Digging Up British Empire’s Bloody Legacy in India

A new documentary, 'Bengal Shadows', revolves around the British empire’s role, especially that of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in causing and exacerbating the Bengal famine.

A sketch from the documentary Bengal Shadows. Courtesy: Joy Banerjee and Partho Bhattacharya

In a Brexit-scarred Britain, increasingly reminiscent of its days as a colonial power, a new documentary on the ghastly Bengal famine of 1942-43 is raising fresh, uncomfortable questions on the Empire’s bloody legacy. The documentary, Bengal Shadows, made by two Bengali-origin French filmmakers, revolves around the British empire’s role, especially that of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in causing and exacerbating the Bengal famine, which starved nearly five million people to death.

It held its first show in the United Kingdom last month, at a screening at the School of Oriental And African Studies (SOAS), University of London. The film has sought to tie in rare eyewitness accounts with historical research material and aims to pin the blame for the famine firmly onto the empire’s policies and Churchill’s decision making. With Britain increasingly showing signs of a growing nostalgia for its colonial past, this documentary is seeking to initiate a fresh conversation about the bloodied, little-known legacy that British colonialism has left behind in India. After last year’s referendum vote to leave the EU, there have been increasing calls to either glorify Britain’s colonial past or, ‘white-wash’ its past crimes. Since the vote, policymakers in the UK have been hinting that Britain would now develop a fresh focus on the Commonwealth and creating new trade partnerships with them. Internally, officials have dubbed this plan a way to create ‘Empire 2.0’. The UK’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox even convened a first-of-its-kind meeting of trade ministers from across its former colonies earlier this year.

Last year, a poll by YouGov, an internet-based data analytics and research firm, found that 44% people it surveyed said that Britain should be proud of its colonialism. This was fresh on the heels of an ongoing, spirited global campaign ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ striking against the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, a British colonialist in Africa. The campaign seeks to decolonise education and rid it of institutional racism, with the statue of Rhodes as a British imperialist being its symbol across campuses globally, including at Oxford University in the UK. In the poll, 59% said that the statue at Oxford must not be taken down. Later, Oxford’s Oriel College decided that the statue would not be taken down. Last week, Oxford University courted controversy when it announced a research project named ‘Ethics & Empire’, which aims to look at the rights and the wrongs of British colonialism. Over 170 international academics from across the UK, US, India and South Africa, have signed a letter expressing their “surprise and concern” at the project.

The famine and the empire

At such a time, the documentary seeks to burst the bubble of a romanticised colonial past by drawing attention to the policies of the empire that led to the deaths of millions in the region. It seeks to interrogate the period between 1942 and 1943 in Bengal through the lives of eyewitnesses who saw the famine first hand. The documentary has eyewitnesses narrate sights of families selling their daughters in order to buy meals, women and children standing outside the homes of those better off, begging for the water in which rice was boiled.

The reasons behind the crippling famine, which affected the Bengal region, have been contested, with historians and scholarship being divided about the role of the British empire in it. Historians like Madhushree Mukherjee, author of the book Churchill’s Secret War believe that the empire and Churchill were culpable for their deliberate negligence in causing the famine and exacerbating it, while many others believe that the famine was caused due to external reasons and the empire was, at best, torn between keeping its war effort strong and providing relief to Bengal.

The famine’s reasons were complicated and manifold. A major reason was the cyclone of October 1942 which washed away the crop that year, leaving very little rice till the next harvest season, next year. With the advent of the Second World War and the onward march of the Japanese on the South East Asian frontier, the empire was increasingly nervous of a Japanese invasion of India, especially after Burma fell. That is when a cornered empire announced the implementation of the “scorched earth” policy, one where both, the military and civil administration was instructed to destroy all industrial, military and transport facilities along with means by which the enemy army can gain sustenance so that even if the area falls in the enemy’s hands, the enemy can’t do much about it. This would mean that water stocks and food should be kept to the bare essential minimum quantities that the local population would require. As Mukherjee writes in her book, this meant that since the rice crop was already harvested, the British administration ordered a forceful seizure and destruction of all rice storage.

Bengal Famine of 1943. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bengal Famine of 1943. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mukherjee records how after the fall of Burma, a major source of rice imports, the empire insisted on exporting rice out of Bengal when it, in fact, needed imports for its own needs. In 1941, Bengal had imported 2,96,000 tons of rice while by next year, it would have to export 1,85,000 tons, leading to an acute shortage and a sharp rise in price.

