Islamic Relief 2013 Qurban

The Unnecessary Bengali Famine

April 5, 2007 by  


Courtesy BBC

The famine in British-ruled Bengal in 1943-44 ultimately took the lives of about 4 million people. The speaker talks of how this man-made famine is absent from most history books and virtually unknown to most people.

BBC Transcript:

Robyn Williams: Can you turn science to history? To test it, I mean? You can’t really do experiments on the past, so how could it be applied? Dr Gideon Polya insists that science does have a role in this regard, and he’ll explain in a minute. But the point of such an exercise is important here, because the reason for Dr Polya’s concern (and he’s written a book about it) is one of the worst genocides on record, or not on record, unless you search long and hard.

Gideon Polya is reader in biochemistry at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Gideon Polya: Humanity has made immense technological and scientific advances in the last few millennia through application of a scientific method involving the gathering of data, the generation of testable hypotheses, and experimentation to test the validity of such hypotheses. Reiteration of this process yields models that are progressively better approximations to reality.

Of course historically, this process has been impaired through authoritarian religious or political intervention. Such societal constraints aside, application of the scientific method can also encounter difficulties when past processes of the physical or biological world are considered. However, while we cannot recreate the explosion of a star, we can construct models that are consistent with the residual physical consequences of such events and with our current understanding of physical reality. Similarly, while we cannot recreate life currently, to biological scientists the Darwinian Theory of Evolution remains a powerful model explaining and systematising a huge body of information about past and present biological complexity.

Scientific approaches to human history are similarly constrained by the reality that it is generally not possible to do physical experiments to test historical models (although one can envisage, for example, computer simulations of past battles). In general the history is confined to relating model predictions back to pre-existing data, the physical consequences of events and human oral and written records of events. Of course value judgements, or culturally and philosophically biased ‘weightings’ will inevitably be applied to the relative importance of historical data. However some events involving massive loss of human life, such as the Jewish Holocaust, are so immense that they cannot be ignored, if at least for scientific predictive utility. Thus the Jewish Holocaust warns us of future dangers due to racism, moral unresponsiveness and the technological capacity for mass destruction.
The bottom line is that historians, like scientists, must respect the basic data. Selectively ignoring the data thwarts the quest for better approximations to the truth, and jeopardises informed prediction. While we all cynically accept the truism that ‘history is written by the victors’, the history of genocide in the 20th century, from South West Africa and Anatolia, to East Timor and Rwanda, reinforces the message that ‘history ignored yields history repeated’. Deletion of massive man-made human catastrophes from history and from general perception is not simply scientifically flawed and unethical, it also increases the probability that the same unaddressed, contributing social pathologies will yield the same carnage in the future.

One of the most extraordinary examples of such whitewashing of history is the sustained, continuing deletion of two centuries of massive, recurrent, man-made famine in British India from British and world history, and hence from general public perception. This massive, sustained lying by omission by two centuries of British academic historians occurred in a society having Parliamentary democracy, the means to readily disseminate information and a steadily expanding literate population. Furthermore, this process of lying by omission continues to this day in Britain and its English-speaking offshoots, such as Australia, countries having free speech, high literacy, democracy, prosperity and extensive media of all kinds.

To dramatise this perversion, imagine that the Jewish Holocaust was almost completely deleted from our history books and from general public perception, that there was virtually a total absence of any mention at all of this cataclysm in our newspapers and electronic media or in our schools and universities. Truth, reason, ethics and humanity aside, objective analysis suggests that such a situation would greatly increase the probability of recurrence of racial mass murder. Fortunately, in reality, virtually everyone is aware of this event and indeed in Germany today it is a criminal offence to deny the actuality of the Jewish Holocaust.

In contrast, during the Second World War, a man-made catastrophe occurred within the British Empire that killed almost as many people as died in the Jewish Holocaust, but which has been effectively deleted from history, it is a ‘forgotten holocaust’. The man-made famine in British-ruled Bengal in 1943-1944 ultimately took the lives of about 4-million people, about 90% of the total British Empire casualties of that conflict, and was accompanied by a multitude of horrors, not the least being massive civilian and military sexual abuse of starving women and young girls that compares unfavourable with the comfort women abuses of the Japanese Army.

The causes of the famine are complex, but ultimately when the price of rice rose above the ability of landless rural poor to pay and in the absence of humane, concerned government, millions simply starved to death or otherwise died of starvation-related causes. Although there was plenty of food potentially available, the price of rice rose through ‘market forces’, driven by a number of factors including: the cessation of imports from Japanese-occupied Burma, a dramatic wartime decline in other requisite grain imports into India, compounded by the deliberate strategic slashing of Allied Indian Ocean shipping; heavy-handed government action in seizing Bengali rice stocks in sensitive areas; the seizure of boats critically required for food acquisition and rice distribution; and finally the ‘divide and rule’ policy of giving the various Indian provinces control over their own food stocks. Critically, cashed-up, wartime, industrial, Calcutta could pay for rice and sucked food out of a starving, food-producing countryside.

