Nehru’s Word: Famine lays bare ugliness of British rule

“Everyone is agreed there was amazing indifference shown by the authorities...How inefficient the Government always is in every matter other than suppression of those who challenge its administration”

Nehru’s Word: Famine lays bare ugliness of British rule

Mridula Mukherjee

This week we bring this passage from The Discovery of India on the Bengal famine of 1943. It is for the reader to judge whether or not there are uncanny resemblances between the scenario so scathingly sketched in it and the present predicament.

“India was very sick, both in mind and body. While some people had prospered during the war, the burden on others had reached breaking point, and as an awful reminder of this came famine, a famine of vast dimensions affecting Bengal and east and south India.

“It was the biggest and most devastating famine in India during the past 170 years of British dominion, comparable to those terrible famines which occurred from 1766 to 1770 in Bengal and Bihar as an early result of the establishment of British rule. Epidemics followed, especially cholera and malaria, and spread to other provinces, and even today they are taking their toll of scores of thousands of lives. Millions have died of famine and disease and yet that spectre hovers over India and claims its victims.

“This famine unveiled the picture of India as it was below the thin veneer of the prosperity of a small number of people at the top — a picture of poverty and ugliness of British rule. That was the culmination and fulfilment of British rule in India. It was no calamity of nature or play of the elements that brought this famine, nor was it caused by actual war operations and enemy blockade. Every competent observer is agreed that it was a man-made famine which could have been foreseen and avoided.

“Everyone is agreed that there was amazing indifference, incompetence, and complacency shown by all the authorities concerned. Right up to the last moment, when thousands were dying daily in the public streets, famine was denied and references to it in the Press were suppressed by the censors.

“When the Statesman, newspaper of Calcutta, published gruesome and ghastly pictures of starving and dying women and children in the streets of Calcutta, a spokesman of the Government of India, speaking officially in the central assembly, protested against the ‘dramatization’ of the situation; to him apparently it was a normal occurrence for thousands to die daily from starvation in India.

“Mr. Amery, of the India Office in London, distinguished himself especially by his denials and statements. And then, when it became impossible to deny or cloak the existence of widespread famine, each group in authority blamed some other group for it. The Government of India said it was the fault of the provincial government, which itself was merely a puppet government functioning under the Governor and through the civil service.

“They were all to blame, but most of all, inevitably, that authoritarian government which the Viceroy represented in his person and which could do what it chose anywhere in India. In any democratic or semi- democratic country such a calamity would have swept away all the governments concerned with it. Not so in India where everything continued as before….

“The famine was a direct result of war conditions and the carelessness and complete lack of foresight of those in authority. The indifference of the authorities to the problem of the country’s food passes comprehension when every intelligent man who gave thought to the matter knew that some such crises was approaching. The famine could have been avoided, given proper handling of the food situation in the earlier years of the war. In every other country affected by the war full attention was paid to this vital aspect of war economy even before the war started. In India the Government of India started a food department three and a quarter years after the war began in Europe and over a year after the Japanese war started.

“And yet it was common knowledge that the Japanese occupation of Burma vitally affected Bengal’s food supply. The Government of India had no policy at all in regard to food till the middle of 1943 when famine was already beginning its disastrous career. It is most extraordinary how inefficient the Government always is in every matter other than the suppression of those who challenge its administration. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that, constituted as it is, its mind is completely occupied in its primary task of ensuring its own continuance. Only an actual crisis forces it to think of other matters. That crisis again is accentuated by the ever-present crisis of want of confidence in the Government’s ability and bona fides.

“Though the famine was undoubtedly due to war conditions and could have been prevented, it is equally true that its deeper causes lay in the basic policy which was impoverishing India and under which millions live on the verge of starvation. In 1933 Major General Sir John Megaw, the Director-General of the Indian Medical Service, wrote in the course of a report on public health in India: ‘Taking India as a whole the dispensary doctors regard 39 per cent of the people as being well nourished, 41 per cent as poorly nourished, and 20 per cent as very badly nourished. The most depressing picture is painted by the doctors of Bengal who regard only 22 per cent of the people of the province as being well nourished while 31 per cent are considered to be very badly nourished.

“The tragedy of Bengal and the famines of Orissa, Malabar, and other places, are the final judgment on British rule in India. The British will certainly leave India and their Indian Empire will become a memory, but what will they leave when they have to go, what human degradation and accumulated sorrow? Tagore saw this picture as he lay dying three years ago: ‘But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!’”

(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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