Past present: The ugly truth
After Independence, Indian historians decided to concentrate on writing the ‘grand national narratives’ while ignoring the resistance movements and sacrifices of the common man for the cause of freedom.
Madhusree Mukerjee, in her book Churchill’s Secret War (reprinted in 2010) reflected on the resistance movement in the Madnapore district of Bengal. She relates the story of the struggle for freedom which was not only an effort by political parties and their leaders but powerfully driven by the common people and villagers who participated in the national cause. As a result of which, they suffered at the hands of the colonial power.
Since their resistance was far from the urban centres, their sufferings and torture were not reported in the media. They were not supported by the higher leadership of the Congress but still fought single-handedly despite police and army brutality. It is important to reconstruct the history of such movements in order to restore a dignified position to the common people and their significant role in history.
Freedom was not achieved just through negotiations and diplomacy but by people who used the ‘weapons of the weak’ such as the boycott of English goods, strikes, demonstration, imprisonment, torture and death by police or army firing.
Mukerjee elaborates on how Bengal, the most fertile province during the Mughal period was reduced to poverty and famine because of taxes and exploitation of the colonial power.
It was the highhandedness of the colonial government which created resistance among the common people. In the 1930s, the villages of Madnapore became active and inspired by the philosophy of non-violence, protests began against the government.
Inspired by the idea of freedom, the peasants supported political activists, providing them shelter and food.
In 1942-3, during World War II, police atrocities became so unbearable that the youth formed radical groups and through an underground movement protected their villages, especially women who were gang raped by police in cahoots.
In response, the underground government established a court and persecuted those informers who reported the whereabouts of nationalist leaders to the police. Policemen who were found guilty of committing rape and plundering the possessions of villagers were kidnapped and brought to justice. The guilty were punished or executed and this deterred the police from harassing the peasants anymore.
During World War II, Indian soldiers were sent to fight the war which was the British government of India’s contribution to the war fund on behalf of His Majesty’s Indian subjects. In England the Prime Minister of war cabinet was Winston Churchill, while Leopold Amery was appointed as the Secretary of India. In 1943, when Bengal was hit by a cyclone the people suffered even more. At this point in time, the British government decided to export rice to feed the British army fighting against the Japanese.
This caused the worst famine in the history of Bengal. When the question to import grain from Australia or USA arose, Churchill vehemently opposed it because of his racist views.
As Mukerjee points out there was no difference between Hitler and Churchill on the concept of the white man’s superiority over other races.
Hitler’s admiration of the British conquest of India was a clear proof of his racial superiority as he advised Lord Halifax, who met him in Germany, that the solution of Indian disturbance was easy; shoot Gandhi and kill a few hundred Indians and there would be peace. He wanted to emulate the British policy by conquering East Europe to rule over the Slavs.
Churchill’s views showed his contempt for the Indian people, “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. He said they bred like rabbits and he refused any aid for the starving Bengalis, shifting the ships loaded with grain to Greece and Eastern Europe. He expressed his determination to crush the Bengali Babus who created political disturbance and unrest in India. He hated Gandhi and referred to him as the naked fakir and could not bear to see Gandhi negotiate with the viceroy of India. He also disapproved of the political activities of the Congress.
Churchill not only rejected all demands to alleviate the suffering of the famine stricken Bengalis but also prohibited published material about the suffering. The results of famine were disastrous and nearly three million Bengalis died which completely fragmented the society but the truth was concealed by the government.
Churchill and Hitler were products of the age of social Darwinism which recognised the white man’s supremacy over other inferior nations. Churchill admired Hitler in his early period and published a letter in the London Times appreciating his efforts to transform Germany as highly developed industrial country after the First World War.
Mukerjee reconstructed the forgotten history of the 1943 famine and Churchill and his war cabinet’s attitude of apathy towards the Indians. While the contribution of Indians was not recognised, the views of Churchill and his war cabinet showed the real face of British imperialism.