How Indian Communists Sided With The British During The Bengal Famine

How Indian Communists Sided With The British During The Bengal Famine

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Thursday, August 10, 2017 06:52 PM IST
How Indian Communists Sided With The British During The Bengal FamineThe Bengal Famine
  • Indian Communists adopted a soft approach to the British government’s criminal engineering of the Bengal Famine.

On 4 July 2016, just two day before the one hundred and fifteenth birth anniversary of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a pro-Marxist website launched a malicious attack on him.

The attack was doubly hurting because it was made in the context of the Bengal Famine. It was in the form of the impressions of ‘an artist’. To quote the website:

The artist Chittaprosad toured Bengal during the famine years of 1943-44 and wrote a series of articles, complete with drawings, on the suffering he was witness to. These were published in Peoples’ War, the newspaper of the Communist Party of India.

The website does not tell the readers that the ‘artist’ was himself a Communist Party of India (CPI) card holder or that from 1940 he had started working for the propaganda of the CPI. The sketches he made were definitely heart-rending depictions of the Bengal Famine and as such are historically important. But they were also accompanied by a political propaganda, one which specifically targeted Mookerjee in order to bail out the British through a convoluted logic. It is said that the very graphic depiction of Bengal Famine became so alarming for the British that they were said to have seized the paintings. It may well be a later-day urban legend unleashed by Marxist academic cartel. The sketches of the famine, with their historical value, were one thing. The propaganda was another. It had its politics and sponsors. And it is this propaganda which is being used seven decades later by the Marxists to defame the memory of Mookerjee.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee
Syama Prasad Mookerjee

Their Sponsors

From the very start of the Second World War till the time the Nazis attacked the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Indian Communists had described the War as ‘imperialistic’. However, when the USSR was attacked, everything changed. Harry Pollitt of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) sent a letter to the central committee of the CPI, then at the Deoli Detention Camp. The communication “ordering the CPI to abandon all efforts at opposition to the British and to turn their efforts to controlling the trade unions to maximize war production” was in “a humiliating move hand-delivered by Sir Reginald Maxwell, then British Home Secretary in Government of India”. (Busch, 1983)

Indian Marxists meekly showed their other cheek to the British, though not without profit – the Communist party was made legal. Dr Gary K Busch of the University of Hawaii and an authority on international trade unions puts the deal crisply:

The British government in India made a pact with the CPI and released the communists from detention. It made the communist party legal and encouraged the communists to take control of the trade unions from the militant Congress unionists. The British made money and supplies available to the CPI to start papers and journals in India; the largest was the English-language People’s War.

So what did the Marxists do to reciprocate the British generosity? Busch writes:

P.C. Joshi and Sir Reginald Maxwell formed an alliance with the CPI Politbureau which placed at the disposal of the Government of India the services of the CPI and the AITUC. The British Army Intelligence Department set up a separate section to liaise with the Indian Communists and the CID to provide information on planned strikes by the nationalists and to provide blacklists of nationalist agitators. The communists even offered to provide troupes to entertain conscripted soldiers fighting in Burma.

In other words, People’s War was not simply a CPI magazine. It was essentially a British-sponsored anti-nationalist propaganda magazine run by the Marxists in India on behalf of British India Home Secretary. That artist Chittaprosad was working for this magazine makes him a British propagandist by proxy rather than an independent-minded artist.

Their Politics

So with their “changed line”, “the Communists not only decided to extend their unstinted support to the government in its efforts to solve the food crisis but also took a soft line towards the lapses of the government and its bureaucracy on this issue.” (D N Gupta, 2008) In a typically Stalinist fashion, the CPI blamed repeatedly the “hoarders”, “black-marketers” and recommended that the “surplus stocks in rural areas was to be diverted to urban areas because that was the only method to prevent the havoc.”

