How many million Indians were victims of famine during the 190 years of British rule? Thirty? Or, may be forty. And overall, India was never deficient in food grain. This has been testified by Robert Orme, the Travancore-born East India Company historian, in his 1778 book A History of Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from the Year MDCCXLV.
The “denial policy” to starve people to death was carried out ever since the Viceroy, Lord Lytton (1876-80) ordered Sir Richard Temple to stop relief operations in famine-stricken areas when he found that the latter had imported half a million ton of rice from Burma to mitigate the woes of the starving masses. He had to abandon his mission in the face of the threat of severe punishment! This policy continued up to the 1943 “Great” Bengal Famine with Churchill taking preventive steps to deny rice to the province. When Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, decided to reserve 10 per cent of the total shipping allocated for arms import to food, the Prime Minister intervened to direct that if Mountbatten could afford to spare 10 per cent shipping space his allocation could be reduced by that quantum. Dr Eamon de Valera, the Irish Prime Minister, got the Dail to appropriate 100,000 pounds for famine relief in Bengal which was under the care of the Gorakhpur-born LS Amery, Wavell and above all, Churchill. For the consumption of the world, it was given out that due to the Japanese occupation of Burma, rice could not be imported. The fact is that Burma had fallen to the Japanese in the earlier part of 1942 and the famine was caused in the latter part of 1943.
India was not deficient in food even in that year. The burning down of 90,000 country-boats to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands was a calculated step to stop the movement of foodgrain in the riverine interiors of Eastern Bengal and in Midnapore. With large-scale hoarding and army purchase with ready paper-money prices sky-rocketted; rose by four times, beyond the capacity of common man. Streets of Calcutta and surrounding areas littered with emaciated corpses.
The US magazine Life of 27 February 1944 contains a rather macabre paragraph on the supply of skeletons which American students were getting from India in the wake of the famine. Perhaps no other account could match the poignancy and official cruelty, than what Jawaharlal Nehru has recorded in The Discovery of India. The official Woodhead Commission had underplayed the death toll at one and a half million whereas Calcutta University’s Department of Anthropology, after extensive survey, puts it at 3.4 million. Even the casualty figures of World War II were not anywhere near it. This was the “bliss of superior British rule” in Imperial India.
Nehru has debunked the myth of lack of transport as also the astronomical extra-profit made in the traffic of starvation and death — Rs 1500 million, if the figure is taken at 1.5 million deaths in the Woodhead Commission report, or Rs 1000 extra for each death. “Transport was lacking for food, but racehorses came in special boxes by rail from other parts of the country.”
When those angels from England left India in 1947, they left their legacy that prompted the Americans to provide wheat to India under Public Law 480 in the early 1950s — for two years, two ship-loads of wheat were discharged each day at the ports of India. Mr Kapur’s praise for the British-built Railways virtually echoes the eloquence of Sir Woomesh Chandra Bonnerjee’s inaugural address as the first President of Indian National Congress on December 28, 1885 and also that of Dr BR Ambedkar at the All-India Depressed Classes’ Conference at Nagpur in August 1930.
The objective of introducing the Railways in India had nothing to do with people’s welfare or the country’s development. It was primarily designed to export Indian products and raw material, cotton for instance, cheaply and quickly to Manchester. Because of the American Civil War (1861-65) its supply from the US had become uncertain. Its military use was underscored by the blood-thirsty Col. James George Smith Neill of 1st Madras Fusiliers, who was on a mission to suppress the Benares uprising (June 1857). While moving with his troops from Calcutta to Benares he encountered an unexpected obstacle. When the guard and driver of the train insisted on starting on time, he warned them that until all his troops had boarded, the train should not leave. He had threatened to shoot the train crew and station staff once he had returned from his mission. Fortunately, the tyrant died before he could come back to take revenge. He suppressed the Benares Uprising.
The introduction of the Railway system was part of an evolutionary process and did not depend on one’s mercy.
If “revenue was collected through whips and pincers” during the pre-British era, it was “improved” by the British when the defaulters’ movable and immovable properties used to be auctioned away at throwaway prices or were dispossessed. The Japanese had invaded Naga and Kuki villages and were hiding amidst the local tribals. The reason behind their absolute loyalty to their British masters may probably be rooted in religion than in good administration and welfare measures, which were, in any case, as scarce as before. Even today, the area’s infrastructure and allied facilities are far from satisfactory. There is little interaction with the mainstream.
The second part of Mr Kapur’s article examines press freedom. Actually, however, there are far too many instances of journals, journalists and publishers being persecuted.. Benjamin Horniman of the Bombay Chronicle was deported. The Forward of Calcutta was fined Rs 100,000 in 1929 and it ceased to exist. The Panchajanya’s printing press, the Chittagong Printing and Publishing House was vandalised by “non-official Europeans”. The jail and fine imposed on the Rev. James Long for publishing Dina Bandhu Mitra’s Nil Darpan in English (The Blue Mirror) that highlighted the plight of peasants forcibly engaged in the cultivation by the English planters makes a mockery of press freedom in India during the purported golden era of British rule. Did the Police-Daroga rule undergo any change for better than that existed in another form prior to the introduction of Criminal Procedure Code of 1860. (By the way, Macaulay (b. 25.10.1800) had died three days before the ushering in of the year 1860; on 28.12.1859.)
Mr Kapur claims that “there is no other example in the history of nations where a foreign civilisation has contributed so much to the development of its ‘colony’ thousands of miles away.” Did the British develop or exploit India for her own well-being? Hundreds of dedicated civil servants came to India and Upper Burma to further their prospects. Denuding India of her gold reserves was another example of Britain’s good governance.
Is the Indian Constitution, as it emerged on 26 January 1950, a genuinely home-grown document or was it a ‘Made-in-England’ exercise, the Asoka emblem replacing the Crown? And wasn’t our sovereignty on 15 August 15 1947 onwards a myth, with Lord Louis Mountbatten as first Governor-General of “free” India. Section 2(1) of the Indian Independence Act of 18 July 1947 provided that “the territories of India shall be territories of His Majesty…”, to be repealed 29 years later by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act of 1976.
As for Tagore, I am not sure what would have happened had he survived for a little over two years to see the “bliss” of British rule during the 1943 famine. In his ‘Last Testament’ he has spelt out his verdict — “The wheels of fate will some day compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind! I had one time believed that the springs of civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether.”