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Bengal famine of 1943 and crime of Muslim League ministry - HINDU JAGRITI KENDRA

HINDU JAGRITI KENDRA ()
30 September, 1997

Title: Bengal famine of 1943 and crime of Muslim League ministry
Author: HINDU JAGRITI KENDRA
Publication: HINDU JAGRITI KENDRA
Date:30 September, 1997

Bengal became the bridgehead of British colonial Intervention and
expansion in India. It Is paradoxical to note that Bengal was
visited by two famines of serious magnitude during British rule.
While the Famine of 1770 had bean associated with the initial
stage of British rule the Great Famine of 1943 looked like the
terminal disease of British imperial rule. Bankim Chandra
Chatterjee, the prophet of Indian nationalism, wrote his
celebrated novel "Anandamath" with the battle cry 'Bandemataram'
in the context of the agony evoked by the ravages of the famine
of 1770.

Bengal, unlike other provinces of India, had to undergo a
traumatic period in the nineteen forties. Bengal was subjected
to war-time socio-economic aliments which found expression in the
outbreak of a famine of serious magnitude commonly known as the
Great Bengal Famine of 1943.

A. ROOTS

The roots of this serious disaster can no doubt be traced to the
worsening turn In the war situation in the Eastern front
beginning with 1942. The occupation of Burma by Japan disrupted
the flow of rice-import to India causing a massive shortfall in
the supply of rice in the market. Coupled with this, the British
government in its desperate bid to combat enemy advance in
eastern India evolved a denial policy seeking largescale
destruction or removal of essentials within the defined limits of
enemy attack. By December 1942 prices of rice doubled from its
pre-war level. Paul Greenough has ascribed this rapid rise in
prices to increased demand for Bengal rice from other rice
consuming provinces, speculation and hoarding motivation and
above all, the unexpected cessation of imports from Burma.

Further, the rice marketing system in Bengal remained both
unorganised and unchecked leading to unpredictable price
escalation, Worse still, the government gave priority to
Calcutta, the second city of the empire. They desperately wanted
to defend this imperial bastion and resolved to feed Calcutta to
insulate the workers from the war-time inflationary impact, and
needs of the districts were sacrificed.

In a recent books called "Liberty or Death, India's Journey to
Independence and Division" by Patrick French, one finds that
though there was no grain going for India, food supplies and the
transport to carry them had been made available for Holland.
British politicians like Churchill seemed content to let India
starve, while still wanting to use It as a base for military
operations.

The coming of the famine by the middle of 1943 was preceded by a
political crisis in Bengal. Sir John Herbert. The Governor,
dislodged A.K. Fazlul Haq from the Ministry by devious means.
Following this, a new Ministry under Nazimuddin, the Muslim
League leader, was installed on 24 April 1943 with the support of
the European legislators. The new Ministry, particularly its high
profile Minister of Civil Supplies, had to grapple with the
perplexing food situation. On assuming charge Suhrawardy
redirected the strategy of the civil supply department. he
launched a de-hoarding drive In the rural areas. The coercive
method of the government became counter productive and the
situation ran out of control.

The famine situation affected rural Bengal more than the urban
areas. Out of 86 sub-divisions of Bengal, 15 subdivisions with a
population of about 15 million were most intensely affected.
These areas were located in the densely populated deltaic areas
of south and eastern Bengal. Since rural areas were most
affected. there began a steady migration of destitutes to urban
centres. Calcutta, however, came to be the destination for the
largest number of migrants. The process of migration of
destitutes to Calcutta in search of food started in July 1943. By
October the total number of destitutes swelled to 150000.

B. RELIEF WORK

An the crisis mounted, the relief York was conducted through both
official and non-official channels. The government of Bengal
started a central Relief Fund with the Governor as its chairman.
The non-official relief agencies also formed an apex organisation
called Relief Co-ordination committee with Badridas Goenka and
Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee as President and Vice-President. In
all, more than five thousand relief kitchens were opened in
Bengal from September onwards catering to the needs of more than
two million famine-stricken people. The role of Dr. Shyama Prasad
Mukherjee needs special mention. The rose above narrow party
alignments and concerned himself not only with organising relief
to the hungry millions but also emerged as the symbol of Bengali
protest against both the arrogance of the imperial authority and
the misdeeds of the Provincial Government. Dr. S.P. Mukherjee
considered the famine to be partially due to nature's freak, but
he underscored the point that political and administrative
mismanagement lay at the root of the economic catastrophe. and no
lasting solution could come until India was economically and
politically free. Nalini Ranjan Sarkar also lauded his role in
these words : "Dr. Mukherjee is perhaps the one man who is
working for the relief of distress without sparing himself the
least little bit." Mukherjee operated his relief enterprise
through two district organisations, the Bengal Provincial Hindu
Mahasabha Relief Committee and the Bengal Relief Committee. The
Bengal Relief Committee had its network in 25 districts and
Calcutta, serving 300000 households.

