Churchill’s Secret War – II – A Book Review

Editor’s Note: Last week, we wrote our first article about “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukerjee. It is an extraordinary book, extraordinary in its dispassionate analysis, extraordinary in its research, extraordinary in its importance to people of Indian origin worldwide and finally extraordinary in the secular problems it suggests for the Global Media organizations that still remain dominated by people of European origin, European education and European sympathies.

In this article, we try to do some justice to “Churchill’s Secret War” by taking the reader on a journey of the various chapters of this book. The best way we know how to describe each chapter is by including key quotes from the book (bold emphasis used below is ours).

Chapter I – Empire at War

  • In the conflict to come, he (Churchill) believed the United Kingdom would need its huge and resource-rich possession (India) as never before.1
  • “My whole conception is that of India humming from end to end with activity in munitions and supply of production and at the same time with the bustle of men training for active service of one sort or another, the first operation largely paying for the cost of the second,” explained Leopold Amery, the new secretary of state for India, to Linlithgow, the new viceroy in India.6
  • Apart from the United Kingdom itself, India would become the largest contributor to the empire’s war – providing goods and services worth more than 2 billion pounds.”8
  • Also in these years, the Great Depression overcame rural India……Instead, banks melted down 3.4 billion rupees (255 million pounds) worth of gold jewelry into bars and shipped it to London, helping to buttress its threatened position as a financial capital of the world. As a result, rural India was drained of its savings, leaving peasants defenseless against future economic shocks.62

Chapter 2 – Harvesting the Colonies

  • Famines were integral to India’s colonial experience, having been several times more frequent during the Victorian era, when tens of millions died of hunger, than during the Mughal period that had preceded the British. Although often triggered by drought, the famines were so lethal because India was exporting grain- some 10 million tons by 1900. By the end of the Victorian period, India’s export constituted almost exclusively the products of its fields.43

Some of the most interesting material in this Chapter is from the 19th century American historian Brook Adams and his arguments about why Britain had its industrial revolution before any other European country.

  • Very soon after Plassey (the battle Clive “won” in 1957), the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution’. the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 176044
  • The tribute from India, which amounted to almost a third of Britain’s national savings for the last three decades of the eighteenth century, financed trading networks, serving as lubricant for the new economic engine. It also enabled suddenly wealthy merchants to wrest power from the monarchy and stabilize the British parliament system, which would thereafter provide consistent support for their ventures. Ironically, the lack of liberty in the colonies subsidized the increasing political freedom in the United Kingdom.44
  • Its head start in industrialization meant that “for nearly fifty years Great Britain stood without a competitor,” Adams continued. During that period British banks, loaded with colonial spoils, lent to and traded with North America, Europe and Australia, thereby helping them industrialize. These continents imported British machines and erected tariff barriers behind which they nurtured their infant industries. “Under English domination, India became a key foundation of the emerging worldwide capitalist edifice,” wrote historian Eric Wolf.45
  • India is your great free market,” Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) reminded Parliament in 1887. “Every kind of British goods flows into India without the smallest obstacle, and the possession of India is of incalculable value on account to the British working man.
  • The colony had been reduced “from the state of manufacturing to that of an agricultural country, ” as a director of the East India Company had predicted in 1823.48
  • Should Indians eat their grain instead of exporting it, they would destabilize the economy of the United Kingdom.54

How apt is the title of this Chapter “Harvesting the Colonies”?

Chapter 3 – Scorched

This Chapter describes the policy adopted by England to “scorch the earth” in eastern provinces in India, especially Bengal to prevent any materials falling into the hands of the Japanese, if they attacked India from Burma. The author describes this scorched earth policy in detail and the devastation it caused, es
pecially in Bengal.

  • On November 14, 1941, the prime minister had urged a “scorched earth” policy involving “ruthless destruction in any territory we have to surrender.”….the order elaborated “If some resource could not be burned or blown up, “dumping in sea or rivers may suffice.”.…the rice would have to be removed from traders’ storehouses and landowners’ golas or miniature silos. In the confusion and panic, the vital caveat of leaving enough food for the people would be disregarded.

The British also demanded that India supply rice to those parts of the British Empire that could not obtain it from Southeast Asia.

