The forgotten Holocaust
August 30, 2008 6:10 PM   Subscribe

In 1943, while the Allies were busy battling the Axis Powers and the Nazi Regime, there was another kind of war that was being waged against a helpless populace (living on the Indian Sub-continent). A war that has been largely ignored by the mass media and the history books of our time. It is known as the Great Bengal Famine, and ended up causing the death of an estimated 1.5 million to 4 million people.
posted by hadjiboy (34 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The link "death" has an image of extremely malnourished people. Just in case anyone feels like flagging it for being too visceral.
posted by hadjiboy at 6:17 PM on August 30, 2008

"The link 'death' has an image of extremely malnourished people."

Holy Christ, that's an understatement.
posted by orthogonality at 6:22 PM on August 30, 2008

Wow. I had no idea.

I am so sorry.
posted by Xoebe at 6:29 PM on August 30, 2008

Um, the "another" link actually had the opposite effect of what you might be looking for. The obvious sympathy to Robert Mugabe made me harden my heart in a way that I don't care to see.

Sure, the motives of Americans are filthy rat puke morally wrong. Americans did not create the vile cess pool that is Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans have access to the food aid, they can take it or leave it. GMOs are nothing more than an option for American Agriculture to wage war on the rest of the world (mostly to wring the last dollar out of the pockets of food producers here in the U.S., but that;'s a different story). GMOs are not about making pesticide free grains, they are about making Monsanto the sole supplier of seed to the planet.

Yeah, its wrong, it's vile and it's unspeakably evil. But to be honest, the situation in Zimbabwe is the result of ignorant and craven hillbillies kicking out the educated elite, then destroying the infrastructure that they had less than zero idea of how to manage. Literally, I mean that, less than zero. It wasn't just ignorance, it was willful ignorance with a big dose of anti intellectual hatrede and resentment.

It's there in Burma, it was there in Cambodia, and it's there in Zimbabwe.

Now I am wondering what the Indians did or did not do that could have mitigated or avoided this. It is unlikely that the blame can entirely be laid at the feet of profit seeking colonialists, though there is little doubt they were scumbags.
posted by Xoebe at 6:57 PM on August 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

She had saved herself -- hadn’t she? -- by managing to eat by whatever means she had. After that, can there be any further question?

Good for her! And goof for all the immigrants who manage to fill their bellies and their children's bellies by whatever means they have, legal or not!

Manik Bandyopadhyay wrote a very moving story in "Why didn't they snatch food to eat?", a story that truly describes the effects of starvation. While I have never seen that kind of starvation, I have seen plenty of undernourished and malnourished children in this so very rich country, and their listlessness and apathy is disturbing.
posted by francesca too at 7:16 PM on August 30, 2008

The last link seems to blame it all on Jane Austin.

Wikipedia has an interesting account of the famine.
posted by eye of newt at 7:28 PM on August 30, 2008

I've been reading about this story and it is with out a doubt one of those areas of history that has been overlooked. Thanks for the post.
posted by nola at 7:58 PM on August 30, 2008

The last link seems to blame it all on Jane Austin.
Perhaps you missed this:

"Ultimately, millions of Bengalis died because their British rulers didn't give a damn and had other strategic imperatives. The Bengal Famine and its aftermath for the debilitated Bengal population consumed its victims over several years in the case of complete British inaction through most of 1943 or insufficient subsequent action. Churchill had a confessed hatred for Indians and during the famine he opposed the humanitarian attempts of people such as the Prime Minister of Canada, Louis Mountbatten, Viceroy General Wavell, and even of Japanese collaborationist leader Subhash Chandra Bose. The hypothesis can be legitimately advanced that the extent of the Bengal Famine derived in part from sustained, deliberate policy."

As far as Austenising is concerned, it's the term that the writer has coined to refer to the "ugly social realities of her time" which were absent from her Exquisite Novels (in his own words), comparing them to the whitewashing of history in relation to Britain's involvement in the deaths of millions of people during its reign over the Indian Sub-continent. It has nothing to do with Jane Austen [the person] I'm presuming.

As for Indians not being able to do enough, or having done something to mitigate this situation, you know: I wonder if you can say the same thing about the Jewish Holocaust Xoebe?
posted by hadjiboy at 8:08 PM on August 30, 2008

thanks hadjiboy
posted by dawson at 8:19 PM on August 30, 2008

It's there in Burma, it was there in Cambodia, and it's there in Zimbabwe.

