an issue that cannot be debated because there are no two sides to it. There is only the truth, which is: colonialism was evil. There is no debate here. If you choose to argue it, that's your problem. Of course there will be bias towards our country. Is it wrong to love one's country, no matter how dysfunctional others find it? And why does our positive bias towards our country concern you??? Deal with your own problems, not ours. My God, you people are a throwback to an era that I thought ended a long time ago. It's sickening to hear your antediluvian views on what you think we should think! Your contempt is so apparent - it's pathetic. Wake up - the Empire doesn't exist anymore.

Evidently you aren't aware of this but the UN adopted a Devlaration in 1960 on decolonization. Please read it.

' Ms ' Vinita Ullal My own level of interest in your personal thoughts , as expressed above, and elsewhere at this site - and in your penetrating insights into the nature of British 'nationalism' (most of which seem to be about one hundred years out of date) can be very succinctly summed up in the following three words : Absolutely none whatsoever .... and so I would be grateful if you would address your remarks to the RBSI membership more broadly, and let that be the end of it. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Re: " antediluvian " attitudes Britain has, it can be argued, retained certain anachronistic Imperial pretensions and it has taken several decades for her to adjust to the loss of her former grandeur, as is evidenced by a reluctance to accept a reduced role in international affairs - but any nostalgia for a ' lost ' , and in many respects 'mythological' , status has largely faded - and as a result, British bonds with the former dominion nations remain as strong as they ever were - the Queen remains the Head of State of 16 nations around the globe - and the Anglo-Indian relationship, if a slightly strained one from time to time, is a healthy and increasingly important one. Whenever I open a newspaper Mr Cameron or one of his ministers is on some trip or trade mission of one kind or another to India - and when they say that they wish to build economic links between the two countries - on an equal basis, as a partnership - I believe that this is said with sincerity. Britain and India have all sorts of historical and cultural links and so it is only natural that we should develop these to our mutual advantage. TATA is one of Britain's biggest investors and London is becoming a playground for India's wealthier classes ( just as it was pre-1947). Tens of thousands of Indian students are educated in this country every year - and nor should it be forgotten that, these days, about 7 % of the British population is of sub-continental ethnicity or extraction. The Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi population has been growing here since the mid-1950s - and many members of this community have been very successful . You will find British born ' Indians' on corporate boards, serving in senior positions in the military and the civil service, and in sitting in the Houses of Parliament - as well as, of course, in a multitude of less exalted and more humble positions. No, I am afraid to say, that it is in India where you will continue to find ' antediluvian ' views alive and well ...

If we can gloss over the personal references (with a certain amount of discomfiture)...this has been an interesting albeit a fiery discussion, reflecting two sides of popular perceptions. Thank you all...enlightening as always!...

Julian, While I agree with you that there's a regrettable surfeit of 'knee-jerk', 'wholesale' condemnation of British in Internet platforms by those with scant information, you'd have to see this in the context of social change that's happening in India since independence. For decades, there was perhaps just a minuscule % of Indians, given to English education, who could get their teeth into history of their own backyard could come up with insights let alone mount formidable arguments against 'glossed over' aspects of history, the India we see today is a very different place. Each year, millions move up the economic ladder and with it new avenues for consuming information as well for self expression. Given India's population, it will be decades before it attains a near uniform scale of academic background, similar levels of dialectic etc. For every informed opinion expressed in forums like this (I count RBSI as one) you'd find quite many just happy to 'parrot' long held prejudices without their own critical analysis or judgement. However, I find some of your remarks very patronising and can only harden prejudices that you wish were jettisoned. What if Facebook happened to be even a British firm ? You sound as though you are talking to a bunch of Taliban conscripts on the lines of why hate West while you wear jeans. Educated Indians have never had any anti-West or anti-Modernity predilection. Also, for someone as erudite as yourselves, acknowledging TATA as a major 'employer' in UK than as an 'investor' would again help bridge the perception factor.

Shashi, Vinita, Enjoyed your well crafted posts as well. There's indeed so much to learn by posts of well read people like you, in this forum.

