The Partition of India was the last act of the British Raj.
It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but it was not the worst disaster to hit India in the 1940s.
That dubious honour goes to the Bengal Famine of 1942-4, which left over a million dead.
It was a famine that happened with full knowledge of Britain and directly disputes the claim by the British that their ‘rule’ had eliminated famine from India.
In 1942, a war boom in Calcutta had driven up the price of food, pricing the poor out of the market. When the harvest failed for two years running, the British rulers on the spot called for aid from London.
In response to the desperate pleas from the Viceroy and the Army, some was given, but more was withheld.
It appeared that Churchill’s War Cabinet did not want to slow down the prosecution of the war.
When Indians asked for help, guns were the preferred choice over food.
Yet in 1940-41, at a crisis in the Battle of Atlantic, the UK had faced the same choice.
Then, Churchill had ruled that feeding the people of Britain took priority. Indians, noting the failure of the Raj to respond to their crisis, were reinforced in their desire to be rid of it as soon as possible.
The Bengal Famine, the largest single loss of life in the British Empire in World War II, was promptly forgotten.
Churchill repeatedly ignored pleas for emergency food aid for millions in Bengal, who were left to starve as their rice paddies were turned over to jute for sandbag production and the supplies of rice from Burma had stopped after Japanese occupation.
Between one and three million died of hunger in 1943.
The wartime leader said Britain could not spare the ships to transport emergency supplies as the streets of Calcutta filled with emaciated villagers from the surrounding countryside, but author Madhusree Mukerjee has unearthed new documents which challenge his claim.
In her book, Churchill’s Secret War, she cites ministry records and personal papers which reveal ships carrying cereals from Australia were bypassed India on their way to the Mediterranean where supplies were already abundant.
It wasn’t a question of Churchill being inept: “sending relief to Bengal was raised repeatedly and he and his close associates thwarted every effort,”the author said.
“The United States and Australia offered to send help but couldn’t because the war cabinet was not willing to release ships. And when the US offered to send grain on its own ships, that offer was not followed up by the British,”she added.
The man-made famine and the contrast between the plight of starving Indians and well-fed British officers dining in the city’s many colonial clubs, has been described as one of the darkest chapters in British rule on the Indian subcontinent.
Miss Mukerjee blames Churchill’s ‘racism’ for his refusal to intervene.
He derided Gandhi as a “half-naked holy man” and once said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Churchill was known to favour Islam over Hinduism.
“Winston’s racist hatred was due to his loving the empire in the way a jealous husband loves his trophy wife…. he would rather destroy it than let it go.”