And it's there in the White House.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:41 PM on August 30, 2008

What's really mind-blowing is that this happened *all the time* in India under the British East India Company and the Raj. It's natural to think of the 20th Century as the time of the absolute worst genocides, famines, and disasters in history, but millions of Indians have been dying in anthropogenic famines since the 1700's. Wikipedia's got a page.
posted by facetious at 8:41 PM on August 30, 2008

Didn't know about this vast famine at all and am shocked to have been ignorant of it. Reading the Wikipedia entry, especially The Response section was disturbing.

While it was legitimate for Jane Austen, the artist, to render her exquisite novels free of the contemporary awfulness in which her connections participated, the Austenizing of British history is a holocaust-denying outrage that threatens humanity.

I love the Bengali people. They have a particular character that I admire, so intelligent, witty, warm hearted, creative and passionate. It saddens me deeply to think of millions of them dying by famine, which apparently was very preventable. A true holocaust.

Interesting to learn about Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate, who has done so much research on this famine. He lives in one of my favorite places, a small university town in Bengal, where Rabindranath Tagore started his university, Shantiniketan. Bengalis are renowned for their scholarship and erudition and I feel more inclined to believe Sen because of that.

I was always impressed that Calcutta residents took in a million refugees from the Bangladesh Liberation War, images, fed them, in spite of having little themselves.

As America's South prepares for Hurricane Gustav with a million people expected to be impacted by the storm, I've been worried about the millions of people in Bihar, now homeless because of the flooding of the Kosi river.
posted by nickyskye at 8:56 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not to sound overtly post-colonial, but to say the Bengal Famine is forgotten is a very western-centric viewpoint. It wasn't; it was rather central to, not just the immediate political push for the British to Quit India absolutely, as opposed to merely give provincial autonomy (which is what the BBC podcast was referring to), but it also directed public policy and thought for the generation immediately preceding the Independence movement; there's a reason why the Green Revolution was such a dominant policy initiative, as opposed to laissez-faire industrialization.

It's definitely taught in schools today in India, it's also the reason why the price of food-items is not still not entirely market-driven. The links already show how Amartya Sen's emotional experience of the Famine contributed to his Nobel-prize-winning thesis on development economics.

I do realize the BBC was aiming for an attention-grabbing angle, and for sure, it's quite possible that, say, even WW2 buffs know about the Holocaust without knowing about the Bengal Famine, but I'm perturbed by the insinuation that even Indians would find it convenient to forget about it. It mars an otherwise evocative piece.
posted by the cydonian at 9:05 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

but I'm perturbed by the insinuation that even Indians would find it convenient to forget about it

I don't think I was ever taught about this in my school Akshay. Maybe I wasn't paying attention that day, I don't know, but I've been aware of Auschwitz since as long back as I can remember, and I didn't even have to open a book to know that. It's just common knowledge. Maybe that's what the piece was getting at.
posted by hadjiboy at 9:31 PM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Might have sounded unclear earlier. Meant to say, that the Green Revolution took priority over industrialization in the 60's. Lots of factors there, not the least of which was the US' and the rupee's subsequent devaluation, but memories of the Bengal Famine definitely played a part.

nickyskye: Was planning to do a FPP on Kosi. :-) A good point to start on the Kosi floods is the Indian Water Blog: the fact is that the river has changed its course completely, from a C-shaped curve it used to take till Aug 24th, reverting to a straight channel that it used to take two hundred years back. Bihar government's Flood Management Information System has the most detailed satellite maps, but you could probably lose the message in the detail; NASA's press release shows the change at its most-dramatic.

What's staggering to imagine is that this is not the first time it's happened. In fact, the River Kosi has always changed its path, as evidenced here; there have been breaches, some of the damage appears to have been avoidable (here is the chain of events). This is the worst flooding in fifty years, and at least some of the Indian press thinks that one of the world's biggest evacuations may be afoot. Meanwhile, bad news continues to abound: towns are sinking, the army needs to be mobilized, but isn't fully, the waters march on. Deeply depressing, and scary.
posted by the cydonian at 10:14 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Now I am wondering what the Indians did or did not do that could have mitigated or avoided this. It is unlikely that the blame can entirely be laid at the feet of profit seeking colonialists, though there is little doubt they were scumbags.

Don't mention the war.
posted by three blind mice at 10:25 PM on August 30, 2008

The essay linked as another states as fact that genetically modified maize is "toxic". It refers to the role of the "WFP" in forcing GM maize as food aid in Africa, without telling us what the WFP is. The problematic support for Mr. Mugabe's calamitous policies has earlier been pointed out by Xoebe. The piece concludes with a flourish of anti-semitism:

"Food aid has now in addition become a commercial enterprise. Famine or no famine, the Shylocks of the grain trade must have their 'pound of flesh'."

