1 March 2024

Blaming Churchill for the Bengal famine is historical illiteracy

By Hira Jungkow

Blaming Winston Churchill for the Bengal Famine of 1943 has become an article of faith for the modern left. Despite being one of the most extensively documented famines in human history, its causes are too often egregiously misunderstood. 

Since the late 1970s, scholars like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have argued that the famine stemmed not from an absolute scarcity of food in Bengal. Rather, it was caused by a breakdown in ‘exchange entitlements’ – for example, the inability to exchange work for rice or bread. Since the early 2010s, momentum has gathered behind the erroneous theory that Churchill either neglected the famine or exacerbated its effects. The implication being that he did so out of spite for Indians. This contention deviates enormously from the complexities of the situation. There was, in fact, a significant food shortfall, and the key factors precipitating the famine were largely unrelated to Churchill’s actions.

A thorough perusal of the statistical evidence exposes a serious shortfall of the staple food crop of Bengal – rice. In October 1942, a cyclone hit Bengal, affecting over 800 square miles of territory and killing some 14,500 people. The cyclone, combined with an unusually wet season, created favourable conditions for the rapid spread of brown spot fungus. Rice stations in Bengal record that yield losses in many rice varieties reached higher than 59%.

During peacetime, such shortfalls could have been prevented through imports from other provinces or the neighbouring country of Burma (Myanmar). However, two critical factors prevented such an approach in Bengal in 1943 until it was too late. Firstly, the Japanese conquest of Burma resulted in a complete halt of food imports to Bengal. In 1873-74, Richard Temple, a British colonial administrator, had been able to avert famine through significant imports from Burma, but such an approach was impossible in 1943.

Secondly, the Indian Department of Commerce’s delegation of powers under the Defence of India Act in November 1941, coupled with the imposition of statutory price controls in December of the same year, resulted in a cascade of interventionist policies across provinces and effectively Balkanized the Indian food economy. Within a matter of months, Bengal, Bombay, the Central Provinces, Punjab, Madras, and Bihar had all but banned the export of food grains from their provinces except under strenuous conditions.

To meet the forthcoming disaster Bengal would have required skilled and energetic administrators. Unfortunately, Bengal lacked these going into the crisis. The Bengal Department of Civil Supplies (DCS), constituted in 1942, had a skeleton staff at the beginning of the famine, with crucial posts left vacant.

By March 1943 the situation was so dire that the Bengal DCS was predicting that Calcutta would completely run out of food within a fortnight. At the Regional Food Conference, Bengal officials pleaded with their counterparts to remove statutory price controls and remove the impediments to free movement of grain. On the 18th of May, 1943 Bengal managed to obtain a free trade bloc in the eastern Region comprising Assam, Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.

The free trade policy received a tsunami of criticism for destabilising the food situation of Bengal’s neighbours. But it wasn’t until the policy came into effect that Bengal was able to procure large supplies of rice for the first time since the onset of the famine. In May, June, and July net rice and rice-equivalent imports were over 100,000 tons, of which about 50% were imported by private traders. 

But it was not to last. In other provinces, officials worked to hinder the supply of grain to Bengal. This was most pronounced in Orissa, where officials requisitioned stocks in the hands of Bengal merchants, pressured merchants to sell to the Orissa government at below-market prices, and in some instances physically blocked the exportation of grain to Bengal. Similar incidents occurred in Bihar and parts of Assam. Within a few months, the Free Trade experiment was abolished and Bengal was again left on her own. Ironically, the dangers of interfering with the free market had been recognised in the Bengal government’s policy for dealing with famines.

The Bengal famine of 1943 stands as a tragic reminder of how war, government overreach, and hostility to free trade can conspire to cause immense human suffering. While the size of the rice shortfall at the end of 1942 was so vast that it might well have been impossible to prevent all loss of life, the impact could certainly have been mitigated with more effective governance and adherence to sound economic principles.

Reducing the Bengal Famine and its numerous complex causes down to the actions of one man, Churchill, is historically illiterate. Weaponising the tragedy to score points in today’s culture war is downright indecent.

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Hira Jungkow is a recent graduate with a degree in economics and has previously written for the Quadrant, History Reclaimed, and the Dhaka Tribune.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.