Bengal is not a country. To be exact, it is a historical region in the northeastern part of South Asia. Situated in the Ganges and Brahmaputra delta, Bengal is divided between two states: India (West Bengal) and Bangladesh (East Bengal). The Bengalis make up the majority of its population, and Bengali is the main language spoken in the region. With a population of more than 250 million people, the Bengalis are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world.
At the turn of the 20th century, Bengal was under British rule, and from an economic point of view, it represented the most advanced part of British India. However, 1943 saw a humanitarian disaster in Bengal that claimed more than three million lives. Historians are still divided over the causes of this tragedy.
Rice as the staple diet
Rice has always been the staple of Bengal. Before World War II, rice plantations accounted for 88% of the region’s arable land. The daily diet of an average Bengali was 80% rice and 20% fish. Bengal produced more rice than any other province of India. Traditionally, the annual cycle of Bengali farmers was determined mainly by the quantity and quality of rice harvests.
As the famous Perso-Bengali businessman Mirza Ahmad Ispahani once put it, a Bengali farmer "feasts for three months, eats more or less normally for five months and then starves for four months while waiting for the next harvest." In 1943, this centuries-old cycle came crashing down.
When Burma fell to the Japanese in April 1942, British and allied troops had to retreat to India. As a result, more than 300,000 British, American, Indian and Chinese troops ended up in Bengal. In addition, the retreating army was accompanied by about 500,000 migrants. The military and local civilian authorities did very little to provide them with shelter or food. Rice prices doubled. Shortly afterwards, they tripled.
To make matters worse, many rice fields were occupied by military camps, barracks, depots, vehicle parks and airfields. Local farmers were driven from their land. Although they received some compensation, the farmers could not support their families without the confiscated land.
Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Kolkata, then named Calcutta, and other significant cities searching for work, but finding employment was next to impossible. Most of the new arrivals lived on the streets. Men were forced to abandon their families because they could not feed them, and women often had to work in military brothels, where one "session" was barely enough to buy one bowl of rice. Roads were lined with hordes of children, begging passing soldiers for food. However, the defending troops were under orders not to share food with the local population under penalty of death.
Before long, rice was in short supply. The shortages were exacerbated by a cyclone that damaged the autumn rice crop in 1942 and led to a disastrous famine in the summer and autumn of 1943. The death toll defied belief: the streets were strewn with dead bodies that lay undisposed for weeks. An epidemic ensued across the region. Witnesses reported that they saw children rummaging through latrines, searching for undigested rice grains. People drank rainwater from puddles contaminated with human excreta. At the same time, the press was subject to strict military censorship. Journalists were not allowed to use "famine" in their articles. To put it simply, the authorities turned a blind eye to the catastrophe in Bengal.
It was not until the end of August 1943 that the world heard about the famine in Bengal. Ian Stephens, the editor of the Indian newspaper The Statesman, published an article titled "All-Indian Disgrace" in defiance of the censorship restrictions. The article was accompanied by graphic photographs of starving people taken on the streets of Calcutta. These photos soon made headline news worldwide, finally prompting the British government to supply adequate relief to the victims.
Everything for the sake of victory
Unlike the Soviet Union, there was no such slogan in Bengal during World War II. In reality, the Bengalis were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. The local industry, transport and agriculture worked solely for the army's needs. British military authorities confiscated all means of transportation, including boats that Bengali fishers relied on for survival. Essential goods disappeared from local stores and markets. Strange as it may seem today, there were numerous reports of what came to be known as a "cloth famine".
Many Bengalis had no clothes to wear. The poorest families often had only one scrap of cloth to put on. Consequently, many women could not go outdoors, and some even committed suicide for want of cloth. The robbing of graveyards for clothes and the disrobing of men and women on the streets were also reported. "Thousands of men and women ... cannot go out to attend their usual work outside for want of a piece of cloth to wrap around their loins", wrote Swami Sambudhanand, President of the Ramakrishna Mission, in July 1943.
Compared to prewar levels, clothing prices jumped fivefold, making clothing unaffordable for the poorest in Bengal.
At the same time, India produced 819 million yards of cotton fabric from 1942 to 1943. Most of it was exported to Britain to meet the growing needs of the British military. The British army also consumed India's silk, wool, and leather production. During the war, India produced 2 million parachutes and 415 million items of military clothing and blankets.
Who is to blame?
One can argue that the famine was caused by the war, migrants, cyclones and outbreaks of infections in crops. However, most experts believe the famine was brought about by the deliberate policies of the British wartime cabinet led by Winston Churchill. Allegedly, the British prime minister never liked Indians, downplaying the severity of the famine when it was reported to him. British newspapers also refused to acknowledge the obvious, blaming food shortages on hoarding and the "unscrupulous actions of private business."
In 1944, the British Government of India finally appointed the Famine Commission to identify the causes of the famine and those responsible for it. Sir John Woodhead, a former Indian Civil Service official in Bengal, chaired the commission. The report published by the commission absolved the British government from all blame and laid responsibility at the feet of unavoidable fate. The commission had to admonish the Government of Bengal, though. As the report stated, "after considering all the circumstances, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it lay in the power of the Government of Bengal, by bold, resolute and well-conceived measures at the right time to have largely prevented the tragedy of the famine as it took place".
The 1943 famine of Bengal transformed India’s political landscape, underscoring the nation’s need for self-rule. The Indian people saw firsthand to what extent the British empire, represented by its colonial government, was focused on its issues. This realization strengthened the Indian independence movement as more people joined the Indian National Army and the "Quit India" movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. In other words, the famine in Bengal became another step toward India’s independence gained on August 15, 1947.