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15 October 2014
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3 Million Dead in Artificial Famine in Bengal

by Sutapas

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Archive List > World > India

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr Surendra Nath Bhattacharya
Location of story: 
Calcutta India
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 October 2003

Both my late father (then in his early twenties) and my mother (then a child) recall vividly one thing from the 1939-45 war into which India was dragged by the British. It was the flood of starving refugees pouring into Calcutta (which until 1911 had been capital of British India) from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) due to the artificial famine created by the British which we now know killed 3 million people. What was different from earlier influxes of refugees was the sheer desperation of these starving people, they did not beg for rice but for fanna, the wastewater from the ricepan! This memory was etched indelibly into both of my parents' minds and I heard stories from my uncles and others about it such as the story of the father who bought a Jackfruit with his last few "pennies" to give to his children before sneaking off to abandon them to death.
Amartya Sen (Master of Trinity College Cambridge) also remembers this episode from his childhood and says it was responsible for his decision to study economics and the cause of famines. The 1942-43 Bengal Famine occurred in spite of a good harvest in Bengal and surplus grain stocks in other parts of India. The British exported the grain, pushing up prices and leaving the peasantry to starve. A British policy of destroying boats in case the Japanese invaded stopped villagers travelling to trade for food exacerbating things. The British lied about their policies claiming that grain was not being exported and massively downsizing the death toll, pretending that there was no famine. It was only when the British owned Statesman newspaper broke the silence that they had to acknowledge it and Lord Wavell was brought in to do something. He started bringing in surplus grain from other parts of India but this was, at first just piled up in the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and not distributed to the starving. Indian protesters piled up dead bodies of refugees outside the gardens.
Later the British tried to suppress the facts about this British-inflicted holocaust in India, occurring simultaneously with the German-inflicted genocide in Europe, as shown in the 1997 Channel 4 Secret History programme The Forgotten Famine.
Indeed, this was not the first British-inflicted famine holocaust in British-ruled India. In 1901, The Lancet estimated conservatively that 19 million Indians had died in Western India during the drought famine of the 1890s. The death toll was so high because of the British policy of refusal to intervene and implement famine relief (unlike the anti-profiteering measures etc. taken by the Mughals and Marathas during famines) as detailed by American historian Mike Davis in his Late Victorian Holocausts. Similarly in the 1870s some 17 million or so Indians dies in the Deccan and South India due to the "let them starve" policies encouraged by Lord Lytton and other British rulers. Indeed, whilst millions starved in 1876, the British held the biggest feast in human history in Delhi, the Delhi Durbar to celebrate Victoria becoming Empress, feeding 70,000 Britishers and Indian princelings for a week. In 1901 when people called for famine relief, the London government urged Delhi to contribute to the Boer war instead of famine relief but had no objection to the huge expense of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta.
Thus it comes as little surprise that Hitler's favourite film was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and that he wrote in Mein Kampf that Ukraine should be Germany's "India". The policies of racially motivated colonial exploitation which were taken to the extreme by the Nazis were in part inspired by the policies of the British in India as witnessed by my parents a few years before the British left. Indeed, soon after the British conquest of Bengal in 1757, British policies led to the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 where, in certain regions up to a third of the population died. India has not suffered from a serious famine since the British left!

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