Mr Srinivasan Radhakrishnan - Thank you for your balanced and objective remarks, which represent an unusual - dare I say ' unique ' - approach within this forum. It is an approach which I find understandably refreshing ! If you find my own comments ' patronising ', then this is a matter for regret, and is not intentional - we are all products of our own cultural background and conditioning are we not ? From time to time, we may all allow our own Anglo or Indo-centric perceptions to run away with us and to cloud our view of any particular issue. Impartiality should always be the foundation for any form of serious historical inquiry. Many of us are guilty of the ' sin of omission' as and when required - and it is quite difficult to find just the right words in these Anglo-Indian internet exchanges - i.e. to find a tone that does not offend sensibilities or tread upon patriotic toes. Having said that, it is often difficult to bite one's lip when confronted with some of the equally ' patronising ' (and frequently ill-informed ) comments of some your more fanatical countrymen and women - who have a tendency toward hysteria and hyperbole ! As to the further body of your remarks : Re: " Given India's population, it will be decades before it attains a near uniform scale of academic background, similar levels of dialectic " .... ... In comparison to the West - I take it that you mean ? If this is so, then I agree with you entirely. Unfortunately this state of intellectual malaise will not begin to improve at any stage soon. India does not take her duty of providing an adequate education to her population with the same degree of importance with which she takes ' defence ' - spending vast sums on nuclear warheads and pretentious ' super-power ' posturing. India does not have, according to accepted international standards, a single university that is of world-class status ... fact... Which is a dreadful state of affairs. India certainly has no shortage of first-class minds - but, alas - many of the ' best & the brightest ' disappear overseas for their further education, never to return - which has an entirely negative effect on the pace of development. Re: " ... acknowledging TATA as a major 'employer' in UK than as an 'investor' would again help bridge the perception factor. " A fair point ... I am not in the habit of carefully proof-reading Facebook comments - and perhaps I should have written ' biggest investor and major employer'. Not that it should make much difference, the two terms are to some extent interchangeable. I am not sure how many people TATA employs in the U.K. - but it must be 10,000 + Only yesterday, as it happens, TATA announced that they have been given the contract to supply the steel that will help to refurbish and extend the British railway system ... and I'm sure that you will be able to detect the historical irony in this scenario !

Julian Craig, apparently you're not aware of the IITs in India that are harder to get into than MIT. Making generalizations like you do, only further the impression that you're extremely biased. And that bit about the best and brightest disappearing overseas, was true in the 60s and 70s. Many Indians are returning now. And again, if the depressing way you perceive India IS true, maybe just maybe, it wouldn't have happened if the British hadn't tyrannized and destroyed the Indian infrastructure so completely, for so long. I'm not making this up - it's a fact. Nor is there any hysteria when it is stated. What you say of Indian defense spending could be said of any other country, yours and the US too. We aren't talking about present day politics.

Points made!...but I guess it is time to move on.

Oh for heaven's sake ... ' Ms ' Ullal - I did request (above) that you address your remarks to the wider RBSI membership , and not directly to me - clearly this request fell on deaf ears ... If you wish to respond to any points that I make - please do so in the third rather than in the first person - as I really have no interest in trading puerile insults with you . As to your further remarks: Re: " ...apparently you're not aware of the IITs in India that are harder to get into than MIT." These institutions might be difficult to get into - but that is largely on account of demand far exceeding available places - the quality of the education that they provide is poor by global standards. If you do not wish to take my word for it - perhaps you will take the word of 'The Times of India ' "The QS World University Rankings published on Tuesday has miserable news for India's education system. Around 11 Indian institutes feature in the top 800 of the global list with the highest ranking going to IIT Delhi which is placed 222 in the list. ... Two others made it to the top 300—IIT Bombay (233) and IIT Kanpur (295). IIT Madras is ranked 313 while IIT Kharagpur stands at 346. " - T.O.I. (12.09.13) Incidentally, you might be interested to know (although I suspect not), that the number of Indian students studying abroad has risen by 256% in the last ten years. By far the largest number of whom have or will head off to the United States. ------------------------------------------------------------------ Re: " ... that bit about the best and brightest disappearing overseas, was true in the 60s and 70s. Many Indians are returning now." Yes and no. Some expatriate Indians have returned - especially to work in the burgeoning Indian computer industry and in other fields, or to seek commercial opportunities based on the know-how that they have acquired overseas - but their numbers are small in comparison to the number of Indians who travel in the opposite direction every year. I do not have the precise statistics to hand - but I will certainly locate them if required. India's industrial giants - Tata, Mahindra, Birla and so on - invest as much (if not more) of their capital abroad, as they do at ' home ' - and this further fans the ' brain drain ' within India's business community. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Re: " What you say of Indian defence spending could be said of any other country, yours and the US too. " Yes - most First world nations have enormous military budgets - but India is not a First-world nation - far from it. India will spend $ 46 billion on ' defence' in 2013. Every government has, of course, a duty to protect its citizens from external threat - but this amount can surely be perceived as excessive in a country with so many other pressing social problems. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Re: " We aren't talking about present day politics. " If you do not understand the connection between contemporary politics and history then you are more delusional than I had previously believed. One cannot understand the present without understanding the past - and you cannot understand the past without understanding its ramifications for the present - the two are intimately connected. It is a symbiotic relationship. Why else do we study history at all ? Good day to you madam .

' @ ' The R.B.S.I. Re: " ... I guess it is time to move on. " I agree with you entirely -in more respects than one.

Interesting...very interesting ! Noteworthy elucidation on 'The Other Things We Forgot to Remember'...