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Conversation with Madhusree Mukerjee

By Gene Santoro 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: February 01, 2011 
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"India," Madhusree Mukerjee says, "made Winston Churchill irrational. Unlike most British leaders, he refused to admit the Empire would have to change after the war, and did all he could to block it." In Churchill's Secret War, the Guggenheim Fellow traces India's colonial history and overlooked wartime role. She also argues that Churchill's attitudes toward his beloved Empire's "crown jewel" fostered a famine that killed millions.

What was India like in 1939?
It had been a British colony for nearly 200 years. In the 1930s, Mohandas Gandhi drew millions of rural and village people into the National Congress Party, whose upper-class intellectuals, like Jawaharlal Nehru, spearheaded a nonviolent independence movement. Initially, the British repressed it harshly. But by 1939, most British politicians, though not Churchill, realized India had to be given concessions or be lost to the war effort.

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Why was India vital?
India was paying millions to hundreds of millions of pounds to Britain every year, including defense costs, which increased by 17 times during the war. India was also extremely important to Britain's war plans. Its location let you reach Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Australia—the entire British Empire. The Indian Army, the largest number of men the British could field, could be sent off to any war theater without the Indian government even being informed.

Did Indians support the war?
The Congress Party had three main schools of thought. Gandhi was very sympathetic to the British; he was horrified by Hitler and wanted to help win the war in nonviolent ways—economically, for example. Nehru, who had been to Europe, was also opposed to Hitler but felt it wasn't clear what India would get out of the war. Subhas Chandra Bose, Congress's president, saw the war as an opportunity to free India. They had a showdown in September 1939, and agreed to ask Britain about its war aims: Will they defend the colonial status quo, or will they involve democracy and self-determination? Congress passed a resolution saying if the latter were true, India would willingly join the Allies. The British Viceroy's response made no mention of democracy.

How did Indians react?
Earlier in 1939, Bose had wanted to launch a civil disobedience movement along with an ultimatum to the British: get out in six months or it will be difficult to prosecute your war. Gandhi felt with so much violence in the air, it would be impossible to discipline Indians in nonviolence, and awful things would happen. So he engineered Bose's political downfall. Then Gandhi realized the British weren't going to give an inch, so he organized a very limited civil disobedience movement, satyagraha. People whose patience had been tested, like Nehru, gave antiwar speeches and were immediately arrested—25,000 of them. The British were unfazed. It was clear to most of them the Indian Army would fight.

Why would they fight?
Men from one family would go into the same platoon, men from the same village would be in the same battalion, and so on. So they would fight for each other. This had happened for generations, so ordinary soldiers were pretty loyal to the Empire.

What did Bose do?
In 1941, he went to the Italian embassy in Afghanistan. He said, "Give me 50,000 Axis troops; if they reach India's borders, the entire Indian Army will defect and the British war effort will be crippled." The Italians thought he was terrific and dispatched him to Berlin. He made it, although Churchill's Special Operations Executive tried to assassinate him. The German Foreign Office was interested; Hitler wasn't, because he still believed he could reach an accommodation with the British. So in 1943, Bose went to the Far East.

To meet the Japanese.
They arrived at India's borders in 1942. This was total disaster; the British war cabinet hadn't anticipated they could get that far. So the British Empire lost its sheen: Indians looked at Singapore's surrender and the exodus from Burma and saw the British cutting and running and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. In Malay, they'd formally handed Indian troops over to the Japanese. Some of those POWs formed the Indian National Army (INA), which numbered as high as 40,000 men, to liberate India; Bose led them. This was a crisis for the Allied effort.

How did Churchill respond?
Roosevelt urged him to reach an accommodation with the Congress Party, and the Labor Party put a lot of pressure on him. So he sent Stafford Cripps with a proposal offering Muslims a separate state; it was designed to make Congress reject it. Louis Johnson, FDR's envoy, shuttled between Cripps and Congress, trying for an agreement that let Indians control the domestic war effort. Churchill sent furious telegrams to Cripps saying he could not negotiate, and rounded on FDR's assistant, Harry Hopkins, in London. Hopkins realized Churchill was irrational about India, Johnson had the rug pulled from under him, and Congress rejected the proposal. When FDR pressured Churchill again, Churchill threatened to resign, so FDR subsequently refused to get involved in Indian affairs.

What resources did that leave to defend India?
About two million men, very lightly armed and not very well trained—certainly not capable of fighting the Japanese. When the Japanese arrived, seven Indian divisions were fighting in Iraq and Iran and North Africa. These were the very best, very well equipped and trained. General Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief in India, pointed out India was drained of troops and couldn't even defend itself, never mind Southeast Asia. The troops sent to Malaya and Burma were untrained; some hadn't even shot a gun. They were sacrificed on that horrible retreat. The other key point was lack of air cover. India had 14 outdated bombers. In March 1942, Wavell estimated he needed 64 squadrons of fighters and bombers.

What stopped the Japanese?
The scorched-earth policy in northeastern India slowed them, but more importantly they were already choking on China. During 1943, India got nearly 500,000 reenforcements, including Am-erican, British, African, and Chinese soldiers. The 5th Indian Division was brought back from the desert and retrained for jungle warfare. In February 1944, with Bose heading the INA, the Japanese attacked at Imphal. That went disastrously. The British flew in the entire 5th Indian Division—an extraordinary logistical operation in this tiny valley—and supplied it with airdrops. This shows how important to the Allies Indian resources—steel, cement, timber, food—were, because it happened during the Bengal famine.