I thank the poster for making me aware of the tragedy of the Bengal Famine. Some of my ancestors fled the Irish Potato Famine, and I am no fan of British colonial and post-colonial crimes of the previous two centuries, but that linked article left a bad taste in my mouth.
posted by longsleeves at 11:12 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

hadjiboy: I don't think I was ever taught about this in my school

Well, can't speak for all twenty-eight curricula in India, but it was certainly part of the ICSE syllabus. :-) Although, I certainly can't imagine the history of Indian independence being taught without even a cursory mention of the Bengal Famine; as I mentioned, that was certainly one of the many reasons why the political narrative turned towards absolute independence from mere provincial autonomy. Indeed, that there never has been a Bengal-famine-like situation in independent India is often raised as the ultimate case for Indian independence.

While a case may be made for the fact that us Indians don't read history as much as we should (being a history buff, I often find it problematic that I end up explaining to some of my peers things like, say, the Chola dynasty or the Bahamanis), I still find it hard to understand why the BBC would think we would have "good reason to forget" about the Famine.

longsleeves: WFP => World Food Programme. Didn't read the article fully earlier, but yes, quite bothersome as to how the author moved from famine to GM-crops to that.
posted by the cydonian at 12:03 AM on August 31, 2008

my mother was born in Calcutta, the third of 8 living children, in 1944. there was another great famine scare in the neighbouring state of Bihar and this was in 1966, narrowly averted by wheat ships from the US. that was the year I was born, in Calcutta. thank you, Hadjiboy for reminding us of what we have collectively forgotten and what we must remember to be thankful for.
posted by infini at 3:51 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

The links already show how Amartya Sen's emotional experience of the Famine contributed to his Nobel-prize-winning thesis on development economics.

it influenced an entire generation I think. my only experience is of my grandfather, who lived sparingly although he was 'well off' enough that of his 9 children, 8 are living healthy adult lives as grandparents themselves and the ninth died in a car accident. he did not drink or smoke, gave as much as he could away and I don't think he ever indulged himself with any luxuries. I once asked him why he wasn't 'rich and famous' in the flamboyant style that so many of his peers and contemporaries were, why wasn't he in "who's who" with them? He answered simply "because I am honest man". sorry for rambling, he was my personal hero and its been 13 years since he passed away at 86, of ironically, the long delayed after effects of extended malnutrition.
posted by infini at 4:03 AM on August 31, 2008 [6 favorites]

Yes, a few years before between 1932 and 1933 around 6-7 million people died in the Ukrainian famine. I've wondered why the Ukrainian famine is held up as an example of the evils of the Soviet system, while the Bengal famine a few years later is barely mentioned.
posted by plep at 7:22 AM on August 31, 2008

Nobody ever died of hunger before the British Empire?
posted by A189Nut at 7:36 AM on August 31, 2008

Haven't any of you watched the Apu Trilogy? My HS English teacher (US) showed it to us. Brilliant filmmaking, shows some of the effects of the famine.
posted by QIbHom at 7:38 AM on August 31, 2008

I don't mean to condone what Britiain did or didn't do, but you make it sound like all the fighting was far away, letting the British pillage India in peace. The Japanese armies were on India's doorstep; the Bengal famine was part of a broader crescent of famine extending from India into south-east Asia and China. The food economy of a whole continent had collapsed. Plus, the famine was preceded by a series of natural disasters. The British administration in India was broadly racist and, in this instance, fatally inept, but not entirely to blame. Comparing its actions to the extermination of the Jews is unreasonable. Famine accompanied every part of the war in Asia - the Japanese "co-prosperity sphere" was essentially a way of feeding Japan without paying the people growing the food.

It's a structural problem with colonialism - you are going to prioritise the problems happening on your doorstep to people of your own race over the suffering of others you may be responsible for. British High Command was looking at the possibility of famine in Britain and Europe. Once you've taken the colonial path, you can dress it up in different language and do it with varying degrees of racism or shamelessness, but it's always the same equation - better that it happens to them than us, be it famines or car bombs.

I'm British, and I was born in Orissa.
posted by WPW at 8:10 AM on August 31, 2008

You are right in that there were mitigating factors that caused a situation leading to famine, however, every analysis that I've read (disclaimer: I am a fan of Amartya Sen's work) points to the fact that it could have been averted or at least minimized but for decisions taken by the British. imho, its beyond structural problems with colonialism or racism or ineptness or even attitude.

