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Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Chennai: Tranquebar Press, 2010, pp. 352, Rs 495/-, ISBN 978-93-80658-47-6

India’s most widely read historian, Ramchandra Guha rightly praises Mukerjee’s book as ‘a major contribution to Indian history and to history of the Second World War.’ The author has convincingly laid the blame for the Bengal famine and the resulting three million deaths at Churchill’s door. Her thesis is that ‘Churchill and his advisers chose to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan, causing scarcity and inflation in the colony’ that led to 1.5 million deaths by the official account. The ‘deprivation and anarchy of the fractious era had torn the fabric of its society’, enabling the ‘divide and rule’ policy that eventuated over time in the mutually antagonistic nations, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The author begins the work with the establishment of the British in Bengal with Robert Clive’s take over in 1757. The first famine among a series that reduced India’s prosperity to dependence on British rule was in 1770. Clive, who was once a clerk, returned to become the richest man in Britain. Though member of the House of Commons, he was tried for corruption but absolved of charges of retaining gifts that were the property of the company. His life befittingly ended in suicide. Over forty rebellions rocked India over the next hundred years till the anniversary of the hundredth battle of Plassey when central and northern India erupted. The Bengal Army being at the center of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny, policies were put in place by the Crown that took over India to keep the Bengali ‘babus’ in check. Later the province was divided along linguistic and religious lines and the capital shifted out of Calcutta to Delhi. The Viceroy’s taking of the colony into World War II without consulting the Congress governments in power set the stage for the famine.

Fearing the war coming to India’s doorstep on losing Burma, a ‘scorched earth’ policy was embarked on. Provisions such as rice, transport facilities were removed from coastal Bengal, lest they be acquired by the Japanese who were expected to arrive by sea. The Quit India movement, diversion of resources to the Indian Army fighting in far away theatres around the Mediterranean Sea, printing of money to pay for the purchases and an untimely cyclone conspired to bring on the famine. With the Subhash Bose led INA at the gates, insurgents in Bengal preparing to welcome him and patriots responding to Gandhi’s call of ‘Quit India’, Churchill was called upon to ‘make a choice that would tilt the balance between life and death for millions: whether or not to expend valuable wheat and shipping space on providing famine relief to Bengalis.’

The book’s contribution lies in establishing the link between Churchill’s decisions on this score and his world view. The author shows that Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, and the Viceroy, Wavell, attempted to respond to the famine, but were stymied by a combination of Churchill and his adviser, Lindemann, who achieved peerage as Lord Cherwell. Mukerjee writes, ‘If the United Kingdom had an Achilles’ heel, it was the stomach.’ Having experienced temporary shortages due to German U Boat action in the First World War, the British created stocks to last three months. Churchill appointed Lindemann to watch over the feeding of Britons. Lindemann, as head of S (Statistics) branch, also prioritized the logistical machinery of warfare. Thus, he was to advise on the utilization of shipping resources available and lent by the United States, between the equally compelling civil and military demands. Mukerjee makes that case that the ideas of eugenics that Lord Cherwell propounded and the racism these spelt influenced his judgment. While shipping resources were available, these were not diverted to save Bengalis by being deployed to import rice from Australia and elsewhere. This was in consonance with Churchill’s own perverse thinking, expressed in typical Churchillian prose as recorded by Amery in his diaries. An example of Churchill’s thinking on colonies and their inhabitants, is recorded by Amery thus, ‘(Churchill) came very near to suggesting that we really could not let Indian starvation or multiplying too fast interfere with operations.’ The author competently goes into tonnages of shipping, the alternative demands such as the supposed need for creating stockpiles in case the Balkans were liberated, and the rice and wheat that could have been brought in to mitigate the food crisis of 1943 to demolish the view that the famine was yet another work of nature. It was essentially man made, brought on by decisions taken by figures imbued with a racist mentality. Interestingly, Churchill was in the midst of a fight with Hitler, an extremist on this score.

The author’s description of the famine is blood curdling. It is a heartening that the democracy has ensured that such a predicament has not recurred in India, even if malnutrition persists as reminder of India’s underdevelopment despite its aspiration for double digit growth rate figures. The author taps the experiences of survivors of the famine, now in the twilight of their lives. Their stories of rural strife and urban horrors of the period make a riveting reading in the two chapters ‘In the village’ and ‘On the street’ respectively. The author weaves into the narrative the fallout of the Quit India movement at the local level in the form of a micro nationalist revolt under the local leader Dhara in Tamluk. She leaves the question unanswered as to why the people did not rebel, did not fight for taking over horded stocks. In his review of the book in Outlook, to these Swapan Dasgupta adds another: why the famine never became a pan Indian issue. His suggestive parting line is that ‘Mukherjee’s (sic) nationalist narrative dosen’t provide the answers but they suggest awkward possibilities.’
IPCS Article #3246, 28 September 2010
AfPak: Beginning of the End?