That, and the subsequent response that Churchill offered when his then secretary of state for India Leo Amery urged Churchill and his war cabinet to send urgent relief to India. Churchill reportedly said that famine or no famine, Indians would ‘continue to breed like rabbits.’

However, there are others who see Churchill’s role in a much less critical light. For instance, historian Arthur Herman, who authored Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire & Forged Our Age, believes that while Churchill was indeed “callously indifferent” but goes on to state that it was, ultimately, his effort which led to the famine being broken.

Growing nostalgia for the empire?

The famine, however, has barely featured in the conversations around the effect of British colonialism on India. The documentary seeks to change that, significantly, at a very pertinent time for Britain. Subir Sinha, a senior lecturer in the development studies department at SOAS, believes that the context within which this film is located in today’s Britain is a crucial one to note. “The larger discourse in Britain is one where colonialism is being glorified, where there is a sense that, post-Brexit, Britain can fall back on its former colonies for a happy reunion.” Sinha believes that while this stems from the impression that Britain might feel ‘lost’ in finding its place in a post-Brexit world, the nostalgia for the empire has been a recurring theme in British politics. “From the Left to the Right, politicians of all ideologies have pursued this nostalgia as a political project. The only difference now is that the sense of the empire is coming back with exaggerated qualities of goodness.”

This has reflected in the political discourse as well. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, referring to British colonialism in Africa, said that the problem with Africa was not that the British were once in charge but that “we are not in charge anymore.” Last year, the trade secretary Liam Fox, now made in-charge of building trade links with former colonies, tweeted that the ‘UK need not bury its 20th century history.’

The famine as a war crime?

Chitta Kumar Samonto (left), Jhorna Bhattacharya (centre) and Manojaditiya Dasmahapatra – survivors of the famine, interviewed in the documentary. Courtesy: Joy Banerjee and Partho Bhattacharya

For both filmmakers, the culpability of the empire is unquestionable. Joy Banerjee, the co-director of the film, has a personal connection to the event. “My father was 20 during the famine and witnessed many starving and dying on the streets of Calcutta. My aunt also had similar experiences and she has narrated some of them in the documentary.”

Director Partho Bhattacharya believes that there is little doubt that the famine must be treated as a war crime and Churchill as a war criminal. “The British empire did everything to loot the food grains, destroy the region’s economy and social fabric, all for them to keep feeding their armies.” This documentary around the famine is the latest in a growing narrative of reigniting conversations around the brutish nature of British colonialism in India, after Indian MP Shashi Tharoor’s talks and his book An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire in India, which records the political, economic and social destruction that the empire deliberately caused in India.

Earlier this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan added to this conversation when, on a visit to Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, he called on the UK government to apologise for the mass killings of civilians by British Indian Army soldiers in 1919. Incidentally, in 2013, on a visit to the site in India, British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to issue an apology and stopped at calling the incident “deeply shameful“.

Britain has had a chequered record when it comes to dealing with horrors it inflicted during its colonial past. It has refused to apologise for most of its acts barring a few, like then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s apology for Britain’s role in the Irish potato famine which led to over a million people starving to death between 1845-1855 in Ireland. In 2013, the UK formally apologised and agreed to compensate victims upto £19.9 million in costs to over 5,000 elderly Kenyans who were tortured and abuse by the hands of the British empire during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. This, however, was preceded by a lengthy court battle between victims and the British government.

Sinha, from SOAS, believes that there is a lot that Britain must be do for it to have an honest conversation about its past. “Currently, I am not sure if the average Brexit Leave voter is even a part of these conversations about its colonial past. The government must start with ensuring better, more honest schooling about Britain’s history.”

For the directors, though, this conversation is one that they are keen to have across the global. “We want the film to be screened across the world, so that this part of Indian history is not forgotten. People who suffered from colonialism are found beyond borders and hence, we want the film to go to all such places,” says Bannerjee. After the UK, the film has had a few screenings in major European cities. In January, the film will travel to India with scheduled screenings spread across the country. The directors hope to return to the UK and hold screenings and conversations on the subject.

Kunal Purohit is a freelance journalist based in London.

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