  • As a result, whereas Bengal had imported 296,000 tons of rice in 1941, it would export 185,000 tons of rice in 1942. The price of rice soared.25

Was there anything personal in Churchill’s determination to impose the “scorched earth” policy? Perhaps, the quote below might provide a clue:

  • That very day, while discussing his forthcoming speech with Amery, Churchill exclaimed, “I hate Indians, They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”56

Ms. Mukerjee ends Chapter 3 with:

  • “In Midnapore district of Bengal, however, the uprising would lead to a lethal confrontation with authorities. It would also give to a secret government that would endure for two tortuous years, through famine of an intensity not seen since the Victorian era.”58

Chapter 4 – At Any Price

This chapter describes the confrontation between the rural people of Bengal with the British-led authorities.

  • The rare British administrator who emphathized with the natives was also eased out of power. The most senior civil servant in Bengal, Chief Secretary James Richard Blair, asked for early retirement, reportedly because he could not stomach the repression in Midnapore.

But as Ms. Mukerjee writes:

  •  “Each link in the command chain – Churchill-Amery-Linlithgow-Herbert – was welded to the others by a grim resolve”
  • .…related social worker Ashok Gupta “Fish, eggs, fruit, everything was being collected and fed to the army. Big rice banks were formed. They told everyone, give us your rice, we’ll give it back to you when you need it, but they didn’t give any, even after people started dying.”

Chapter 5 – Death of a Thousand Cuts

  • Wheat was available in Australia, but all Indian ships capable of the round trip were engaged in the war effort. Moreover, in January, the prime minister had brought most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian ocean over to the Atlantic in order to bolster the United Kingdom’s stocks of food and raw materials. He was reluctant to release vessels to carry grain to the colony because lowered stocks at home would compromise the British economy ……and because his hostility toward Indians was escalating.2
  • That is, the shipping cut that contributed to the outbreak of famine in Bengal merely added to the margin by which stocks were in excess in Britain.47
  • Ceylon, Arabia and South Africa, where the rice ended up, were already better supplied with grain than was India. But if distributed at relief camps in Bengal at the average rate of a half-kilogram per person per day, 71,000 tons of rice would have kept 390,000 people alive for a full year. The 360,000 tons of wheat and rice, is similarly used, would have saved almost 2 million.78

Chapter 6 – An Occupied and Starving Country

We confess we do not the heart or the stomach to quote from this deeply distressing chapter. Frankly, the title does injustice to the human misery described in this chapter. We shall simply quote the last paragraph because the comparison simply must be read:

  • With the Department of Civil Supplies keeping all the grain it could get hold of, or distributing it to priority industries, little was left for even these circumscribed relief operations….
  • …a pound of rice was feeding three people. Sometime after that, the portion was further reduced, to four ounces per person per day, at the low end of the scale on which, at much the same time, inmates at Buchenwald were being fed.”44

For those who may not know, Buchenwald was a German concentration camp, one of the first and the largest of the concentration camps on German soil.

Chapter 7 – In the Village
& Chapter 8 – On the Street

The book “Churchill’s Secret War” is not just about facts and analysis. It provides stories of real Bengali people and their families. These human stories are in fact the heart of the book and the primary reason for the book.

  • Despite the horrific ways in which they meet their ends, those Bengalis who perished of hunger in the villages did so in obscurity, all but unnoticed by the national and international press. – page 167

This is why, Ms. Mukerjee has dedicated her book “To those who fell so that I could be born free“.

Chapter 9 – Run Rabbit Run

  • Again, Amery’s diaries provide an angry insight into the motives behind the proceedings. “I fought my battle for Indian food as hard as I could,” he wrote. “Winston was prepared to admit that something should be done but very strong on the point that Indians are not the only people who are starving in this war and that as far as the war goes it is just as important to get food to Greece…Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country.”
  • Wavell’s account is just as revealing.“Apparently it is more important to save the Greeks and liberated countries from starvation than the Indians and there is reluctance either to provide shipping or to reduce stocks in this country.”

Churchill and his supporters had drawn support from arguments of Malthus and Darwin about the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life, Ms. Mukerjee writes.

