Nehru’s Word: British autocratic rule, prison and Bengal famine

‘That constitution meant ultimately the unchecked authoritarian rule of a single individual who was responsible to no one in India, and who had greater power than any dictator anywhere in the world.’

Nehru’s Word: British autocratic rule, prison and Bengal famine

Mridula Mukherjee

Writing from the Ahmadnagar Fort Prison on April 13 1944, exactly 77 years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, describes life in prison during the War, and ogonises over the misery caused by the Famine in Bengal and some other parts of India. Some of what he says about the autocratic nature of British rule during the War sounds disturbingly similar to recent trends noted by perceptive observers, and Bengal is of course very much the focus of attention, though of a different kind, these days.

“It is more than twenty months since we were brought here, more than twenty months of my ninth term of imprisonment. The new moon, a shimmering crescent in the darkening sky, greeted us on our arrival here. The bright fortnight of the waxing moon had begun. Ever since then each coming of the new moon has been a reminder to me that another month of my imprisonment is over….

The moon, ever a companion to me in prison, has grown more friendly with closer acquaintance, a reminder of the loveliness of this world, of the waxing and waning of life, of light following darkness, of death and resurrection following each other in interminable succession…. It is an easy calendar (though it must be adjusted from time to time), and for the peasant in the field the most convenient one to indicate the passage of the days and the gradual changing of the seasons.

Three weeks we spent here cut off completely from all news of the outside world. There were no contacts of any kind, no interviews, no letters, no newspapers, no radio. Even our presence here was supposed to be a state secret unknown to any except to the officials in charge of us, a poor secret, for all India knew where we were. Then newspapers were allowed and, some weeks later, letters from near relatives dealing with domestic affairs. But no interviews during these 20 months, no other contacts.

The newspapers contained heavily censored news. Yet they gave us some idea of the war that was consuming more than half the world, and of how it fared with our people in India. Little we knew about these people of ours except that scores of thousands lay in prison or internment camps without trial, that thousands had been shot to death, that tens of thousands had been driven out of schools and colleges, that something indistinguishable from martial law prevailed over the whole country, that terror and frightfulness darkened the land.

They were worse off, far worse than us, those scores of thousands in prison, like us, without trial, for there were not only no interviews, but also no letters or newspapers for them, and even books were seldom allowed. Many sickened for lack of healthy food, some of our dear ones died for lack of proper care and treatment.

There were many thousands of prisoners of war kept in India, mostly from Italy. We compared their lot with the lot of our own people. We were told that they were governed by the Geneva Convention. But there was no convention or law or rule to govern the conditions under which Indian prisoners and detenus had to exist, except such ordinances which it pleased our British rulers to issue from time to time.


Famine came, ghastly, staggering, horrible beyond words. In Malabar, in Bijapur, in Orissa, and, above all, in the rich and fertile province of Bengal, men and women and little children died in their thousands daily for lack of food. They dropped down dead before the palaces of Calcutta, their corpses lay in the mud-huts of Bengal’s innumerable villages and covered the roads and fields of its rural areas.

Men were dying all over the world and killing each other in battle; usually a quick death, often a brave death, death for a cause, death with a pur- pose, death which seemed in this mad world of ours an inexorable logic of events, a sudden end to the life we could not mould or control. Death was common enough everywhere.

But here death had no purpose, no logic, no necessity; it was the result of man’s incompetence and callousness, man-made, a slow creeping thing of horror with nothing to redeem it, life merging and fading into death, with death looking out of the shrunken eyes and withered frame while life still lingered for a while.

And so it was not considered right or proper to mention it, it was not good form to talk or write of unsavoury topics. To do so was to ‘dramatize’ an unfortunate situation. False reports were issued by those in authority in India and in England. But corpses cannot easily be overlooked; they come in the way.

While the fires of hell were consuming the people of Bengal and elsewhere, we were first told by high authority that, owing to war-time prosperity, the peasantry in many parts of India had too much to eat. Then it was said that the fault lay with provincial autonomy, and that the British Government in India, or the India Office in London, sticklers for constitutional propriety, could not interfere with provincial affairs.

That constitution was suspended, violated, ignored, or changed daily by hundreds of decrees and ordinances issued by the Viceroy under his sole and unlimited authority. That constitution meant ultimately the unchecked authoritarian rule of a single individual who was responsible to no one in India, and who had greater power than any dictator anywhere in the world.

That constitution was worked by the permanent services, chiefly the Indian Civil Service and the police, who were mainly responsible to the Governor, who was the agent of the Viceroy, and who could well ignore the ministers when such existed. The ministers, good or bad, lived on sufferance and dared not disobey the orders from above or even interfere with the discretion of the services supposed to be subordinate to them.

Something was done at last. Some relief was given. But a million had died, or two millions, or three ; no one knows how many starved to death or died of disease during those months of horror. No one knows of the many more millions of emaciated boys and girls and little children who just escaped death then, but are stunted and broken in body and spirit. And still the fear of widespread famine and disease hovers over the land.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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