Saturday, September 22, 2012

Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao: what’s the difference?

If my last post (From Sir Winston to Washington Post) seemed to suggest that I had joined the Churchill fan brigade – known more for its unseemly concern with the Great Man’s dentures than with his Imperial and imperious criminality – as a fresh and overenthusiastic recruit, let me clear the air. What I ought to have said in that post was that his Indophobic outburst in the June 1947 debate on the India Independence Bill in the British Parliament sounds prophetic in the prevailing Indian political context. I stand corrected and abashed for my haste. To save face, my only lame-duck – if that! – excuse could be that, in any case, a visionary – even an accidental one – is sighted and anointed only after the event. If Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, Stalin for the Holodomor (“killing by hunger” in Russian) or the Great Famine of Ukraine (1932-33) and Mao for the mammoth number of starvation deaths in the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), Churchill needs must shoulder the responsibility for the 2000 a month death toll in the 1942-43 Bengal Famine. In his own words, Indians were “a beastly people with a beastly religion” who “bred like rabbits”. Ergo, they probably were beyond redemption and not worth saving. What the King Emperor’s First Minister did to worsen the situation in the Bengal Famine was to deny food shipments to India and insist on rice exports from India to shore up the war effort. Churchill’s collaborators in his war crime were: the Japanese occupation of Burma that choked off rice imports to India; an untimely cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that wiped out the winter crop; and a panicky government that confiscated in a knee-jerk reaction all vehicles that used to ferry rice from Burma in order to keep them out of reach of the invaders. The government also started buying food grains on the open market to feed the troops and the war workers, thereby nudging the traders into hoarding the scarce stuff and spawning what came to be known as “the black market”. (I vaguely remember hearing the phrase repeatedly at 233 Khetwadi Main Road for the first time a bit after the Quit India call by Gandhi on 8 August 1942.) In a sense, Churchill was the blackguard who brought the black market to India.