All the calendars read 1943 and the Second World War is raging in all its horrific glory.
Infants who can easily be mistaken for a bag of skin and bones cling to their dying mother's bosom. People lick discarded food packaging out of sheer desperation.
Men, women, children, the elderly walking the streets look like skeletons, with just skin over their frames. Dogs, crows and humans fight over freshly dumped litter.
Millions will die by the time it is all over.
Do these snippets eem familiar? You have probably seen these images somewhere.
This is how our Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin immortalised the suffering of millions. These are not scenes from a Nazi concentration camp, but the streets of Bengal, the crown jewel of British India.
The human tragedy now known as the Bengal famine of 1943 took the lives of an estimated 2.1–5 million, out of a population of 60.3 million, in the Bengal province of British India (now Bangladesh, West Bengal and eastern India).
But did you ever wonder what caused it?
The generally accepted narrative, especially the one coming out of West, has been that all the six famines witnessed by the Indian subcontinent from 1873 and 1943 were caused by droughts.
However, according to a team of researchers from India and the United States who used weather data to simulate the amount of moisture in the soil during these six major famines, only the first five were clearly caused by drought. In 1943, however, the famine-affected regions of Bengal received 15 percent, three percent, nine percent, and four percent above-normal precipitation during June, July, August and September [respectively] of 1943. So drought was certainly not the primary reason.
Sure, there were clearly some natural reasons - a cyclone hit Bengal on 9 January 1943, flooding the rice fields with saltwater and killing 14,500 people; while an outbreak of the Helminthosporium oryzae fungus ate away a huge portion of the remaining rice plants - but was that enough to starve to death a few million people?
Bengal was also hamstrung by the fact that Myanmar — which exported between one and two million tons of rice per year to India — had fallen into the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. But once again, was that enough?
As historians now look back at those tumultuous times to find out what triggered this massive humanitarian catastrophe in the middle of a World War - they often come up with an unlikely culprit - Winston Churchill.
The same Churchill who till this day is revered in the West for saving Europe from the Nazis, appears to have been the same man who systematically deprived Bangalis of available food supplies to not only reroute them towards British war efforts, but also conserve them for Europeans 'if and when they were freed'.
The Nobel Prize-winning writer and historian, and a prolific painter, willfully destroyed rice so that the Japanese would be deprived in the advent of an invasion. What's more, most of his callous and cruel decisions seem to have been laced with a healthy dose of racism.
According to Historian John Charmley, author of 'Churchill: The End of Glory,' Churchill was a racist. Winston Churchill held a hierarchical perspective on race, believing white Protestant Christians to be at the top of this hierarchy, white Catholics beneath them, and Indians higher on this hierarchy than Black Africans. Churchill also saw himself and Britain as being the winners in a social Darwinian hierarchy.
Winston Churchill's role in the Bengal famine of 1943
Churchill implemented a scorched earth policy in November 1941, to make sure that areas of Bengal exposed to a Japanese invasion would be empty of provisions.
Yasmin Khan, a historian at Oxford University, describes the policy as such, "The idea was that things would be razed to the ground, including crops, but also boats that could be used for transportation of crops," in an article for the BBC.
The Bangalis were left to starve on their now-scorched earth.
In a series of events that can be only described as willful ignorance, the British War Cabinet ignored repeated warnings that its excessive use of Indian supplies for the war effort might culminate in the form of a famine.
As the Japanese occupation of Myanmar suspended rice imports indefinitely; instead of protecting its subjects from the consequent food crunch, the Raj insisted that India absorb this loss and export rice to other parts of the world that relied on now Japan occupied territories for food supplies. Thus, after the war inevitably reached the Indian shores, the colony was forced to export 260,000 tons of rice in the fiscal year of 1942-43.
Meanwhile, India's war expenditures increased tenfold.
Utsa Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi wrote "without deliberate state policy of curtailing mass consumption, over £1,600 million of extra resources could not have been extracted from Indians during the war, with the bulk of this enormous burden falling on the population of Bengal since the Allied forces were located in and operated from that province" in a paper titled 'Profit Inflation, Keynes and the Holocaust in Bengal, 1943–44.'
In August 1942, a representative of India's viceroy told the War Cabinet that runaway inflation could lead to "famines and riots." And it fell on deaf ears.
In January 1943, Churchill moved most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, to build up the United Kingdom's stockpile of food and raw materials. The Ministry of War Transport cautioned him that this move would result in "violent changes and perhaps cataclysms" in trade around the Indian Ocean (along with India, the British colonies of Kenya, Tanganyika, and British Somaliland all experienced famine in 1943).
Although he refused to meet India's need for wheat, Churchill insisted that India continue to export rice.
At the War Cabinet meeting of 4 August 1943, Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery, advocated the urgent Indian need for food "in as strong terms as I could", according to his diary - but had failed to get the War Cabinet to schedule even a single shipment of wheat for India under the pretence of Indians not being able to consume wheat.
In truth, they wanted to conserve wheat, which was available in Australia, for the feeding of Europeans, if and when they were liberated.
Leopold Amery's entry to his journal on 10 November 1943, reads, "Winston, after a preliminary flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day for doing nothing, asked Leathers (the minister in charge of shipping) for his view. He said he could manage 50,000 tons in January and February (1944)".
Churchill had a habit of making snide comments about Indians, particularly in private conversation. At one point, he explicitly told Leopold Amery, his Secretary of State for India, that he "hated Indians" and considered them "a beastly people with a beastly religion."
Every single day the number of deaths soared higher and higher. Finally, the first of these promised consignments arrived sometime in November. The Government of India received a mere 16 percent of the wheat it had requested – not remotely enough to even meet the requirements of the Indian army, let alone that of a famine-stricken populace.
As a result, the army continued to use domestic supplies that could otherwise have been used to relieve famine: it consumed 1,15,000 tons of rice in 1943 alone. On the flip side, the net quantity of wheat and rice exported in the fiscal year 1942-43 was 3,60,000 tons.
A legacy of blood
After attending one of the War Cabinet debates on sending famine relief to India, Commander-in-Chief to India Archibald Wavell noted in his diary that Churchill wanted to "feed only those [Indians] actually fighting or making munitions or working some particular railways."
170,000 tons of Australian wheat meant for future consumption by Europeans sailed past Indians who were dying in the streets grovelling for the liquid that came out of cooked rice.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom's stockpile of food and raw materials, intended for shoring up the postwar British economy, reached 18.5 million tons, the highest ever.
Around July or August 1943, the non-availability of grain had forced government-run centres in Bengal to reduce the rations provided to famine victims to about four ounces per person per day.
That came to 400 calories, at the low end of the scale at which, at much the same time, inmates at the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald were being fed.
According to Leopold Amery, the British Premier felt that feeding Bangalis, who were not making much of a contribution to the war effort, was less important than feeding Greeks, who were.
Amery did not "see much difference between [Churchill's] outlook and Hitler's." He confided in his private journal, "on the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane".
Seeing Indian non-combatants as a burden is indeed difficult to distinguish from the Nazi attitude towards ordinary Slavs, who were described as "superfluous eaters." Perhaps Amery, who had read Mein Kampf in the original German, studied Hitler's speeches and even had a rather long chat with the Führer once, was on to something.