A book of epochal importance
Madhushree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War, The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, Tranquebar, Chennai, 2010, pp xxxvi + 352, Rs 495
Since completing a doctorate at the University of Chicago in1989 under the supervision of Yoichiro Nambu, the 2009 Nobel laureate in physics, Madhusree Mukerjee has worked principally as a science journalist. Churchill’s Secret War is her second book, after a study of the indigenous communities of the Andamans. She is, as Arthur Herman, a fellow of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute sniffily said, “no historian”. And yet, she has written a work of historical inquiry that takes aim at one of the most revered figures of modern times and performs as successful a job of smashing false icons as any.
The sound of idols shattering could be deeply distressing, especially when there is so much in contemporary politics riding on preserving their sanctity. Unsurprisingly, Mukerjee’s book has not earned a great many reviews in the international press. The historian Max Hastings, one of the few to take on the book in a spirit of bravery and candour, called it a “significant” and -- for British readers -- “distressing” book. Its main thesis, that Churchill as head of the imperial government, had the means and the power to prevent large-scale famine deaths in Bengal in 1943 is “as sound as it is shocking”. And this conspicuous failure, or refusal to act, was born in a deeply malignant attitude towards the people of India. “Even Churchill's greatest admirers”, Hastings sombrely concludes in a review written for the Times of London, “cannot escape the fact that British misgovernment of the Raj represented a blot on his wartime leadership”.
Another London newspaper, The Independent, ran a similar assessment by the historian Chandak Sengoopta, which spoke of the book’s unique contribution in placing the Bengal famine in its “imperial context” and breaking the silence of the “Churchill industry” which had managed to “keep fairly quiet”, if not actively suppress, the “appalling story” of the man’s “war crimes”.
Speaking on behalf of the “Churchill industry”, Herman, author of a recent twin biography of Gandhi and Churchill, observed that Mukerjee had only managed to get “herself entangled in .. separate and contentious issues”. Britain in 1943 was engaged in “battle with Indian nationalists like Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose” and Churchill had distinctly “tempestuous views” on this matter. But these did not have any kind of a “cause-and-effect” relationship with the Bengal famine. All that Mukerjee had achieved in seeking to tie these distinct themes together, was “to mangle the facts regarding all three, doing a disservice to both historical and moral truth”.
Mukerjee’s response, which has been published on her website and is unfortunately, not as widely read as it should be, acknowledges Herman’s established status in the profession of historians, though not his ability to sift facts with necessary objectivity. Indeed, she says, it often falls to a rank outsider to call out the emperor for wearing no clothes.
Herman’s reservations with Mukerjee’s work should occasion some surprise, since several of the basic facts she assembles are foreshadowed in his recent twin biography on Churchill and Gandhi, published in 2009 under the sub-title “The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age”. The severely hyped sub-title may have been the creation of a marketing department eager to sell a book on historical figures who are contemporary cults, remembered only vaguely as flesh and blood individuals who made decisions and committed acts that mortal humans can assess in the broad sweep of historical time.
Indeed, without all the detail that Mukerjee provides, Herman in his book records Churchill’s shocking political interventions through the crucial years. He insisted on holding onto India as a political asset, but excoriated “Indians” as a people with little merit, indeed as the world’s “beastliest” people, next only to the Germans. “Famine or no famine”, Indians “bred like rabbits” and did not deserve any emergency food shipments to relieve their hunger.
Yet, says Herman in his response to Mukerjee, Churchill did have a role – even if inadvertent -- in relieving the Bengal famine. In September 1943, he sanctioned the shipment of desperately needed grain – though only a third of what had been urgently demanded by the Indian government. And a month later, Lord Wavell, Churchill's handpicked choice as Viceroy of India, arrived to take charge of the Raj. Churchill continued to look at every request for emergency food shipment as “appeasement” of his mortal enemies in the Indian National Congress. But against all these odds, Wavell succeeded “within a few months”, in bringing India “back from the brink of demographic disaster”.
Herman upbraids Mukerjee for failing to see that the famine indeed could have been much worse had it not been for Wavell’s exertions. This is an oblique and rather laboured argument, crediting Churchill with the beneficial impact of his appointee’s decisions as India’s viceroy. And it also overlooks the basic point, recorded both by Mukerjee and -- perhaps inadvertently -- by Herman too in his volume, that Wavell had to threaten resignation to get Churchill to act.
Indeed, as Mukerjee informs us, right through the second half of 1943, Churchill’s main priority was to stock up on grain to feed not just the people but also the poultry of Britain. It was a priority for him to ensure that the availability of eggs and meat – as also white bread -- for the civilian population in Britain would not be diminished. In November 1943, he presided over a war cabinet at which a memorandum drafted by his principal scientific advisor – an altogether unpleasant individual called Lord Cherwell with outlandish views on building a perfect society through controlling the procreative behaviour of those of "lesser" social and biological merit – was discussed. Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India and Churchill’s friend from numerous wild escapades in the worst of the British public school tradition, recorded the meeting in his diary in the following terms: “Winston, after a preliminary flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war, asked Leathers (his principal advisor on transportation logistics) for his views”.