C. ROLE OF THE BENGAL GOVERNMENT

The Bengal government, and H.S. Suhrawardy in particular. became
the target of attack of the opposition and the press. Even the
Government of India did not spare the provincial government for
its inefficiency and lack of will to act. The Statesman, the
leading Calcutta newspaper consistently pilloried Suhrawardy and
the Bengal Ministry in mismanaging the food situation. The
attack against government was launched on two counts --
ineptitude and Indifferent attitude of the Ministry and all-
pervasive maladministration.

At the initial stage, the Bengal Governor John Herbert, was not
willing to put the blame on the Ministry. To him "politics are
at the root of the difficulties." He wrote to Lord Linlithgow:
"But the fact remains that whatever the improvement In the food
situation politicians and the press are out to belittle and
undermine it." Following this, T. Rutherford, who had succeeded
Herbert. shared more or less an Identical view on the
government's performance. He spoke about mismanagement by the
Ministry. The situation had been aggravated because "all the
imports were being devoted to feeding Calcutta and its industries
and various services and that the districts were largely being
left to fend for themselves." Rutherford also indicted "the
prevalent corrupt mentality of both the public and the lower
ranks of officialdom." In his opinion the situation had worsened
because of hoarding by dishonest grain traders and big
cultivators. These sections, mostly Hindus, had been trying to
discredit the Ministry owing to their hostile political feelings.

The opposition parties however were unsparing in exposing the
lapses of the provincial government. The government became the
target of attack not only for its failure to avert the crisis but
also for its role in aggravating the catastrophe which came to be
called "a man-made" famine. M.H. Ispahani, a friend of Suhrawardy
and a leading Calcutta-based Muslim business magnate, was
appointed the sole procuring agent. The Famine Enquiry Commission
noted : "Government control over purchase made by this (Ispahani)
firm was inadequate and undue profits were made by this firm." In
the food debate in the Bengal Assembly, Dr. Shyama Prasad
Mukherjee identified Ispahani and company as the main culprit.
Dr. Mukherjee also spoke against the preferential treatment to
Calcutta and its urban hinterland. In his opinion, "the
activities of the Government seen to suggest that whatever food
grains may be available will be kept in greater Calcutta area and
the rest of the Province will be left to its own tragic fate".
Mukherjee in an open letter to the Governor demanded a thorough
investigation into the acts of omission and commission of the
provincial government.

A British-owned newspaper like The Statesman exposed the callous
and anti-people attitude of the Bengal Ministry. In its editorial
(28 September 1943) the Statesman rightly commented : "This
sickening catastrophe is man-made. So far as we are aware, all of
India's previous famines originated primarily from calamities of
Nature. But this one is accounted for by no climatic failure;
rainfall has been generally plentiful. What the Province's state
would now be had drought been added to Governmental bungling is
an appalling thought".

The Central Government's initial indifferent attitude was
reversed Boon after Lord Wavell's assumption of the charge of
Viceroyalty in October 1943. He was quick to realize that the
Bengal famine constituted the most immediate problem and that the
most energetic action was required to retrieve the situation. He
visited Calcutta and Contai in Midnapore to get first hand
knowledge of the widespread distress. Wavell was quite surprised
at the complacency of the Bengal government. In his Memorandum
of 1 November 1943, he chalked out a multidimensional deterrent
policy to retrieve the situation. He induced the Bengal Ministry
to agree to move the destitutes out of Calcutta into camps, and
suggested involvement of the military for the movement of food
grains to the deficit rural areas. He quickened the move to
introduce a rationing scheme for Calcutta. By the end of
November. the Government of India took up the responsibility of
feeding greater Calcutta. which lessened the pressure on rural
Bengal's requirements. Relief Commissioner Martin spoke of
Suhrawardy's political and communal bias hindering the prospect
of speedy recovery. Despite Wavell's persistent move for early
introduction of rationing in Calcutta, the scheme could not be
introduced until the middle of January 1944. Suhrawardy caused
unnecessary delay owing to his proposal to use only government-
run distribution shops and his insistence on application of
communal propositions in the management of rationing network.
Wavell even apprehended the coming of a second famine not owing
to "lack of food but from lack of efficient administration.

>From the above study it appears that the great Bengal famine. an
economic catastrophe, reflected social disorganisation and
political drift in Bengal.

D. ASSESSMENT

The role of the communal and anti-people Muslim League Ministry,
and Suhrawardy in particular, in tackling the menacing problem
has evoked divergent assessments. While both the press and the
opposition contended that the Ministry had failed to rise to the
occasion and mishandled the situation, the recent biographer and
close relative of H.S. Suhrawardy, Begum Shaista Suhrawardy
Ikramullah, has argued that Suhrawardy did his utmost to
alleviate the scourge of famine. On the other hand, Lord Wavell,
the Viceroy, consistently doubted the credibility of the Bengal
Ministry and confided to Amery, the Secretary of State, that the
Ministry had to go because he could not allow it "to muddle
itself into a second famine". Lord Wavell's message to
Churchill. the British Prime Minister, sums up his assessment of
the whole situation : "Bengal famine was one of the greatest
disasters that has befallen any people under British rule and
damage to our reputation here both among Indians and foreigners
in India is incalculable."


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