The independent-minded Congress member of parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor has more in common with the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) than he imagines. Both Tharoor and the BJP minister, M.J Akbar, who was one of India’s leading journalists and editors before joining politics, have impeccable nationalist credentials and both have compared Winston Churchill—the war hero—with Adolf Hitler—arguably planet earth’s greatest villain. Ever.
Akbar, speaking at Wilton Park—a forum for strategic discussions in the English countryside—caused a sensation and shocked his British hosts by drawing the parallel more than 25 years ago. Now, Tharoor has gone and repeated the same statement, having expressed identical views on the matter back in 2010.
Establishment views on both British imperialism and the Second World War differ dramatically in India and Britain. But the popular narrative rarely takes each other’s views into account. India as history’s biggest victim of colonialism has reasons to ignore the coloniser’s views. The same cannot be said about the coloniser, where Churchill is worshipped as the man who saved the world from Hitler.
The reason Tharoor and Akbar loathe—there’s no other word for it—Winston Churchill is his role in the Bengal famine of 1943. According to the tragedy’s best-known historian, Madhushree Mukerjee, most estimates say up to three million people died in the famine. Tharoor puts the number considerably higher.
“This is the man who the British insist on hailing as some apostle of freedom and democracy, when, to my mind, he is really one of the more evil rulers of the 20th century—only fit to stand in the company of the likes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin,” Tharoor told UK Asian, an online magazine, at a launch of his new book, Inglorious Empire, which follows up on his 2016 offering, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.
“Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does,” Tharoor added. “Particularly the decisions that he personally signed off during the Bengal famine when 4.3 million people died because of the decisions he took or endorsed.”
Historian Mukerjee, in her acclaimed book, Churchill’s Secret War, chronicles in great detail his pig-headed and racist refusal to send foodgrain to West Bengal or stop Indian grain exports in spite of repeated entreaties by two horror-struck men—his Viceroy Linlithgow and minister for India Leopold Amery.
With all the underlying causes, the Bengal famine, she writes, was “detonated” by Britain halving the number of ships in the Indian Ocean (in order to protect 27 million tonnes of civilian imports to Britain) and a sudden decision in February 1943 to free price controls on grains. “So the cut in shipping—or more broadly put, the prioritization of the UK’s needs over those of the colonies—motivated the order to ‘go to any place and purchase at any price’ that detonated the famine in Bengal.”
According to her account, even insufficient offers of food aid by the US and Canada were rejected by British officials with unbelievable churlishness, as the War Cabinet pursued what she called a “scorched earth policy” in Bengal. However, US President F.D. Roosevelt vehemently opposed Churchill on India, arguing for a speedy end to British colonialism. Apparently, they agreed on all things except India.
In 1943, caught up in the War and deferential to what was then a British sphere of influence, the US was unable to help with the Bengal famine. Things changed when India grappled with its first post-Independence challenge—hunger. This time around, reeling from back-to-back droughts in 1965 and 1966, India was provided much-needed grain shipments by the US under President Lyndon B. Johnson, that, too, on a rupee account.
Still, it was controversial and humiliating for Indians, who were portrayed in the West as beggars who liked to lecture, biting the hand that fed over the US war in Vietnam. But, importantly, India under prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and, then, Indira Gandhi, launched a huge programme to build self-sufficiency in foodgrain production. This was led by three men from Tamil Nadu—agriculture minister C. Subramaniam, secretary of agriculture B. Sivaraman, and the agricultural scientist, M.S. Swaminathan.
The three men set about adapting fast-growing Mexican wheat, developed by American agronomist Norman Borlaug, to Indian conditions. This was what ushered in what is now called the Indian Green Revolution, which led to spectacular increases in foodgrain production. Still dependent on the monsoon for irrigation for vast tracts of farmland, India was unable to do anything about its droughts (back to back droughts occurred in 2014 and 2015). What it was able to do was to minimize the impact of such droughts, specifically the starvation deaths that were such a rampant feature of the British Raj.
These are lessons that India in its 70th year of Independence has not forgotten. In a vastly changed world, it is trying to ensure food security not only through the continuing efforts of its scientists but also by two other means. It wants to ensure for itself the right to build a public stockholding of food in order to ensure food security in a monsoon-dependent nation and the right to temporarily raise tariffs on agricultural commodities in case of a sudden surge in imports or price falls.
Both these proposals are stuck in the World Trade Organization (WTO) because rich countries claim these proposed rights, which depend on government subsidies, may end up distorting global prices. India has demanded a permanent solution to its food security proposals. The idea is to be able to continue procuring and stocking foodgrains under the public distribution system in order to protect the poor. According to an agreement reached at a WTO trade ministerial in Bali, Indonesia, in 2013, India and other developing countries would be able to do so for a period of four years. However, after a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama in 2014, this right was extended indefinitely until a permanent solution is found.
Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, Indian officials are trying desperately to gauge what the mood in Washington is. India is trying to ensure the outcomes of the next ministerial meeting, in Buenos Aires in December, is favourable to its concerns on food security.
In 2016, after holding out for years, India acceded to a major US demand by ratifying the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement that aims to harmonize customs procedures and administration in the developing and least-developed countries with current practices of developed countries. India will now want to know from Trump whether it’s payback time. After all, as in trade, negotiations are also about give and take.