Frederick Leathers in turn was believed by the British General Staff to be a person of infirm views, all too ready to take his cues from Churchill. And his opinion was obviously fore-ordained: that it would be “extremely difficult” to find ships to transport grain to India.
Churchill’s grudging acknowledgment in September 1943 that India’s import requisition for grain could be cleared – though only to a fraction of the required quantity -- meant that the food actually arrived on Indian shores only in November, just one month prior to the rice harvest. And since the monsoon for 1943 had been fair and had repaired much of the damage to agrarian assets caused by the cyclone the earlier year, Bengal managed a fair rice harvest in 1943. Mortality from then on occurred on account of disease rather than starvation. The food shipment sanctioned by Churchill after Wavell’s despairing efforts may have had no more than marginal impact in combating the worst of the famine.
Fiscal policy played a part. India was tapped by Britain as the source of material and manpower resources to fund the war effort against Germany and Japan, but on promissory notes that could be cashed only at an undefined future date. The London office of the Reserve Bank of India was given treasury bills denominated in pound sterling, for which an equivalent rupee sum could be issued in India. These liquid assets pumped into India found their way into the hands of traders who proceeded to buy up all available material resources and commodities for provisioning the war effort. Unmet domestic demand meant that inflationary pressures were acute, with consequent adverse impact on livelihoods.
Churchill’s resentment that the beastly Indians were being paid a “million a day” for no contribution to the war effort, originated in this reality. He was also, as various other accounts have shown, bitter at the pressure that the U.S., which was then emerging as the decisive power, could exert on Britain in both financial and military terms, deflating most of his ambitions of reconstituting the empire after what he thought would be the temporary inconvenience of World War II.
Mukerjee’s book is a long overdue exercise in truth-telling about an individual who for reasons ideological, continues to top every popular opinion poll, to win the exalted title of the “greatest Briton” ever. Recent historical works have spoken of other aspects of this bumptious, obstreperous personality who was deservedly cast into a political wilderness after monumentally miscued interventions through his tenures as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I (think of the Gallipoli bloodbath) and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s (think of his quixotic decision to tether the pound sterling to the gold standard, reducing working class families to absolute penury).
If after this record of making a hash of important political assignments, Churchill retained any relevance through the 1930s, it was only in his shrill and unreasoning opposition to the slightest semblance of a concession to the rising tide of Indian nationalism. He spawned an entire species of unthinking, irrational political animals characterised memorably in the persona of the reactionary, racist “Colonel Blimp”, by the newspaper cartoonist David Low.
Churchill was also an outspoken advocate of chemical warfare against the tribes of Mesopotamia and Balochistan – which he freely branded as “barbaric” and much worse -- during the turbulent aftermath of World War I, when Britain was facing a hard time maintaining the peace in the territorial “mandates” it had secured on the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Whether Britain actually employed this lethal form of warfare or not is unclear, but about Churchill’s ardour for the incendiary bombing of cities in Japan and Germany in the closing months of World War II, at the cost of many hundreds of thousands of lives, there is little doubt.
The persistence of the Churchill cult today is comprehensible only in terms of the historical revisionism that began in the 1980s, with the emergence of a new tone of unapologetic chauvinism about the British empire and its legatee, the U.S. imperium, on either side of the Atlantic. Unsurprisingly, this full-blown ideological strain emerged only after the triumph of the Thatcher-Reagan counter-revolution against economic and political common sense. And its impact in the world of history writing is most resonant in the prolific work of the British historian Niall Ferguson, tenured professor in some of the most well-endowed academic chairs in the U.S.
In his most widely read book, rather brazenly titled Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Ferguson unblushingly quotes Churchill on the civilising mission of the British empire: “What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain – what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort?”
Summing up his own perspective on this, Ferguson figures that by fair means and foul, the British empire did in fact create the world as it exists today. There were inevitable abuses and atrocities along the way, but there was perhaps no other pathway to civilising the world. “The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity. Perhaps in theory there could have been. But in practice?”.
Ferguson adopts the artifice of posing what seems an open question that readers can decide on after reading his narration. But his opening premise is spelt out clearly enough, and his endeavour is to validate a proposition posed as a metaphorical question at the start. The preordained conclusion clearly is that there really was no alternative to having the British rule the world.
This is a historian who has made a career out of not merely singing himself hoarse with panegyrics to the Raj, but also in patenting the use of counter-factual questions as a methodology of inquiry. A question such as – how would the world have been today if Germany rather than Britain had assumed the greatest global empire and been the cultural and moral forebear of the modern U.S. empire? – cannot be answered simply because there are just too many imponderables involved. But one consequence of such a scenario could very easily be inferred: that Churchill, far from being a revered figure in much of modern history writing, would be justly reviled as the war criminal that he was. Mukerjee’s work, just at a time when the Pax Anglo-Americana is unravelling in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, is in this sense, truly a tract for the times.