The Bengal Holocaust

The Bengal famine was a World War Two calamity that resulted in the deaths of at least three million people in colonial India. It serves as an example of how the destruction of war can wreak havoc among one’s own civilian population. Put into perspective, this famine resulted in seven times the amount of American soldiers killed during the entire war. The direct role of the British colonial administration in these deaths is still disputed today. But, regardless of the cause, the episode is a prominent scar that deserves remembrance.

The events of this great tragedy unfolded at the height of the war. It was 1942 and the Axis powers rapidly gained ground in both Europe and Asia. After the German Wehrmacht marched victoriously into Paris, it turned its attention to the east, plunging deep into the Soviet Union with its now infamous Blitzkrieg. Surprised and completely unprepared, the Soviet Union sustained staggering losses. The Allies in the Pacific theater fared no better. The Imperial Japanese Army had already occupied most of Eastern China, and was fighting its way through the British far east colonies, culminating in the capture of Singapore in early 1942. Japan also launched a daring raid on Pearl Harbor, severely crippling the American Pacific fleet. With France defeated, Russia fighting the Germans on the doorsteps of Moscow, and the U.S. staggering to its feet, Britain stood alone against the Axis powers.

India, then a British colony, was an active part of the war effort, contributing both men and material to the fight. However, 1942 was also a year of floods and grain disease, which afflicted the subcontinent with famine. What catalyzed the ensuing disaster was the Japanese invasion of neighboring Burma, then responsible for 15% of India’s rice imports. This ensuing rice shortage was amplified for the province of Bengal, as its close proximity to Burma meant an even heavier reliance on Burmese imports.

Colonial Britain did nothing in the face of the unfolding calamity. India’s Viceroy claimed that half a million tons of grain were needed to prevent “famines and riots”. Yet the British War Cabinet twice refused urgent requests for food aid. In the ensuing starvation, other Allied nations such as the United States volunteered wheat to aid the dying. But the British War Cabinet refused these measures as well, reasoning that all the merchant ships required to transport the relief supplies were needed to aid the war effort in Europe.

Other British wartime policies actively worsened the famine. Having lost Burma and its rice exports, Churchill’s government demanded that India export a portion of its remaining rice crops to compensate for the deficit. As a result, India exported 240,000 tons of rice, despite severe shortages and rampant inflation of rice prices. The British also feared further Japanese conquest into Bengal from occupied Burma, and resorted to scorched earth tactics — confiscating food stuffs, merchant boats, and even elephants — anything that could be of use to an invading force.

It was not until the end of 1943 that conditions improved. The War Cabinet eventually ordered aid for India in the form of 80,000 tons of rice and 130,000 tons of barley. But it was stronger than expected rice yields in Bengal that finally reined in rampant price inflation and ended the famine. Today, the immeasurable suffering imposed on the Bengal people is seldom discussed in history books. Yet it is a vital learning opportunity for those hoping to safeguard the public from such calamities in the future.

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