Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire

Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire
Janam Mukherjee
Hurst  288pp  £30

Janam Mukherjee has written an engrossing account of the most tragic event in the history of Bengal, the Great Famine of 1943, in which an estimated three million people died. The book is also a rediscovery of Mukherjee’s family roots in pre-independence Calcutta. ‘Though my tone may be angry’, he tells us, ‘it is the sorrow of my father and his generation that I have been at great pains to redeem in these words.’

Mukherjee claims that he is covering a neglected chapter in Indian history but his impressive bibliography includes illustrious Bengali predecessors, including the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and Harvard’s Sugata Bose. The Great Bengal Famine has figured prominently in just about every narrative history of British rule in India. What singles out Mukherjee’s book is his thesis that the famine was at the root of the Hindu-Muslim violence that consumed Calcutta during the Great Killings of 1946, thereby contributing to the even more cataclysmic partition of the subcontinent a year later.

No doubt the horrors of the famine accustomed the people of Bengal to death and suffering as never before. Nor can one deny that Bengal’s frontline role in the Second World War triggered the deadly spiral in prices that put food out of the reach of the poor, even though – as Amartya Sen has established – there was no actual shortage of supplies. But, controversially, Mukherjee then argues that famine was somehow inherent in colonial racism and capitalist greed and suggests that the famine of 1943 was a major cause of inter-communal violence three years later.

Mukherjee’s economic determinism does not explain why most of the subcontinent experienced a major wartime economic boom, but nevertheless succumbed to sectarian violence in 1947. Indeed, Punjab, the breadbasket of India, experienced far worse communal massacres than Bengal and the provincial capital, Calcutta, was the area of Bengal least affected by food shortages. Mukherjee’s account does not explain such contradictions but relies instead on what he terms ‘cumulative violence that began with chronic, multi-generational poverty, was compounded by war, and brought to a catastrophic head in devastating famine’.  

Mukherjee’s anger is understandable, confronted with the monumental mismanagement of Bengal’s famine by the colonial authorities in Delhi and London and the democratically elected provincial government of Bengal. But he fails to persuade that both the Bengal Famine and the partition of the subcontinent were the result of what he calls ‘the intimately entwined ideologies of war, colonialism and capital’, rather than a coincidental overlap between very distinct historical catastrophes. It is even harder for this reviewer to accept Mukherjee’s conclusion that America’s current state of ‘perpetual war … with mantras of “patriotism” and “security” monopolising all airwaves’, has ‘an eerie feeling of simultaneity’ with Bengal in the Second World War.

Zareer Masani's most recent book is Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist (Bodley Head, 2013).

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