Ultimately, millions of Bengalis died because their British rulers didn’t give a damn and had other strategic imperatives. The Bengal Famine and its aftermath for the debilitated Bengal population consumed its victims over several years in the case of complete British inaction through most of 1943 or insufficient subsequent action. Churchill had a confessed hatred for Indians and during the famine he opposed the humanitarian attempts of people such as the Prime Minister of Canada, Louis Mountbatten, Viceroy General Wavell, and even of Japanese collaborationist leader Subhash Chandra Bose. The hypothesis can be legitimately advanced that the extent of the Bengal Famine derived in part from sustained, deliberate policy.

The wartime Bengal Famine has become a ‘forgotten holocaust’ and has been effectively deleted from our history books, from school and university curricula and from general public perception. To the best of my knowledge, Churchill only wrote of it once, in a secret letter to Roosevelt dated April 29th 1944 in which he made the following remarkable plea for help in shipping Australian grain to India: ‘I am no longer justified in not asking for your help.’ Churchill’s six-volume ‘History of the Second World War’ fails to mention the cataclysm that was responsible for about 90% of total British Empire casualties in that conflict but makes the extraordinary obverse claim: ‘No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the people of Hindustan. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island.’

This whitewashing of Indian famine extends to two centuries of famine in British India. I have recently published a very detailed account of this two-century holocaust in British India that commenced with the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770 (10-million victims) and concluded with the World War 2 Bengal Famine (4-million victims) and took tens of millions of lives in between. In contrast to the response to the Jewish Holocaust, these events have been almost completely written out of history and removed from general perception and there has been no apology nor amends made. While Tony Blair has apologised for the mid-19th century Irish Famine that took over a million lives, there has been no apology for the World War 2 Bengal Famine.

My book is entitled, ‘Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History’ and sub-titled, ‘Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability’. I describe this whitewashing of history as ‘Austenising’ after Jane Austen, whose exquisite novels were utterly free of the ugly social realities of her time. Some of Jane Austen’s siblings and other connections, were involved in the rape of India. Of major note was Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India, who ferociously taxed famine-devastated Bengal and was eventually impeached and tried but ultimately acquitted for his manifold abuses in India. Warren Hastings almost certainly seduced Jane Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia Hancock. This adultery gave rise to Jane Austen’s lively cousin Eliza who is an evident model for the more advanced women of Jane Austen’s novels. While much of the huge academic Jane Austen industry has ignored (or ‘Austenised’) such interesting aspects of the lives of Jane Austen’s relatives, Jane Austen herself was much more forthcoming; thus to the initiated, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, the most Indian of her novels, includes a very detailed and barely disguised account of the Warren Hastings Scandal.

While it was legitimate for Jane Austen, the artist, to render her exquisite novels free of the contemporary awfulness in which her connections participated, the continuing ‘Austenising’ of British history is a holocaust-denying outrage that threatens humanity. Currently, 20-million people die each year of starvation-related causes and conservative, status quo productivity estimates would predict 30-million such deaths per year in the year 2050. A more realistic but still non-Malthusian view can be taken based on declining per capita agricultural production due to land degradation, decreased water availability, global warming effects on tropical cereal yields and increased population. A return from the current annual mortalities of about 10 per 1000 to the 35 per 1000 per year that obtained in British India in 1947 would yield a Third World excess mortality in 2050 of a staggering 200-million persons per year. Nevertheless this is avoidable, thus peri-conception, male sex selection provides just one simple example of a cheap, non-intrusive, pro-choice and technologically and socially feasible approach to slowing and indeed reversing population growth. That such an apparently radical suggestion is socially feasible is evidenced by the extraordinarily peaceful and tolerant multiracial society of Fiji, yet the initial male to female ratio among the indentured Indian five-year slaves was about 3 to 1.

The remorselessly continuing human catastrophe of mass starvation is avoidable provided that there is determined global responsiveness of a kind that was absent for both the Jewish Holocaust and the Bengal Famine of half a century ago. One hopes that the recent award of the Nobel Prize for Economics to Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and expert analyst of the Bengal Famine, will increase global responsiveness to this continuing humanitarian disaster. We must resurrect the horrors hidden by two centuries of holocaust-ignoring historians, resolutely face the current environmental and humanitarian cris and apply the post-Holocaust injunction of ‘Never again’.

Robyn Williams: ‘Never again’, says Dr Gideon Polya, Reader in biochemistry at La Trobe University in Melbourne. And his interest in the subject of India (yes, I did ask) stems in part from having a Bengali wife. His book, by the way, can be ordered by writing to Dr Polya at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Dr. Gideon Polya
Associate Professor in Biochemistry
Dept. of Biochemistry
La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic. 3083
e-mail: g.polya@latroabe.edu.au
His book Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History can be obtained from the author by writing to him at La Trobe University

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