What started the famine?
The major cause was inflation. Nothing was coming into the country for civilians, but goods—food, ammunition—were being exported and paid for with paper money, which flooded urban areas. The paper money drew all available resources, especially food, into the city centers. Just then, in 1943 India had a short crop; prices shot up even more. With Burma's fall, India became the British Empire's major source of rice—though it previously imported 1 to 2 million tons of rice from Burma annually. The Viceroy told London, "I desperately need imports of wheat, at least 500,000 tons to feed the army and the most im-portant industrial workers." The war cabinet said, "We don't have the ships." But actually there was no shortage of ships or grain. Churchill transferred all the shipping to the Atlantic.

Why?
To build up stockpiles. He was set on liberating the Balkans. The stockpiles were meant to supply Balkan civilians after the war. They got so big American and Canadian grain traders worried the British would use them to manipulate the postwar market; by 1943's close, they held 18.5 million tons. Three million Bengalis died.

How did the famine end?
The military chiefs—Wavell, now viceroy; Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff; and theater commanders like General Auchenlick and Lord Mountbatten—knew it was making many Indian and even British soldiers question the war's rationale. They said repeatedly, "We can't use India as a base while it's suffering famine." Much against Churchill's wishes, they came up with a strategy: "We have room on our ships; we'll carry the grain." So in 1944 India got more than 600,000 tons of wheat.


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4 Responses to “Conversation with Madhusree Mukerjee”


  1. 1
    Richard Pruitt says:

    This is a thought provoking article clearly from an Indian Civilian Political view. What Ms Mukerjee could benefit from is some background on the expansion of the Indian Army in this war.

    I might nitpick on several areas. There was not 7 combat proven, well trained and equipped divisions in the Middle East. The only ones rate that is the 4th, 5th and 7th Indian Infantry Divisions. The 8th and 10th Indian Infantry Divisions in Iraq and the two Armor Divisions in Iran were used as a strategic reserve for the first three divisions fighting. When a Brigade suffered enough casualties they were removed from the division and sent back to these five division headquarters. They were replaced by a Brigade that had been there training. Sometime the Brigades did not get back to combat. Even then the three "fighting" divisions spent a lot of time in garrison training these new units behind the front.

    The Indian divisions in Malaya and India were not training to fight, they were being used as cadres to raise new units and replacements for other units. This was the same thing as in the British units. The Colonial mentality of the Politicians and Army did not lend itself to fast training of troops. Ending the day at Noon and taking the rest off for a siesta and sport does not train anyone. Neither does the policy of six month leave for officers. Never taking your troops in the field in Malaya killed a lot of troops.

    One thing she did not touch on was the collapse of the Indian rail system. The transport of war material and civilian use overtaxed the system. That was why it was hard to say ship grain from the Punjab or from South India. The system was also set up to ship it away from India. not around the country to Bengal. There was only a small gauge one line into Assam designed for Tea growers. There were no roads or usable rivers.

    I would be interested in how the military transport of grain to India would get grain to the poor at affordable rates. Most had no money.

    The large majority of Indians cared less about the political system in the cities. All they wanted was to grow enough to eat, pay their taxes and live to plant again. To them Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay were as far away as the moon and why take interest?

    Richard Pruitt

  2. 2
    Balkanca says:

    "To build up stockpiles. He was set on liberating the Balkans."

    I do not know where is this coming from, but there were no need for liberation of the Balkan (if she meant Yugoslavia). Tito and partisans were in fight for liberation which ended successfully. As far as I know plans of invading the Balkan were very sketchy.

  3. 3
    The Forester says:

    When considering anything involving Churchill, it's essential to keep in mind that he was an unrepentant Imperialist (caps intentional) – & very much irrationally so in all cases.

  4. 4
    Richard Pruitt says:

    Actually Churchill did not give up his dream of invading the Balkans until Stalin told him to focus on Overlord and the invasion of South France. At that time the British were actually looking at Albania. Churchill had the impression that invading the Balkans would influence Turkey to enter the war. The fiasco of invading the Italian held islands in the Aegean ruined any of Churchill's hopes for a "cheap" victory. Churchill did not have the men, ships or planes to insure success, so he went anyway. The troops used had been in garrison since 1939 and their best men had long ago been transferred out. The Beaufighteers did provide some air cover, but the plane itself is a bad dogfighter. It seems some Arado Floatplanes shot a bunch of them down before the Bf 109's got there. Eisenhower did allow some missions by P-38's and B-24's but these were quickly transferred elsewheres.

    Actually by using an Indian Infantry division the British did liberate Greece in the last days of the war. Churchill would have invaded further North if he had had the troops he was using in Italy and Northern France.

    One item not addressed yet is how grain supplies would have kept starving peasants alive. These people had no money to buy it! By the time grain shipments arrived most of the poorest had starved. The Indian merchants had withheld their grain to increase prices. Strangely enough Ms Mukerjee does not address this, but could blame Churchill.

    Richard Pruitt



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