It was deliberate.

from Jawaharlal Nehru's biography pg 143 -144, typed out for you here,

But even a military man like Wavell, who had been Commander-in-Chief since January 1941 before he became Viceroy, could not imagine that British rule would last for another half a century. Further, when Wavell became Viceroy in October 1943, he noted that the British government's attitude was 'negligent, hostile and contemptuous to a degree I had not anticipated'. This negligent hostility became all too apparent in the government's handling or mishandling of the famine situation in Bengal in 1943. This was the most disastrous famine of the century and the worst part of it was that it was essentially man-made.

Mountbatten, who was in command in South-East Asia, wanted to divert 10 per cent of the shipping at his disposal for import of foodgrains into India. But Churchill, who regarded even famine relief as appeasement of the Congress, countermanded this. Later, Nehru wrote that during hte Bengal famine 'death had no purpose, no logic, no necessity; it was a result of man's incompetence and callousness, man-made, a slow creeping thing of horror with nothing to redeem it.'

posted by infini at 8:43 AM on August 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm certainly not going to defend Churchill, was was intolerably racist and appeared to actually hate India. What's shown in that extract is that his attitude was not typical of British High Command, and administrators became markedly more sympathetic the closer to the famine they got (as is often the case). Sadly Churchill called the shots. Blame Churchill by all means, but simply blaming "the British" is very crude, and comparing it to the Holocaust goes much too far. Yes, man-made, but many if not most of the men making it were Japanese.

I've met Sen, by the way, he became Master of Trinity when I was at Cambridge and I briefly met him at a function. He's a great man.
posted by WPW at 8:53 AM on August 31, 2008

I'm going to look up to see if it was the Japanese, because stuff I've read has said that there was a surplus in 1043. yah, Sen again, (btw, I'm envious of your opportunity, I can only claim to be an argumentative Indian, not an acquaintaince)

However, Amartya Sen holds the view that there was no overall shortage of rice in Bengal in 1943: availability was actually slightly higher than in 1941, when there was no famine [5]. It was partly this which conditioned the sluggish official response to the disaster, as there had been no serious crop failures and hence the famine was unexpected. Its root causes, Sen argues, lay in rumours of shortage which caused hoarding, and rapid price inflation caused by war-time demands which made rice stocks an excellent investment (prices had already doubled over the previous year). In Sen's interpretation, while landowning peasants who actually grew rice and those employed in defence-related industries in urban areas and at the docks saw their wages rise, this led to a disastrous shift in the exchange entitlements of groups such as landless labourers, fishermen, barbers, paddy huskers and other groups who found the real value of their wages had been slashed by two-thirds since 1940. Quite simply, although Bengal had enough rice and other grains to feed itself, millions of people were suddenly too poor to buy it.[6]

However, your thoughtful and considered responses have made me think about the fact that I cannot argue with you, you make extremely valid and reasonable observations.

It strikes me that if nothing else, this interweb of ours, some 6 or 7 decades later, allows us to converse with each other, where once perhaps we may have been on opposite ends of the challenging situation. with daggers drawn.
posted by infini at 9:12 AM on August 31, 2008

erk, add about 900 years to that typo'd date
posted by infini at 9:15 AM on August 31, 2008

Well, I certainly don't want to stray into apologism for the Raj so let's leave it at that. It's certainly valuable to air these episodes in history rather than forget about them. I adore India and feel proud to have been born there.

Re Sen, I certainly wasn't an acquaintance, as I remember it I had enough time to say "hello" and if he said anything to me I don't remember it.
posted by WPW at 9:21 AM on August 31, 2008

Excellent post, thanks hadjiboy.
posted by languagehat at 9:33 AM on August 31, 2008

ah, i think I took the dictionary definition "personal knowledge gained by intercourse short of that of friendship or intimacy; "
posted by infini at 9:33 AM on August 31, 2008

Maybe you should take it up with the Wiki.
posted by wallstreet1929 at 12:09 PM on August 31, 2008

This is pretty potent stuff. I am not sure what else to say other than thank you for the enlightenment hadjiboy. I found the "war" link most interesting.
posted by caddis at 6:16 PM on August 31, 2008

As far as Austenising is concerned, it's the term that the writer has coined to refer to the "ugly social realities of her time" which were absent from her Exquisite Novels (in his own words),

Given that a large chunk of Austen's output is concerned with the ugly social realities of being a woman, and the degree to which one's future was therefore contingent upon the competence of a father or other relatives in arranging their affairs and your marriage, and how easy it was for middle-class families to drop into desperate straights I hope his history is better than his grasp of literature.
posted by rodgerd at 1:50 AM on September 2, 2008

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