A decade ago, during the Ukraine famine, Marxist dictator Joseph Stalin had used the same lines and tactics. The chilling parallels between what Stalin did during the Ukraine famine and the recommendations of CPI, should make a theme for in-depth study:

“Famine stuck the Soviet Union in 1932 for the second time in ten years. A result of the brutal methods of forced collectivization, the famine affected Ukraine (where the government suspected peasants were holding back hidden stocks of hoarded grain) more than other areas ... Armed units went from village to village, and house to house, to violently seize the grain stores including seed for the coming planting season. When requisitions did not bring in enough food to satisfy Moscow, new waves of armed forces were sent back to take still more grain.” (James W Heinzen, 2004)

Indian Communists also tried to organise in Bengal what Stalin had done in Ukraine with their own limited resources and power. “People's Food Committees” were formed to “force hoarders through moral and local pressures to disclose their stocks”. (D N Gupta, 2008) Had Churchill desired to do to Indians what Stalin did to Ukrainians, he could not have got better collaborators than the disciples of the father of ‘scientific’ Famines – Stalin!

It was not just the extra-territorial allegiance of Indian Marxists which made them adopt a soft approach to the British government’s criminal engineering of the genocidal Bengal Famine. Historian D N Gupta writes in his Communism and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1939-45 (Sage, 2008) that the soft line was also “due to the fact that any aggressiveness on the part of the Party and its cadre would have invited the governments' wrath”.

Naturally, Mookerjee, who was simultaneously rendering mammoth service in famine relief while increasing anti-British nationalist sentiment, became the centre of the attack in their propaganda.

Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee and the Bengal Famine

The British-engineered Bengal Famine was forewarned with a natural disaster on 16 October 1942, which was the Midnapore cyclone and the subsequent ravaging by the tidal waves, which not only killed hundreds of people but also affected 23.5 lakh people. Mookerjee, who went to Midnapore on 30 October, lashed out at the British officials for their revengeful failure to provide basic humanitarian relief measures. The result was that he was arrested by the enraged British officials at Kolaghat. However, the Mookerjee-Fazlul Haq coalition government in Bengal bypassed local British interventions and started providing relief materials.

The Mookerjee-Fazlul Haq coalition government in Bengal was one of the best provincial governments that worked in the best interests of the Indian nation and provided a stellar model for Hindu-Muslim unity towards common national welfare. Academician-administrator Nitish K Sengupta in his book Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib (Penguin 2011) says:

Fazlul Huq’s coalition with Shyama Prasad (1941-43) was a shining example of right-thinking politicians shedding their political labels and coming together in the province’s larger interest to save Bengal from its journey towards political disaster. Also, it gave a good example of communal harmony in the enveloping communal darkness.

With the War, the ground for famine was being slowly prepared in Bengal. Governor Sir John Herbert had ordered officials to remove food grains from several East Bengal districts and started implementing the “boat removal policy”. These were the first principal steps towards the Bengal Famine.

Subsequently on 26 July 1942, Mookerjee wrote a long letter to the governor accusing him of obstructing the functioning of Fazlul Huq's cabinet. He also raised the issue of police atrocities on 'Quit India' movement agitators. On 2 August 1942, Fazlul Huq wrote a letter to governor accusing the British of destroying as many as 30,000 country boats without the knowledge of the provincial home minister. Mookerjee again wrote a letter to Viceroy himself on 12 August 1942, demanding that India be given complete independence. "The demand of the Congress is the national demand of India as a whole”, he wrote suggesting the formation of a national all-party government at the centre and all provinces. Then he resigned from Fazlul Huq's cabinet on 16 November 1942.

Meanwhile, a plot was being hatched by Muslim League and 25 European members of legislative assembly to replace the Mookerjee-Huq coalition with a Muslim League-led coalition. It had the blessings of the governor. It was this League government, a puppet in the hands of the British, that was actively supported by the Communists. And it was this government that facilitated the British-engineered genocidal Bengal Famine. In February 1943, Mookerjee had sounded the alarm on the developing of famine conditions. On 14 July 1943, speaking at the Bengal Assembly, he attacked the British directly for further accelerating famine conditions:

The government was fiddling while the villagers in Bengal were crying for a morsel.

