In the December just gone, a good friend of mine died, just eighteen months after her young daughter who had had a four-year battle with cancer. It was not an unexpected death, but she was one of my close friends – the most good-natured and warmest of them all – and afterwards I began to reel in lots of different ways. I had kept a message from her, before her final decline, on my answering machine. It was typically chirrupy and buoyant. Most importantly, it was her voice: there as a security blanket, a presence, even if I wasn’t quite ready to listen to it.
Then, one night in February, there was a short power outage in London, and my answering machine was wiped clean. The explanation was ordinary, but the way it made me feel and the way I interpreted it were entirely different. I felt she was saying to me: no, I’m leaving now and I don’t want even my voice to remain on earth.
In the UK the circle of the year is being used to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War and the D-Day Landings of 1944, which marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe. It is just six years since we elaborately marked the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice and the end of the First World War in 1918. For this the fountains of Trafalgar Square were filled with thousands of paper poppies in remembrance, marking the millions of lives that had been taken in combat. It was impossible not to cry. I had always bought my poppy on 11 November and in latter years had always taken it to rest in the small pagoda at the top of Constitution Hill that marks the bravest of the brave from south Asia: including Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who was murdered by the Gestapo and whose last word was said to be ‘freedom’.
But after all this in 2008 I stopped buying a yearly poppy. You can only cry so much for those who are gone. I began to wonder if, like my much-missed friend, they would quite like to extract themselves from any vestige of an earthly presence and were pretty fed up with it all.
And then there was the hypocrisy. We are as equal in death as in birth. What of those who were casualties of war, with no poppies? I am thinking of the Bengal Famine of 1942-43, and just four years later of Partition. The British government reluctantly acknowledged at the end of 1944 that two million had died in famine in Bengal. The fact of the matter is that Churchill didn’t give a damn. Bengal was part of the essential supply line to stop a Japanese advance; his real attention was on the Normandy invasions planned for June 1944 and India came a long way down his list – if at all – after a Balkan mission that never came to pass. But mostly he had no time for India and didn’t care about its suffering.
For those who did, it was an upward struggle. Ian Stephens was the editor of the Calcutta Statesman and, after railing in editorials that the British government should declare the Famine Code, he decided to take direct action. He had visiting cards prepared with his name on one side and on the other reproductions of the most terrible deaths on the streets of Calcutta. He took the train to Delhi with 300 of these and made sure that every senior British official received one. The Famine Code was declared and the All-India Food Conference convened in Delhi. It was too late to prevent the tragedy, but on 5th July 1943 a request was made to London that 500,000 tons of food be shipped to India over the next six months. The shipping committee of the war cabinet rejected the request, despite supporting letters from the viceroy and the British commander-in-chief in India. The war cabinet simply passed the blame: “The real problem in India was one of inflation, of which food hoarding and the consequent shortages were symptomatic.” In other words, it was Bengalis who were causing their own suffering.
[quote]”One of the greatest disasters… has befallen any people under British rule”[/quote]
Repeated requests by viceroy Wavell were turned down. At one stage he asked the central government for a million tons of food grains a year, to which the cabinet’s response was “out of the question.” A minimal 50,000 tons per month was finally allowed, some of which Wavell sourced from Australia, but by now cholera and malaria had devastated Bengal. Ministerial incompetence had caused, in Wavell’s view, “one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule.”
The British government’s representatives in the food department in Delhi continued to play it down and refused to accept full responsibility. When Attlee’s Labour Party asked questions in the House of Commons about the “mishandling” of India’s food situation, the food department replied on the afternoon of January 6th 1944 that it was “unlikely that the total number of Bengali deaths due to famine and disease has yet to exceed one million.” Three hours later, the department admitted to Whitehall that they had no accurate data but “it is probably that the total deaths over five months in 1943 did amount to about two million but this figure included normal deaths and also the deaths due to malaria epidemic.”
[quote]”Suicides and child-selling have been reported”[/quote]
The numbers just go part of the way. I had not seen images of the famine in Bengal until last week, when journalist Raza Rumi retweeted a shocking photograph from @Indiahistorypic.
A report seen by government in Delhi in August 1943 stated: “In Chittagong, ARP personnel have had to take over the daily removal of corpses from streets and houses. In Dacca, the poor are unable to obtain rice. Cholera, smallpox and starvation are causing hundreds of deaths daily… similar conditions prevail over large areas of East Bengal. Suicides and child-selling have been reported. In Mysore thousands of Indian workers are starving. Many Indian soldiers serving in the East India have seen famine conditions prevailing there … and Indian soldiers in general are already apprehensive of the effects of food shortages upon their families.”
Wavell flew to Calcutta on 26th October and wrote to Amery: “Most of the people were women and children, and the condition of all was poor … I saw no sign of any action. The death-rate amongst the destitute is high as those who are ill and cannot go to the kitchens have no guarantee that they will be fed, and there is no organised medical attention.”
In Europe, between 1939-1945, some 20 million people were displaced by war, while 5 million died of starvation and disease in the holocaust death camps.
What happened in India 1942-1947 was on a comparable scale, but it remains forgotten, ignored in the endless war commemorations we have had in the UK this year and many before. I wonder if on his deathbed, Churchill remembered the famine of Bengal and the millions who lost their lives.
[quote]”You hear shouts, screams… But famine comes quietly”[/quote]
Ian Stephens later wrote of how famine arrived without announcement: “Death by slaughter, say in a communal riot … you of course know about almost at once. You hear shouts, screams. Smoke from nearby buildings on fire stings your nostrils… But famine comes quietly. Even if you’ve been half-expecting it, there’s still no drama: nothing to hear, almost nothing characteristic at first to see, anyway in a city like Calcutta, notorious for its swarms of pitiable poor living in squalor near the margins of subsistence.”
Madhusree Mukerji, author of ‘Churchill’s Secret War: the British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II’, recently wrote about the Bengal famine for the Huffington Post, but the response is still silence.
Perhaps it is a more appropriate reply to something so awful than the consummate (and often hypocritical) remembrance that we do in the west. After all, we do not understand what lies beyond life.