It took Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts 12 years to round up and murder 6 million Jews, but their Teutonic cousins, the British, managed to kill almost 4 million Indians in just over a year, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill cheering from the sidelines. Australian biochemist Dr Gideon Polya has called the Bengal Famine a “manmade holocaust” because Churchill’s policies were directly responsible for the disaster. Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of food grain from India to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in the areas comprising present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh. Author Madhusree Mukerjee tracked down some of the survivors and paints a chilling picture of the effects of hunger and deprivation. In Churchill’s Secret War, she writes: “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones.”
Sarah Waheed notes: “One of the students in my modern South Asia history class a few years ago, was extremely upset that the book we were reading referred to the Bengal famine as a holocaust, calling the author ‘biased’. When I asked him to clarify and elaborate upon what he meant by ‘biased’, he exclaimed, inflamed, “There was only one holocaust!” The rest of the students were, however, more open to the idea of the 20th century being a century of multiple holocausts. The terms ‘holocaust’ and ‘genocide’, however, continue to elicit trauma envy.”
I first heard of British crimes like this in Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts which talks about how imperialism affected the Indian subcontinent’s food supply. The system which could feed everyone, even during hard times, was “centralized” to be “more efficient” by the British administration, leading to skyrocketing poverty and famine and a destroyed local ecology.