Both Mookerjee and Fazlul Huq fought a failing battle to prevent the calamity that was being imposed on Bengal. And when famine struck, Mookerjee was in the forefront running the relief centres. Historian-administrator Nitish Sengupta, no admirer of Hindutva, had this to say about the efforts of Mookerjee in his work Bengal Divided (Penguin, 2006):

“The relief efforts launched by Mookerjee included setting up Bengal Relief Committee that helped open up around 250 relief centres covering 24 districts to feed starving people with collected food grains and appealing to all legislators in India to donate Rs 10 out of their daily allowance of Rs 40. This initiative was a shining example of what the private efforts of a visionary nationalist free from communal considerations could achieve in the face of a hostile government environment.”

Though Mookerjee blamed the League-British axis squarely for the famine, he supported every effort from every quarter in alleviating the suffering. Madhushree Mukerjeee points out that when the Muslim League government in a belated effort brought in civil servant Olaf Martin to take charge of relief operations, it was with the help of Mookerjee that he rented space and started running the relief centres.

Better and Better

As Mookerjee was toiling and running from pillar to post with no or scant government support, the Marxists enjoying the complete tactical support of the British government indulged in heavy propaganda. Comrade P C Joshi, the employer of Chittaprosad, singled out Mookerjee in his attacks: “Dr. Shyamaprosad gives the lead, the Hindu hoarders pay the cash and call the tune, the Fifth Column gives the cadres. It is a strange combination of the factionalist, the profiteer and the traitor.” And who were the Fifth Column? “The forward bloc and Anuseelan Samithi”.

Anuseelan Samithi was one of the earliest organisations which aimed to dethrone the British through armed revolution. Were the Marxists genuine in their anger at the hoarders? Even here there was duplicity. Economist Ashok Mitra criticising Marxists for their “tame emphasis on the need to prevent food riots and unearth hoarding” noted that “with the access they enjoyed at that time to information, they should have known that if anyone were hoarding to the point of forcing a famine on the country it was the central and provincial governments and their purchasing agents”. (Cormac O Grada, 2015)

And what inside knowledge that could have been! While Marxists did not hesitate to communalise the famine situation, accusing the “Hindu hoarders”, the pro-British Muslim League government was making Mirza Ahmad Ispahani, a businessman and a Leaguer as well as a close friend of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the sole contractor for procuring grains. The agents of the firm were empowered to “seize stocks in denial districts, but extended their work beyond these limits, seizing grains and moving freely around districts in order to get access to farmers' stocks”. They harassed cultivators and forced them to sell on terms set by the government. (Yasmin Khan, 2016)

However, such wilfully distorted writings in People’s War were greeted with enthusiasm by the British. As famine ravaged Bengal, in August 1943, Sir Richard Tottenham, additional secretary in the home department, exclaimed 'Better and better!' about the report on People's War, which noted with satisfaction that the right voices were being made by the Marxists about “hoarding, profiteering and all forms of exploitation by owners, industrialists etc.” and that there was “hardly any criticism of the 'Imperial Government’.” (Shourie, 1991)

People’s War’s distorted writing (Courtesy Arun Shourie)
People’s War’s distorted writing (Courtesy Arun Shourie)

As seen earlier, Mookerjee had spoken movingly in the Bengal legislative assembly, on 14 July 1943, about the British betraying Bengal and grossly mismanaging the famine relief. Not only did his appeal fail to elicit any humanist response from the government, but, on the other hand, one of the members of the European group who had engineered the coup against the Huq-Shyama ministry ridiculed Mookerjee. "But Tojo is your pal", he taunted.

People’s War cartoon taunting Subash Chandra Bose. (Courtesy Arun Shourie)
People’s War cartoon taunting Subash Chandra Bose. (Courtesy Arun Shourie)

The remark was a teasing hint at Subash Chandra Bose offering one lakh tonnes of rice to Calcutta if safe passage was allowed. Mookerjee gave a befitting reply to the member thus: "That is the way we expect a reply from the European party. The gentleman forgets the purpose for which I am making these remarks. If after 170 years of association with India, Bengal is killed like this, at least you are not our pals. This much I can say.” But then Marxists were staunchly with the British in this. They opposed Bose and called him names. People’s War published a cartoon showing Bose landing on the starving children of Bengal, hugging a bomb dropped by the Japanese. And who drew this ‘art work’? Scribbled in the left-hand corner of the cartoon is the name ‘Chittaprosad’.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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