The 1943 Bengal famine: “People began collapsing in the streets and dying on the pavements”

    There is a lot of academic literature on the causes, and the most important contributors to the famine are widely debated, as well as questions of culpability. My purpose was very different. I wanted to understand why this subject has become largely overlooked, and its memory fraught, and to try to shift the lens to look at the humanitarian catastrophe in a different way by focusing on individuals who survived and lived through the famine.

    More than 80 years on, that generation – like the war generation – will soon no longer be with us. This is really the last chance to capture their voices. So I set out to do that, and to explore archives around the world for first-hand testimonies.

    What do we need to understand about Britain and India and their relationship to make sense of what happened?

    The British had been in India for hundreds of years by the time of the Second World War, and had direct control over it from 1858 onwards. But, by the outbreak of the conflict in 1939, a strong Indian nationalist movement had emerged – and many of its leaders were unhappy when Britain declared war on Germany, and did so on behalf of India.

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    Calls for independence grew louder and louder, and so the relationship between Indian nationalists and Britain had become increasingly fractious.

    In the early years of the war, what were the consequences of India being pulled into the conflict?

    After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese forces rapidly moved through south-east Asia. In February 1942, Singapore – a major British military stronghold – fell, and Rangoon fell the following month.

    Japanese troops were perilously close to the border of British India. Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers descended on Calcutta (now Kolkata) to fight on the Asian front. Labourers also arrived in large numbers to work in wartime industries, putting pressure on food resources. The colonial government was also printing money to pay for these extra resources, and inflation was very high.

    Rice was the staple food in Bengal, but for millions already struggling to survive, the increase in its price had a devastating impact. Rice imports from Burma halted after the Japanese occupation, putting more pressure on the rice supply.

    Fearing a Japanese invasion, colonial authorities then carried out what became known as the ‘denial policy’. Having seen the way Japanese troops were aided by taking local food and boats in their advance across south-east Asia, authorities decided to confiscate those surplus resources from villages around the Bengal Delta. This affected the already fragile local economy, making it harder to transport rice around the region. The price of rice rose further, and it was often hoarded for profit.

    Some of the stories in the series about the impact this had are incredibly moving. Are there any that shed particularly vivid light on the wider issues?

    I found first-hand stories of people in the countryside who were forced to make incredibly difficult decisions. Some women resorted to desperate measures such as turning to prostitution or selling their children for rice. One man was, at the time of the famine, living in Midnapore, a district in Bengal that had been affected by the denial policy. The area was then hit by a devastating cyclone in October 1942, which destroyed rice crops, flattened homes, and killed many people. Prices spiralled in its wake, and he could no longer afford to buy rice in the market. Once his family’s reserves ran out, he became one of the many thousands to travel to the major cities hoping for aid.

    But there are also the stories of observers – the people who saw all of this happening as the situation got increasingly worse during 1943. I spoke to eyewitnesses who were very moved by the scenes that were unfolding around them. One woman talked of being unable to sleep because of the sight of all the dead in Calcutta, and the vultures picking at their bodies. She is 97 now, but that memory is still so vivid to her.

    And every single Bengali person I spoke to remembered one specific phrase: phan dao. This was the plea uttered by starving people asking not for rice, but for the starch water around it. They didn’t even think it was worth asking for the rice itself. That’s a collective memory that has been passed down through the generations.

    I’ve listened to your new radio series, and another line stood out for me: “People who flocked to Calcutta died strangers in the city they thought would help them… but yet publicly, nobody was calling this a famine.” Was it this migration into the cities that finally forced people to recognise what was happening?

    The impact of the famine was felt most in the countryside, where it was sufficiently out of sight that it was possible for people to not know the full extent of what was going on. It wasn’t really until the mass exodus of people from the countryside started in earnest from May 1943 onward – and people began arriving in the cities, collapsing on the streets and dying on the pavements – that its effects became visible for all to see.

