Hasn't Kipling's East is east and West is west/ And ne'er the twain shall meet/ been problematised by egalitarian postcolonial dabblers? Well, just as we were beginning to be complacent about the negotiablity between colonial Britain and colonised India, Madhushree Mukherjee's book Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War Two indicts Churchill as one of history's most inhuman colonial practitioners in the denial of food in times of distress. This physicist turned scientific journalist turned researcher on the Bengal famine of 1943 wanted to understand the human aspect of the famine and her archival investigation led to what may be termed as one of history's most significant establishment of culpability by an acclaimed political leader.
The book investigates Churchill's rejection of Viceroy Linlithgow's SOS to send foodgrain to India to avert a disaster. Falsely claiming shortage of ships, he prevented abundant food being accessed from Australia. The truth was that there were numerous ships available with not enough cargo to carry. This criminal callousness resulted in the loss of three million lives which is half the number of Jews and Gypsies sent to the torture chambers of Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau during the Holocaust. There has been a surfeit of that narrative played out in the books of history because it was about the vanquished, narrated triumphantly by victors. Will the Civilised West acknowledge its own Auschwitz in Bengal at about the same time in human history?
More importantly, have we learnt the lessons from history? Today grains are rotting in the godowns and people continue to starve in many parts of the country. Is post-colonial India a repetitive representation of its colonial past? We would not like to think so but wonder if there is hope at the end of experience.