Monday, August 16, 2010

Winston Churchill's Holocaust

It's good to see balanced portrayals of Winston Churchill start to emerge. This is a man who killed millions of Indian villagers by taking all the grain out of the Bengali countryside in 1943. The crop yield wasn't that bad -- it was better than it had been two years before -- but Churchill took away the grain to fortify Calcutta (which the Japanese army never reached) and feed British troops elsewhere in the world. During much of the famine, Bengal was a net grain exporter.

The death toll is hard to estimate, because they didn't keep good track of population in the countryside. Estimates that I've seen are in the area of 1.5 million to 7 million, with 3 million being about the best we can do to find a unified number. When the Indian viceroy asked him to send grain back into the countryside to deal with the resulting famine, Churchill asked in a telegram why Gandhi hadn't starved to death yet.

After India got its independence in 1947, famines that killed this many people became a thing of the past. As Amartya Sen says, once a country becomes a democracy, it's ruled by leaders whose jobs depend on making sure the voters have enough to eat, and they're going to do whatever they can to make sure people don't starve. Enormous numbers of lives thus depended on Gandhi's struggle to free India from British rule. Meanwhile, Churchill was fantasizing about having Gandhi "bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back," as Johann Hari's review mentions.

Like Stalin, Churchill was in the right place at the right time to keep a terrible fate from befalling the world. And like Stalin, killing innocent people by the millions didn't bother him very much.
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