  • An 1881 report by the (British-ruled) Government of India on preceding famines concluded that the poorest Indians were the worst affected by such calamities, and if relief measures were to prevent their deaths they would continue to breed, making the survivors even more penurious. Death might even come as deliverance to those nature had chosen to discard – page 204.
  • Churchill had corroborated Malthus’s perspective, writing of an 1989 Indian plague: “a philosopher may watch unmoved the destruction of some of those superfluous millions, whose life must of necessity be destitute of pleasure.36
  • …, November 10, 1943, the prime minister gave his own Darwinian twist to Cherwell’s Malthusian considerations. Amery made his plea, following which “Winston, after a preliminary flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war, asked Leathers for his view.38

Ms. Mukerjee chose the title of this chapter on something Churchill was heard to repeatedly murmur.

  • In his pronouncements over the years, Churchill had invented some wonderfully apt animal metaphors, with rabbits the least among them. ….Stalin resembled a crocodile……..Hitler…a boa constrictor…Gandhi had once been a tiger, but he had long since descended the food chain.
  • More often that not the small, brown, fangless and numberless Indians whom the frail old pacifist personified brought to Churchill’s mind a prey species.
  • The British lion, so fierce and valiant in bygone days, so dauntless and unconquerable through all the agony of Armageddon, can now be chased by rabbits from the fields and forests of his former glory.” he had warned during the 1930s campaign against native self-rule.
  • During the Quit India uprising, the government had the rebels “on the run“.
  • Winston Churchill, the quintessential lion, was an excellent shot when it came to rabbits, and earlier in the war was heard to repeatedly murmur the first two lines of the ditty:39

Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run
Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run
Bang, bang, bang, bang! Goes the farmer’s gun
Run, rabbit, run, run, run, run, run.

Chapter 10
Life After Death & Chapter 11Split and Quit

These two chapters discuss the more well known subjects of the final two years before the Independence and the partition of India.  Ms. Mukerjee gives enough detail to convince us that the British wanted to partition India as much as Jinnah did. Wavell might have disagreed with Churchill about helping the famine victims of Bengal, but:

  • The Warriors Wavell & Churchill could agree on this much: the malevolence of Gandhi, whose half-naked frame, hair-splitting arguments, and refusal to put up his fists encapsulated all that was repugnant to them about Hindus.10

In fact, Churchill wanted an even deeper  partition:

  • The Viceroy (Wavell) returned to England, but when at long last he got to meet Churchill, in March 29, 1945, the prime minister “launched into a long jeremiad about India which lasted for about 40 minutes. He seems to favor partition into Pakistan, Hindustan, Princestan, etc.22

That was just about what was in the cards in 1947. But it was Vallabhbhai Patel who with iron determination persuaded, cajoled and forced the various princely states to join the new India. 

And how the English soldiers leave India? Ms. Mukerjee tells us they “trudged toward the ships that would carry them home, some marching to
this chant

Land of shit and filth and wogs
Gonorrhea, syphilis, clap and pox;
Memsahib’s paradise, soldier’s hell
India, fare thee fucking well.

Chapter 12 – The Reckoning

In this chapter, Ms. Mukerjee painstakingly discusses the attempts by Churchill, Amery, the British Government and the British-ruled Indian government to suppress the devastation of the famine and the cover-up of their actions, responsibilities for the genocide.

She also discusses the figures of casualties calculated by the British-Indian Government, and research of  Mahalnobis, Sen just to name a couple. Based on any of these, the total number of deaths are between 3.5-5 million, figures that justify the term genocide, in our opinion.

She also provides finality to the personal stories that run through the entire book, stories of Sushil Dhara, of Chitto Samanto who lived and struggled through the great famine.

As far as Churchill is concerned, Ms. Mukerjee writes:

  • All the evidence points to the prime minister and his closest advisor having believed that Indians were ordained to reside at the bottom of the social pyramid,
  • Long after India had obtained independence, the Prof (Churchill’s closest advisor) would describe “the abdication of the white man” as the worst calamity of the twentieth centurymore deplorable than two world wars and the Holocaust.”20

As we said before, we are indebted to Ms. Madhusree Mukerjee for the book, “Churchill’s Secret War”. It taught us a lot about our own history  and made us think anew about what we knew. We urge all readers to read it and ideally own it.

The numbers included the above quotes are the numbers of the extensive footnotes provided in the book, pages 295-319.

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