Syama Prasad Mookerjee and his battle against Bengal Famine

Mookerjee lamented: “The Bengalis are about to become a race of beggars … Lakhs and lakhs of quiet households which once brimmed with joy have been wiped out without a trace.”

M.R. Narayan Swamy Oct 04, 2021
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Bengal Famine: An Unpunished Genocide (A Commentary on Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Panchasher Manwantar)

When the man-made Bengal famine in 1943 killed millions, Syama Prasad Mookerjee waged a courageous battle against the heartless British and a corrupt and inefficient Muslim League ministry in the province. A Congress leader then who would form the Bharatiya Jana Sangh - the forerunner of today's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - later, Mookerjee played a key role in publicizing the starvation to the outside world and helped provide relief to millions in Bengal. This is a commentary on his Bengali book on the 1943 tragedy, which included his speeches, statements as well as open letters (some suppressed then). The year 1943 corresponds to 1350 in the Bengali calendar which became the title of the original book (The Fifty’s Famine).

Famines were aplenty in British India, especially in Bengal, a province that was once among the country’s richest. But unlike earlier when nature was routinely blamed, the 1943 famine was the greatest and most calamitous manmade tragedy. Although handicapped by the limited knowledge he was exposed to, Mookerjee hit the nail on the head by correctly holding both the British Raj and the Bengal ministry responsible for the mass deaths.

Mookerjee used his membership of the Bengal Legislature to tear apart the colonial rulers and the Muslim League ministry. He repeatedly highlighted the terrible suffering across the countryside, pointing out how men, women and children were embracing death bit by bit because they were unable to get any food. The Japanese conquest of Burma shook the British who, fearing a similar invasion of Bengal, took two decisions that played a catastrophic role in forcing famine on the sprawling and populous province.

Japan’s victory in Burma ended the normal import of rice into Bengal, which by itself was a huge blow. On top of it, the British went on to take over or destroy all boats and river vessels to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands, crippling Bengal. If that wasn’t enough, the British and the Muslim League ordered the confiscation of any rice stored in villages by people (to prevent the Japanese from getting them), heaping additional misery. Quickly, the rural areas were denuded of all rice even as the British kept exporting it from Bengal to the military in India and abroad.

“If after 170 years of British association with India, Bengal is going to be starved and famished like this, you are not certainly our pal,” Mookerjee retorted after a European Group member in the Bengal Assembly taunted him over his supposed friendship with the Japanese Prime Minister “who is your pal”. 

Mookerjee lamented: “The Bengalis are about to become a race of beggars … Lakhs and lakhs of quiet households which once brimmed with joy have been wiped out without a trace.”

Mookerjee pointed out that purchase of rice by politically influential merchants with British and Muslim League backing was an important reason for the famine. He thrust the responsibility for the money-supply induced inflation on the British. He repeatedly shamed the Bengal ministry for lying that there was no food shortage, which was echoed in London to allege that the opposition in Bengal was making a mountain out of a molehill. 

“The Allied powers need to consider the food crisis in Bengal as a component of the war strategy,” Mookerjee said in June 1943. The appeal was ignored. His repeated plea that famine be declared by the government also fell on deaf ears. To the Muslim League ministry, he had one message: “You must take the responsibility for feeding the people or get out.”

After a tour of the flood- and famine-hit areas of Burdwan and Nadia districts, Mookerjee described as “very frightening” the “tidings of destruction, misery and starvation”. No arrangements were in place to rebuild the huts of the homeless. Non-governmental relief organizations were not getting supplies of rice at low prices. Middle-class families too were starving. There was an urgent need for medical help after the outbreak of post-famine diseases. Ahead of winter, many people, women included, were without clothes. After denouncing the British and Bengal administrations for not doing enough for the suffering people, he asked: “What steps would (the residents of Great Britain) have taken against their own government if they were made to go through even fractions of the sufferings that we have been undergoing over past several months?”

Mookerjee made public the suicides, desertion of families and children, of dead bodies lying uncared for. He exposed how hospitals refused to admit the sickly and let them die on the streets. “I have myself seen innumerable specimens of human skeletons in rags – men, women and children … slowly proceeding to the door of death due to want of food.” This, he said, was “after 170 years of glorious British rule in this country.” He demanded to know why food grains from Australia, which were ready to supply wheat in large quantities, were not being shipped to a starving Bengal. In his view, the present economic distress of India was due to “her subordination to foreign rule”.

The British found Mookerjee a thorn. Many of his speeches were blacklisted and not allowed to be published in the media. The Statesman, otherwise considered a friend of the British, played a key role in highlighting the 1943 famine. “This sickening catastrophe is manmade,” it wrote. Under public pressure, the British set up a Famine Inquiry Commission in 1944 which criticized the British for contributing to the famine. 

Little did Syama Prasad Mookerjee know then that the chief culprit in the entire saga was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who hated India, particularly Bengalis.

Recent scholarship on 1943 has exposed Churchill’s criminal role in causing the Bengal genocide. Perhaps the best book n the subject is Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India. Mookerjee’s book is a welcome addition since it is in English.

Title: Bengal Famine: An Unpunished Genocide (A Commentary on Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Panchasher Manwantar); Translated/Edited: Sudip Kar Puryakastha; Publishers: Vitasta; Pages: 249; Price: Rs 695