Winston Churchill is still a very outsized figure in India.
The movie Darkest Hour is playing in many of our better cinema halls in all major cities. The Anglicised Indian elite, who still largely lionise Winston Churchill, are beating the pathways to the movie halls. Nearly every review in our major newspapers is quite breathless. The Hindu writes: “Wright’s focused single-minded direction takes the audience on a journey, plummeting with Churchill’s low spirits and soaring with his triumphs. It makes history fade into the background. What remains instead is only that one figure, who is supported by brilliant performances from Mendelsohn and Dillane. Special credit also goes to Kazuhiro Tsuji, the make-up designer genius who brings historical figures to life on the big screen. There are plenty of close-ups of Churchill’s face but never once does his leathery wrinkled skin, thinning hair or liver patches appear artificial”.
The Times of India reviewer writes: “While Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk largely focused on the evacuation of those soldiers from the beaches, Darkest Hour documents the days leading up to those events, particularly around Churchill’s thought process before choosing the fate of his country. It’s no easy call to make and this weighs heavily on Churchill’s mind and stooped shoulders embodied brilliantly by Gary Oldman who gives the performance of a lifetime. Disappearing under all the prosthetics and makeup, Oldman plays Churchill as temperamental and riddled with doubt. He infuses the otherwise grandiose wartime leader with a human sense of vulnerability that indicates the pressure the man was under at that time. An Oscar nomination for Oldman would be well earned, and a win not too farfetched.”
We, however, might be more usefully educated by seeing Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), which is set in rural Bengal at the time of the British-induced famine of 1943-44 and examines the effect of the famine on the villages of Bengal through the eyes of a young doctor, Gangacharan, and his wife, Anaga. Director Satyajit Ray shows the human scale of a cataclysmic event that killed more than three million people. The film unfolds at a leisurely pace that reflects the rhythms of village life, but gradually shows the breakdown of traditional village norms under the pressure of hunger and starvation. It does not even mention Churchill. Yet it is mostly about what he wrought on Bengal. The New York Times considers it among the thousand great films ever made. The only reference to a distant war are the planes flying overhead to and from Burma (now Myanmar) as village children happily cheer them on. The idyll ends when a wizened old man comes from a neighbouring village looking for rice. Soon the famine is all enveloping. See this movie instead and realise how Churchill had devastated Bengal.
Winston Churchill is still a very outsized figure in India. Many Indians see him as a resolute and heroic leader who led his country from the deepest despair to a final victory. Nearly every morning I walk past a neat stone bungalow in the Bolarum cantonment called “The Retreat”, on which a large sign proudly declares that Winston Churchill lived here. Our Army is still very proud of its colonial origins, but I often think its pride in its antecedents is a bit misplaced.
The Bangalore Club has encased very proudly in a glass-topped box at its main entrance a letter to Churchill suspending his membership for not paying his dues. Those who celebrate Winston Churchill should read Madhusree Mukerjee’s book Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II. It’s a chilling account of how Churchill was no different from Hitler, Stalin or Mao Zedong when it came to sanctioning the death of millions.
The Bengal Famine of 1943-44 must rank as the greatest single man-made disaster in India. Nearly four million Indians died because of an artificial famine created by the British government, and yet it gets little more than a passing mention in Indian history books and seldom in our conversation.
Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of foodgrain from India to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in the areas comprising present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh. Consequently, by 1943, hordes of starving people were flooding into Calcutta, most dying on the streets. The sight of well-fed white British soldiers amid this apocalyptic landscape was “the final judgment on British rule in India,” said Jawaharlal Nehru.
Churchill could easily have prevented the famine. Even a few shipments of foodgrain would have helped, but the British Prime Minister adamantly turned down appeals from two successive Viceroys, his own secretary of state for India and even the American President. When urgently beseeched by Leo Amery and then Viceroy Archibald Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill had responded with a telegram asking why Mahatma Gandhi hadn’t died yet?
Churchill’s attitude toward Indians can be summed up in his words to Amery: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” According to Mukerjee, “Churchill’s attitude toward India was quite extreme, and he hated Indians, mainly because he knew India couldn’t be held for very long.” She further writes: “Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over.”
British attitudes towards Indians should be seen in the backdrop of India’s contribution to the Allied war campaign. The resources that Britain obtained from a poor India were comparable or exceeded that provided by an increasingly prosperous United States. While American materials were provided only after Britain signed an agreement on Washington’s terms, the Indian story was rather different. In lieu of payments for goods and services drawn out of India, Britain held out promissory notes that were to be redeemed in the future.
The goods nevertheless had to be purchased in India against a cash payment to individual sellers. The Reserve Bank of India rose to the occasion and its printed presses went into overdrive. Thus, in just two years, the amount of money in circulation in India more than doubled. The result was inflation of 350 per cent. Such inflation impoverishes the poor even more by taking out their purchasing power. Couple this with a reduction of goods in the market, and you can well understand the devastation. The millions of deaths in the 1943 Bengal famine was one consequence of such British policies.
Britain’s debt to India is too great to be ignored by either nation. Instead of repaying India in cash as it did to America, Britain allowed India notes to be expended in war-ravaged Britain, which had little industrial capacity left. India was fended off with war surpluses, which is how we ended up with Vampire fighters, Wellington bombers, warships and even an aircraft-carrier. Forget the money, do the British at least have the grace to offer an apology? The Queen and even the Prime Minister, despite visiting Jallianwala Bagh, never apologised. It seems unlikely that they will apologise for something which even our elites won’t demand. Like Churchill, they continue to delude themselves that English rule was India’s “Golden Age”.
Will we continue to celebrate Churchill? Today our theatres are showing Darkest Hour. This is Joe Wright’s movie about Winston Churchill resolutely resisting defeat. He is depicted as a dark and brooding drunken hero, instead of the monster that he was. Churchill once said: “History will be kind to us. We will write it.” He was right. Some victims just don’t get it.
The Karni Sena wouldn’t know all this. Just like they won’t know that the poem Padmavat, written by Jayasi five centuries ago, was not history but fiction. Napoleon exhorted his son to “read history, as it’s the only truth”. Good advice to all Indians.