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A REVIEW OF MADHUSREE MUKERJEE’S  CHURCHILL’S SECRET WAR – The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II

Churchill is extolled as  one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. The  name “Churchill”  immediately conjures up images of a larger-than-life figure, of heroism personified. Indisputably,  when the Second World War broke out it was to Winston Churchill that the British people turned. Indeed, it was a crucial historical moment – when England was facing the German threat –  and Churchill appreciated the magnitude of his responsibility. It is understandable, then,  that Churchill is venerated and paraded as a hero par excellence in history, that he is  synonymous with World War 2 and the great victories he achieved for Britain and the British Empire.

However, this very single minded devotion to the challenges that confronted “Empire” and “The Island Race” [to use the title of one of the war histories that Churchill himself wrote], had a dark underside and came at an enormous cost. It is part of  this history, occluded from general public view and knowledge, that Madhusree Mukerjee brings to the fore in her recent book, Churchill’s Secret War [published by Basic Books].

Churchill was the Secretary of State for War in the British Cabinet when World War 1 started in 1914. He then became Prime Minister of Britain and steered England through the dark days of World War 2. He was responsible for extracting from India much support for the war effort, in the form of exports from the colony. The payment was called the ‘home charge’, which met the expenses of overseas wars in which the Indian Army itself fought. This led to India gradually descending into an impecunious situation, while British interests and welfare were secured.

Against this background and in this context, Mukerjee presents her groundbreaking investigation of the famine that hit Bengal in the early 1940’s.  She reveals that at the same time that Churchill was harvesting the colony, to sustain and support the mother country, he was engaging in a scorched earth policy of the colony, and denied relief to West Bengal when it was stricken by famine in the early 1940’s. It is scandalous that Churchill’s War Cabinet denied much-needed grain to India in 1943, but actually stockpiled food in England during the same period. Churchill’s actions resulted in over 3 million deaths, in spite of reports from   reputable representatives of the Crown in India   of the magnitude of the problem.

Alongside his specific actions in respect of the Bengal famine, Churchill, Mukerjee reveals, showed general antipathy to Indian independence, practicing divisive partisan politics in the context of growing Hindu-Muslim conflict.  Mukerjee weaves an interesting and intricate epic narrative of the web of  politics developing at this time on the  sub-continent, with her recounting of roles and actions of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Bose and [the less-known] Dhara,  making  for instructive reading.

Mukerjee demonstrates that Churchill had a profound sense of vocation, that he saw himself as being called to render the greatest duty to the mother country. At the time of World War 2, he asserted: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” This sense of duty is also encapsulated in his inspirational words, now immortalized, to the British nation: that he requires from every man, no less than ‘BLOOD, TOIL, TEARS AND SWEAT”.

It was this very burning ambition, to secure his name in the annals of imperial history, that   made this ‘British Lion” indomitable in adversity, and but also follow a compromised path, where he would forego all principles of decency and justice to realize his goals.

The irony of Churchill’s selective sense of justice is implicit: here was the Prime Minister of Britain, fighting Nazism, and yet practicing what was tantamount to racism and barbarism against one of his own dominions. It is not surprising that his own Secretary of State for India at the time, Leonard Amery, actually compared Churchill to Hitler.

Compounding this travesty of justice – tantamount to war crimes, if the Geneva Convention is invoked – was the massive cover-up that followed.  Mukerjee shows how Churchill had hired a team of researchers and ghostwriters to formulate the definitive history of World War 2, which literally reduced the story of the Bengal famine to a footnote in that history. She points out that, in the tens of thousands of tomes written on the War, the Bengal famine is hardly mentioned. The famine received fleeting reference, and only in a document that happened to make it into one of the appendices. Even reports of different famine commissions suppressed the results of a government-sponsored survey on famine mortality.

In whitewashing and sanitizing that history, and narrativising the past in a particular way, a double injustice was rendered to the victims. “History is the lie of the victors”. So says one of the characters in the novel,   Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Mukerjee’s  book reminds us that History is constructed; its many  myths and fabrications  often told from the vantage point of  powerful and self-appointed guardians. She  engages in meticulous and impeccable research, which included trawling through diaries and letters and other archival material, and interviewing those  for whom the Bengal famine remains a living, if unofficial,  memory.

Indeed, her  scholarship functions as restorative justice, similar to our own  Truth and Reconciliation Commission after 1994. Mukerjee  vindicates the victims in memory, rescuing them from erasure, and offering “reparations” and a form of recompense, through exposing the truth, even where material redress is no longer possible. Her necessary  investigation  - a “history from below”  – shows the important role that intellectuals  and scholars play as “tribunals” in  rectifying the dominant and false perceptions that are often constructed  and hardened into History.

Churchill’s Secret War reminds us that we may not blame  broad historical processes as a way of exonerating individuals.  It  implicitly makes us think of present-day political charlatans who, with an eye on the ballot box,  speak with forked tongues: These are leaders who  trumpet heroic ideals, in the name of freedom and civilization; yet, in realizing those very goals,  trample on  those whom they designate as underdogs. Deluded imperial nostalgia, and the selective morality that accompanies it  -  is not only  a condition of the past…

Reviewed by Dr Betty Govinden, Senior Research Associate, UKZN

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One comment

  1. Excellent review of a path breaking book.

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