In an attack on Pakistan from Khost province in Afghanistan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces killed 50 Taliban insurgents. The NATO spokesman rationalised the attack as “ISAF forces must and will retain the authority, within their mandate, to defend themselves in carrying out their mission.” This action has been taken as a violation of its sovereignty by Pakistan. Pakistan has indicated that it “will be constrained to consider response options” since there exists no agreement on such ‘hot pursuit’ with the NATO force in Afghanistan, the ISAF.

After a lull resulting from the devastating floods in Pakistan, AfPak is back in the news with a bang. Two possible interpretations exist. One is that the attack manifests the energy of the ‘surge’ that has by now been finally completed, and Petraeus’ determination to prevail in the asymmetric conflict. The second more negative one is that it could be indicative of frustration within the ISAF against a wily foe having sanctuary across the Durand line.

In either case they potentially herald the beginning of the end. The end state could once have been visualised along the line of engagement and cooption of Taliban. Such attacks make this remote and instead are pointers that the strategy of herding the Taliban to the table through the surge has not worked. The possible end state now staring in the face is destabilization of Pakistan with expansion of the war into FATA in hope of ending the sanctuary. While the attack by itself does not presage follow-up attacks, it does indicate a strategy of reliance on military force.

In the pre-flood scheme of things, indicators pointed to increased readiness of the Pakistan Army in ending the sanctuary in North Waziristan through military action. However, with the Army deployed in flood relief, this was not to be. The attack can be seen as a substitute for the military operations that were to be otherwise conducted by the Pakistan Army. The drone attacks, continuing since the Bush presidency and intensified in the Obama period, may now be supplemented by both ‘boots on ground’, if only temporarily, and Apache helicopters. This has precedence in isolated cases earlier, with in one instance, over ten Pakistani Rangers being killed for providing cover to the retreating Taliban. It bears watching if there would now be a switch to a more aggressive military posture.

Earlier the logic put forth was that such areas constituted ‘ungoverned spaces’. Since the writ of the government in Islamabad did not run in these areas, interdiction of Taliban presence required being done. Pakistan was not in a position to do anything about it, it had tacitly agreed to the drone attacks even while putting up a token protest. Thereafter, Pakistan had taken on the onus of constraining the Taliban presence through Operation Rah-e-Nijat etc. However, it would have been obvious to the NATO that these were directed more against the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan that was anti-state rather than the Afghan Taliban contesting the ISAF. For the ISAF strategy to work denial of bases in FATA was necessary; therefore these attacks.

What do they portend? Over the immediate term, it could be indicative of retribution through bombings etc in Afghanistan to include Kabul. Of greater consequence is what could happen on the Pakistani side.

Apprehending this, Pakistan was quick to challenge the attacks, so as to send the message to the Taliban that it was not culpable. This reveals the apprehensions Pakistan has in the possibility of the Taliban turning against it. Given that the Taliban has proven a formidable foe even for the NATO, Pakistan has so far preferred to have it on its side. In case the Taliban were to lose the secure sanctuary, it would not need Pakistani state support and thus could turn against the Pakistani state.

A deepening of the already convergent interests with the Pakistani Taliban would make the combined Taliban implacable. The TTP through bombings even during the calamity of floods has demonstrated its reach. The Pakistani state has proven inept in its response to the floods and lost credibility. Its Army is unwilling to go the distance in taking on the different groups of Islamists together. Given its ideological inclinations and institutional interest in cohesion, it is doubtful it can be pushed to do so either. Clearly, Pakistan cannot be relied on to clean up the fallout of policy options adopted by the NATO.

Since all this is clearly discernible, it begs the question as to why the continued reliance on the military template. The optimistic answer is that once the hand of the Pakistani military is forced, it would go after the Taliban of all hues. This can be made possible by the Taliban being provoked into challenging its hosts. The Army’s willingness has been worked on considerably through incentives such as the IMF bailout, a three year extension to Kayani etc. This is the time to call collect.

Obama’s exit strategy relies overly on Petraeus’ military reputation. Time will tell if the risk was a calculated one.