War & Famine in Late Colonial Bengal


A review of Hungry Bengal: War, Famine, Riots, and the End of Empire 1939-1946, by Janam Mukherjee.

Janam Mukherjee’s dissertation is a thorough study of late colonial Bengal in the context of war, famine, and riots leading up to the eventual dissolution of empire. The central argument of the dissertation is built on the claim that famine was the “most profound factor influencing the structural, political, social, economic and communal fabric of Bengal” during this period (p. 5). The author provides a vivid illustration of the famine’s “awesome magnitude” in terms of its impact on the socio-political landscape of Bengal (p. 7). Before proceeding to the core content of the work, the author makes three important revisions to our understandings of the famine: first, he complicates the chronology of the famine, which is otherwise more commonly referred to as the Bengal Famine of 1943. Secondly, he shows that the war efforts and business interests, both centered in Calcutta, were responsible in equal measure for the devastation that ravaged rural Bengal, thus leading to the famine. And by looking beyond the actual famine victims and drawing a more explicit link between rural and urban Bengal, this work also demonstrates that the Bengal Famine was indeed “man-made.” Finally, contrary to the claim that the famine victims “died without a murmur” (Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure, and Politics, 1919-1947. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) the author argues that by broadening the chronology of the famine the active resistance of the victims becomes evident.

Chapter 1 shows that Britain’s war against Axis powers became central to governing India. Even before there was any substantial threat, the government co-opted India into the war effort. Beginning in 1939, as troops passed through Calcutta on their way to other strategic areas in Southeast Asia, the city’s defense, both for its military as well as industrial significance became the government’s primary goal. In the meantime, rural Bengal, caught in a cycle of increasing impoverishment, was pressed by a more fundamental concern for survival worsened by the depression of the previous decade. Never quite recovering from the depression, for Bengali agriculturalists illiteracy, ill-health, and hunger, as well as their basic struggle for survival, was far more pressing than the war that was foremost in the minds of the government.

By early 1942, with the fall of Malaya and Singapore, British war efforts focused squarely on Calcutta as is shown in Chapter 2. Central to the government’s proposals was the operation of “denial,” which was essentially a scorched earth campaign devised to deprive the invading Japanese troops the means of sustenance as they advanced to Calcutta. The government reasoned that if they were able to “denude the coastal region of the resources that might enable invasion” they could possibly discourage Japanese attack without making “unnecessary expenses on defense” (p. 83). Implementation of the “denial” operation meant the removal of rice (the staple of Bengal) from coastal areas and the destruction of boats (the primary mode of conveyance in riverine Bengal), both contributing further to worsening the condition in an already impoverished countryside. In the meantime, Calcutta’s vulnerability as well as its preparedness was severely tested in December 1942 when consecutive Japanese air raids only added to the urgency of making sure that the city “kept going at all costs” (p.120). Government priority of maintaining Calcutta and its consequences are discussed in Chapter 3. In the wake of the bombings, the government decided to secure stocks of rice in order to provide for the industrial interests in Calcutta. Government began buying supplies of rice from stockists and mill owner at prices below the existing market rates, pushing the rice trade “under-ground” while leaving officials to speculate estimates of rice in the province. The only way to tackle this uncertainty, the government believed, would be to increase the stock of rice in hand, thus taking them once again to the countryside adding further pressure on the already desperate farmers who in some cases had even eaten their seed stocks.

By early 1943 all indicators provided ample evidence of a famine, which makes up the content of Chapter 4. Mukherjee points out that although starvation and hunger plagued Bengal at least since 1940, the “begrudging official recognition” of a famine only came in mid-1943 (p. 168). As a way of addressing the famine, government instituted the Food Drive, where it went into the hinterland to some ten million homes in order to assess and confiscate the rice supplies of the province. This was brought to Calcutta and taken mainly to provide for the industrial area. In the meantime, the people in the countryside as well as in Calcutta suffered the ravages of starvation and disease. By the end of the year, Calcutta’s suffering only worsened when the city was bombed in broad daylight by the Japanese. The bombing of the port of Calcutta and its aftermath are discussed in Chapter 5. In the wake of the bombings the colonial authorities were eager to point that the famine had ended, which as the author points out “would be one less open wound” they had to deal with (p. 264).

Contrary to the government’s claim, Chapter 6 shows that the famine had not been contained; instead the reality of it was more deeply enmeshed in the collective psyche of Bengal, made more visible by the growing number of dead. As the bodies of the famine victims were being accounted for, the only classification provided for them was their religious affiliation. In his final chapter, Mukherjee draws attention to the Calcutta riots of 1946, generally understood and defined as communal. Instead, he argues that the killings had to be understood in context of war and famine, which had “insinuated itself into every aspect of life” (p. 321). Calcutta was a society completely ravaged by famine and the uncertainties of war and had lost any idea of “moral duty” leading ultimately to the violence. The violence itself, we are cautioned, should not be grouped into a single category such as “communal,” “political,” or “economic.” Instead as the author demonstrates, the motivations for the violence were highly diverse and so were the perceptions.

This dissertation will be of particular interest to historians of South Asia for it makes an especially significant contribution to our understanding of how the Second World War affected colonial Bengal. The thorough study of wartime policies and its impact on Bengal leading to the famine provides a fresh context for understanding imperial, national, and provincial politics and communal violence. Mukherjee’s convincing analysis and detailed research has broadened our understanding of the Bengal Famine not only in its chronological sense, but has done so also by demonstrating how hunger, starvation, and death shook the very moorings of Bengali society. In doing so, this work takes a significant step in offering a fresh interpretation of communal violence in Bengal.

Aryendra Chakravartty
Department of History
Penn State University

Primary Sources

Center for Studies in Social Sciences
West Bengal State Archives
National Archives of India (Nanavati Papers)
British Library, India Office Records

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 2011. 395 pp. Primary Advisor: Barbara D. Metcalf.

Image: Bengal Famine 1943. Wikimedia Commons.

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