The year 1943. Around 2.1 million people, out of a population of 60.3 million, died in Bengal Province of then British India (now the eastern Indian province of West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh) from starvation, malaria and other diseases aggravated by malnutrition, population displacement, unsanitary conditions and lack of healthcare facilities. The Great Bengal Famine was not an isolated ‘incident’ as many provinces of British India experienced the same many times because of Britain’s ruthless economic policies. But, Bengal was the worst victim as famine hit the province seven times in 73 years (in 1770, 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and in 1943).
During the pre-British era, the South Asian nation had suffered a number of famines. However, the native rulers responded almost immediately to prevent major disasters. The scenario changed after 1858 when the rule of the East India Company was transferred to the Crown – Queen Victoria. In colonial India, famines were not just consequences of monsoonal delays, but inevitable results of the exploitation of the nation’s natural resources by the colonial masters for their own financial gain. Unfortunately, the Britons have never acknowledged their ‘role’ in triggering famines in India.
The Great Bengal Famine, 1943
(Intentionally) the colonial rulers decided to ignore the warnings regarding the famine and also refused to lower the tax burden on the Indians. Instead, they reportedly increased the land tax to 60% in the 1920s in order to ensure that the British treasury had enough strength to make the recovery after the WWI. Indian farmers were forced to cultivate cash crops, such as indigo and poppy, which had a high market value (in Europe). However, shortages of food grains worsened the situation and left the Bengali population starved. As millions of people died in 1943, others tried to keep themselves alive by eating grass and human flesh.
Interestingly, British War Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill made no attempt to save the people of Bengal. Sir Winston, who saved Europe from Hitler, showed the real character of a colonial ruler by diverting the supplies of medical aid and food – dispatched to the starving victims in Bengal – to the British soldiers stationed at different European cities. Asked why he did so, Churchill reportedly said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits. Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.”
The government in Delhi sent a message to Churchill, describing the devastating scenario in Bengal and other parts of India. But, the PM gave a sarcastic reply, saying: “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” He said so because London was not ready to acknowledge the role it played to destroy India. …….Seemingly, Britons think that they can erase the chapter from their colonial history by ignoring the facts and figures.
Sir Winston Churchill
Also, Britain has made a serious attempt to ‘forget’ its role in dividing Bengal by disturbing the communal harmony. The then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, announced Britain’s decision to divide the province on July 19, 1905 and the Partition of Bengal took place on October 16, with the colonial rulers separating the Muslim dominated areas in the eastern part of the province from the Hindu majority areas in the west. People across Bengal opposed the decision, arguing that the move would make the ‘Hindu business class’ a minority in the ‘new’ province. However, Britain paid them no heed. Later in 1911, Bengal was reunited by Lord Hardinge only after Bengalis staged massive protests against Britain’s “divide and rule” policy. Although Lord Hardinge reunited the province as an attempt to appease the Bengali sentiment, Britain once again divided the province between India and Pakistan in 1947 on the basis of Radcliffe Line (as per the ‘3 June Plan’ or ‘Mountbatten Plan’). As expected, a massive population transfer took place immediately after the partition and ‘Independent’ India had to face a major migrant problem, with millions of Hindus arriving in West Bengal from (then) East Pakistan (or East Bengal). It is to be noted that Britain, who was responsible for the Partition of India, is currently making preparations for leaving the European Union as it has failed to tackle the (European) refugee crisis.
Churchill, the hallowed British PM, once saved Europe from the Nazis…..but is there anyone capable to save the Queen now? On the other hand, India – with beastly people and beastly religious practices – has emerged as an economic powerhouse after tackling the migrant crisis with an amount of success. In his publication An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, noted Indian politician and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor rightly said: “You can’t revenge yourself upon history….. history is its own revenge.”
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