Stricken by the empire: A well-researched take on British and Indian history during World War-II

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New Delhi | Published: May 20, 2018 2:56:23 AM

The British period of India’s history continues to be a subject of intense interest amongst commoners as well as scholars even after 70 years of the country’s independence.

former British prime minister Winston Churchill , world war, world war IA statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill in London. (Bloomberg)

The British period of India’s history continues to be a subject of intense interest amongst commoners as well as scholars even after 70 years of the country’s independence. New works keep coming out, which, in recent times, have taken a very critical look at the empire’s role in governing the country. In fact, if British historian Niall Ferguson celebrated the role of the empire in his 2005 work Empire, recently Congress party leader Shashi Tharoor came with his own critical look at the era, which he termed a ‘dark period’ and did not tire at taking potshots at Ferguson. To be sure, there are scholars and writers who see the British era in shades of grey and not as something that was totally bad, but then they are termed ‘apologists’, while the ones who dub the 200-year rule as dark are generally celebrated.

Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War is not exactly a new book. It was first published in 2010 and, this time round, the author has added a new afterword in which she settles scores with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who did not have kind words for her work when it was first published. I would leave out the details of her take on Sen’s views, but suffice it to say that she sounds more convincing and the amount of research she has done for the book lends credence to what she has written. The detailing is impeccable, and I don’t think any scholar of repute can question the facts that she has ferreted out. The differences can be in the interpretation and counter-factual arguments derived from those facts.

But first a brief about the book. It is the account of the infamous 1943 Bengal famine, which, the author says, could have been averted if the British had so wanted. The blame, thus, for causing the famine falls on then British prime minister Winston Churchill, who not only disliked Indians as a race, but was too focused on the Second World War and, therefore, thought that feeding soldiers was more important than feeding the masses. Churchill, who was clear that Indians should not vote in British elections, vetoed any suggestion for the needed food supply by his own viceroy in India and secretary of state to India. Worse, Churchill himself later penned the History of the Second World War, which ran into several volumes that glorified him, but reduced the Bengal famine, in which millions died, to a mere footnote. Most western historical accounts later relied on Churchill’s work and the famine continued to be neglected. Documents were also suppressed from an inquiry commission instituted later into the causes of the famine, resulting in the uncomfortable and inglorious history to be buried.

Mukerjee has delved deep into the sources and has brought to light accounts that nail Churchill’s role, thus diminishing the aura which the British writers had created around him.
As I said earlier, there can be no differences with the factual narrative of Mukerjee’s account. In fact, she needs to be applauded for uncovering what was deliberately buried for years to suit a purpose. Her research and writing style is better than most professional Indian historians, though Mukerjee is a physicist by education. The problem lies with the interpretations drawn—some counter-factual and some that see history through the prism of morality.

Let’s deal with the morality part first. It has become fashionable to see heroes and villains in history. While this approach is not encouraged with regard to the Muslim period of India’s history, sadly, it is practised in abundance while examining the British era. We have got into the habit of laying the blame for all our present woes on the British. No doubt, the British period was not a golden era, but shouldn’t it be seen in the context of our state in the 18th century? Were we in a golden state in the 18th century and, had we continued from thereon, would we have been in a better state than what the British eventually left us with? I am no historian, but I guess the question also merits some honest, non-ideological work.

Isn’t it natural that since Churchill was the British prime minister, his prime interest would be in propagating the British empire? If Indians are entitled to see Churchill as a villain, aren’t the British also entitled to see him from their prism and conclude that he was a hero who led them to victory in World War II? Can there really be a global, objective history? I guess not. History should be seen in the context of the times and not through the moral sense of the present times or with the benefit of hindsight. The times were of imperialism, and the British certainly fared better than other imperial masters of the time.

Let’s come to the counter-factual aspects. While Mukerjee does not raise this point, can we guarantee that if there was no British rule, there would have been no famine at some point of time the way we were in the later Mughal period? And if it had, are we sure our domestic rulers would have been any different from Churchill?

The other aspect where Mukerjee blames Churchill is for the Hindu-Muslim divide and the ultimate partition of the country. This is, at best, just a way to absolve the faulty analysis of our own scholars, mostly Leftist. Undue emphasis on the composite culture of medieval times has led them to overlook the power struggle between the two communities, which continues in the present times. If tensions during medieval times were not exactly of the nature as they are presently, it is because of democracy that leads to open competition for power, something that was absent in the non-democratic era.

But to be fair, these are not the subjects of Mukerjee’s book. It’s a must-read not only for the account of the Bengal famine, but also the history of Britain and India during World War II. For those not interested in reading Churchill’s voluminous history, this book will fill in the gaps in their knowledge of him. Last but not the least, for those who do not hero worship Amartya Sen, the afterword would come in handy!

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