Andreas Koureas

Winston Churchill isn’t to blame for the Bengal famine

Winston Churchill (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Sir Winston Churchill arguably saved civilisation as we know it. Had Britain capitulated to Germany after the fall of France, the Nazis would have been able to dedicate their entire force to the invasion of the Soviet Union, probably taking the entire Eurasian front. North Africa would have become fascist Italy’s playhouse, with the United States isolated. So it is perhaps no surprise that those who despise Great Britain, its institutions and values, have done their utmost to attack the greatest Briton in history.  

In the course of these attacks, Churchill has been painted as a racist and a genocidal tyrant who deliberately starved millions of Indians in the Bengal famine. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

When facing the serious allegation that Churchill deliberately worsened the Bengal famine, it is essential to look at the primary sources: what was actually said at the time, and what the actual policies were. All of this is available at the Churchill Archives in Cambridge. And the truth is very different to what is frequently peddled by outlets like the Guardian and the BBC. 

In October 1942, a cyclone struck Bengal and Orissa in British India, wiping out much of the rice crop in the region. Transportation of food and other resources were hindered as southern railways were washed away. The cyclone threw part of the subcontinent’s weather system out of sync, ruining the normal winter harvest in Northern India.  

Previously, this could have been alleviated by the authorities purchasing grain in the surrounding territories of Burma, Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines. But these territories were all under Japanese occupation. Constitutionally, the famine was a matter reserved to local provincial governments run by Indians. However, once the news of the severity of the situation reached Westminster, the Churchill administration did all it could to alleviate the famine.

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