    Yet even that didn’t mean that this story could be reported, because the word ‘famine’ was censored by the emergency rules put in place by the colonial government during the war. The British didn’t want the Japanese to use the existence of famine as propaganda, or as a way of recruiting Indian troops.

    Who were the key figures in bringing the horrors of the famine to a wider audience?

    Indian writers, artists and photographers were trying to document what was happen- ing. The well-known artist and author Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, for instance, drew ink sketches of some of the victims, to which he added their names (if he knew them) and brief biographies. The results are shattering, but give us a real sense of who the people were and where they were from. Chittaprosad’s Hungry Bengal, a collection of these sketches, came out in November 1943. There were 5,000 copies, and nearly all were confiscated by the British.

    Another key figure was Ian Stephens, editor of the widely read, and well regarded, British-owned Indian newspaper The Statesman. He had been toeing the line and not reporting what was going on, but wrestling with his conscience as a result. By the summer of 1943, as reports started to flood in from the countryside and it became clear what was happening in Calcutta, where he lived, he decided to do something. While he could not mention the word ‘famine’ in his paper, there was nothing in the rules about the use of images.

    So, on 22 August 1943, Stephens published shocking photographs of some of the people who were desperately suffering on Calcutta’s streets. The result was what we’d call ‘going viral’: the images were seen by people first in Calcutta, then in Delhi, and then around the world. The famine’s existence was becoming harder to deny.

    Can you give us a sense of how strong the level of censorship was and the impact of these reports?

    The colonial press adviser was keeping a close watch on what was being reported. But as the images in The Statesman were picked up by newspapers elsewhere in the world, including in Britain and the US, it became harder and harder to suppress what was going on. And Stephens grew bolder over the next two months, and began writing editorials that were actively critical of the governments in Calcutta and Delhi. By September, he’d gone as far as to call it a man-made famine.

    I was doing some research at the University of Cambridge, and the head archivist – who I’ve worked with in the past – said, well, you might want to take a look at these. And there on the desk were about a dozen tiny tapes of the kind I haven’t seen for a couple of decades. They turned out to feature recordings of interviews, carried out in the 1980s, with Indian civil servants who had been working in districts across Bengal at the time of the famine.

    These civil servants were travelling around the province carrying out the ‘famine code’: a set of indicators drawn up in the late 19th century that were supposed to determine whether or not a situation could be deemed a famine. The tapes paint a fascinating picture of the colonial chain of command, and historians who I spoke to about the cache and its contents were very excited.

    What was the response in London when these reports started filtering out?

    Viceroy Linlithgow, the most important colonial figure in India, contacted London in December 1942 to express his concerns about the food crisis. He was talking at that point about India as a whole, rather than Bengal specifically, and some food was sent to the north-west of the country – but, in return, Bengal was asked to export more rice for the wider war effort.

    By the time that the crisis had reached its height, around August 1943, Linlithgow warned of famine conditions in Bengal and asked for significant food imports. At that point, Britain was part of the Allied invasion of Sicily, and there were plans for a campaign in Italy. The war cabinet said it could only promise a fraction of what Linlithgow had asked for.

    But once the new viceroy, Lord Wavell, was appointed by Winston Churchill in 1943, he visited the famine-stricken province – unlike his predecessor. Wavell began asking the war cabinet for around a million tonnes of food imports to urgently alleviate the humanitarian situation and, by the end of 1944, his request was fulfilled.

    At the start of the series, you note that this is a scary subject to be wading into. Why do you think the famine, and particularly the response of Churchill’s government, have become such fraught topics?

    I think it’s partly because we in Britain have a view of our war story, and the famine does not fit neatly into that narrative. Churchill is a national hero who fought courageously against fascism, but there are difficult questions to be asked: did he and his war cabinet do enough to alleviate the famine once they knew of its severity? Could more shipping have been released to allow for more food aid in the middle of the war, when they were fighting on many fronts?

    The language Churchill used about Indians – documented, for instance, in the diaries of Leo Amery, secretary of state for India – is uncomfortable, and some have raised the question of whether his views affected his response. Debate over all of this, however, has obscured other discussions, and has perhaps led to the human stories I wanted to focus on being overlooked.

    Do we need to consider any other factors that shaped the famine response?

    Lord Wavell’s arrival as viceroy in October 1943 did significantly accelerate relief efforts. Immediately after visiting Calcutta and surrounding districts, including Midnapore, he ensured that Calcutta would be fed from supplies taken from outside of the province rather than from the surrounding country- side in Bengal.

    A black and white photograph showing a group of English and Indian men standing suits. In front of them, Indian children and women are sat or kneeling and eating from dishes.

    Lord Wavell (standing, in dark-coloured hat) at a famine relief kitchen. His appointment as viceroy of India saw a drastic improvement in aid efforts. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    He set up relief hospitals and gruel kitchens, and military units were redirected from going to the front to help with relief efforts. He also argued strongly with London that it should send large amounts of food aid in order to stave off another famine in Bengal.

    It’s interesting that you argue that some narratives and experiences have been overlooked. What efforts are being made to redress the balance?

    Not many, sadly. I’ve worked previously on the subject of the 1947 Partition of India [in which British India was divided into the two independent dominions of India and Pakistan] for instance, and that’s now a very different story. There are citizen archives in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in which testimonies are being preserved, and that’s happening in a smaller way in the diaspora too.

    That just isn’t the case for the Bengal famine. One of my interviewees said, strikingly, that they thought the collective memory of the famine isn’t really held by the people who lived through it, but instead by those who observed it. That really changes how this story has been told.

    I did track down one man who is travelling around the Bengal countryside with pen and paper, trying to record the testimony of the last remaining survivors. And I wanted to interview survivors myself, too, but couldn’t get a journalist visa to go to India. I hope that changes, because it’s so important for the historical archive that these stories are preserved alongside the official archive.

    I mentioned at the start that at least 3 million people are believed to have died. Behind that statistic are 3 million stories – and that doesn’t even include the experiences of so many more people who survived and had to live with the famine’s consequences.

    When I was doing my research into partition, 70 years had passed since that event, and as I mentioned earlier we are now more than 80 years on from the famine. I think, in some ways, we are already too late: just as there are very few people left with a good enough memory of the Second World War, there are very few people left alive who are healthy enough to recount this history. I feel really sad that it’s now almost too late to collect these testimonies in a significant way.

    You also mention that, for a subject so freighted in controversy, it’s strangely also one about which very little is known – particularly in Britain. Why do you think that’s the case?

    It’s not surprising that’s the case in Britain because, as we’ve discussed, this is a difficult episode in colonial history and affects the way in which we tell our war story. But I find it really interesting that the stories of those who died are also not well-remembered in India and Bangladesh. There isn’t a plaque or a museum to them anywhere in the world. The famine is remembered through photographs and sketches and films, but there’s no dedicated archive or memorial.

    One of the reasons for this, I think, is that the 1940s was such a tumultuous time in India (and later East Pakistan) more generally, that somehow the memory of the victims of this extraordinary, horrific event has been eclipsed.

    How would you like your series to change the way people look at the famine?

    There is a lot of academic work on the subject, from a range of different disciplines – this is, after all, a hugely complex subject. Historians and other researchers are making extraordinary discoveries all the time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough room in my series to include all of the new work that is being done. My hope is that these stories – not just of those who made the decisions, but of the lived experiences in all of their complexity – are brought to the foreground over the next decade. And the work I’ve done for the series is just a start: I found so much testimony I couldn’t use.

    I hope that, by shifting the perspective slightly, I can show that discussion of the famine doesn’t have to be fractious. Surely, 80 years on, we should be able to have healthy, civil discussions about these kinds of episodes from our past.

    Kavita Puri is a journalist and broadcaster for BBC Radio 4. She also writes the monthly Hidden Histories column in BBC History Magazine

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