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Churchill a War Criminal? Get Your History Right

By Zareer Masani

29th July 2018

IT’S A SAD reflection of our times that smearing and libelling our now-distant colonial past have become a popular substitute for soul-searching about our own failures, abuses and atrocities in the present. With popular and social media happy to circulate the wildest rumours and allegations, quotations out of context, half-truths and even blatant untruths, it’s hard for historians like me to insist that condemnation needs to be evidence-based, or else descends into character assassination.

Let’s take the current campaign of vilification, skilfully orchestrated by a few articulate and ambitious individuals, against Winston Churchill, once regarded as the hero of Nazi defeat in World War II, now demonised by publicity-hungry detractors as a war criminal with more blood on his hands than Hitler, Stalin and Mao put together. There was a time when such absurd comparisons would have been dismissed as the ravings of far-left fantasists, but today they attract a Twitter following of gullible millions, happy to swallow the tallest tale if it’s re-tweeted often enough. Bashing Churchill and the Raj have become sure-fire ways of attracting a mass following, selling potboiler books and reviving flagging political careers.

What’s the actual historical evidence against Churchill, how does it stack up, and does he really need to be taken down off his pedestal? He was undeniably a racist, regarding European, more particularly British, lives as more valuable than those of Asians and Africans. But as a child of Victorian times, was he any more racist than the vast majority of his contemporaries, including our own upper-caste ancestors, proud of their ‘wheaten’ colouring and Aryan origins? You have only to read Mahatma Gandhi about Black Africans, or kafirs as he called them, not deserving equal treatment with Indians in South Africa. Looking today at our blatantly colour-conscious and caste-ridden matrimonial adverts, our continuing prejudice against darker-skinned Shudras and our disgraceful treatment of Black African visitors and students, let any Indian who is free of racism cast the first stone at Churchill.

Not only was Churchill racist, say his accusers, but he was prepared to kill by the most horrendous means all whom he despised. On closer examination, the so-called evidence of his murderous intentions would not convince an attentive schoolchild, let alone a court of human rights. Churchill’s ‘decision’ as home secretary, says one such canard, led to ‘two Latvians anarchists’ being deliberately burned to death in the Sidney Street siege of 1911. What we’re not told is that they were murderous, armed gangsters who died in a shootout with police at an East End house, which accidentallycaught fire. Churchill was present, but gave no operational commands, let alone arranging for the house to go up in flames.

Again, we’re told that Churchill wanted to bomb ‘Irish protesters’ during the civil war of 1918-23. But on closer examination of the paragraph cited, it turns out that he was referring to armed IRA terrorists, not civilians. Yes, Churchill did contemplate and advocate the use of poison gas, but we must beware of judging that by today’s post-Saddam standards. Gas warfare had been widely used by all sides in World War 1 and was only banned by international agreement in 1925. In any event, due to supply problems, Churchill never actually did use poison gas against Iraqi or Pathan rebels in the 1920s, as some never tire offalsely alleging. During World War II, Churchill retained chemical weapons in his armoury, but only contemplated their use as a last resort, no different really from our own policy of nuclear deterrence; and fortunately, neither side used them.

Then we’re told that Churchill was ‘anti-Indian’. As secretary of state for war at the time of the Jallianwalla massacre in Amritsar in 1919, he had this to say, condemning the atrocity on the floor of the House of Commons:

“That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire…. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation…. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.”

Churchill made that clear by sacking Colonel Dyer, the British officer responsible, and denying him a pension. On the other hand, Churchill was certainly no friend to Indian nationalist leaders, most of whom he regarded as moralising humbugs. He was an unashamed imperialist, like many of his generation, and staunchly committed to maintaining India’s unity within the British Empire. He had a strongly held conviction that too sudden and rapid a move to democracy and independence would tear the Subcontinent apart on sectarian lines, a fear that events would justify.

Churchill’s views on India did mellow over the years. In the 1940s, the king’s private secretary overheard Churchill telling the Indian statesman Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar that the old notion that the Indian was in any way inferior to the White man must disappear. “We must all be pals together,” the prime minister declared. “I want to see a great shining India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Canada or a great Australia.” Churchill and his war cabinet were by then committed to dominion status for India after the war, which would have meant de facto independence, as in Canada or Australia, if only the Congress had agreed to share power with the Muslim League.

Most far fetched of all, and the most damaging to Churchill’s reputation, has been the allegation that he deliberately starved millions of Bengalis during the wartime famine of 1943. Estimates of the death toll have varied from 1.5 million to 3 million, although some of Churchill’s prosecutors have now inflated that figure to 4 million. Whatever the best estimate, these accusers ignore half a century of historical scholarship which has established beyond reasonable doubt that the famine was of no individual’s making. It was the result of wartime speculation by Indian traders, who put up prices and hoarded stocks while the Japanese invasion forces were knocking at the gates of Bengal. It was a crisis compounded by the mismanagement of the democratically-elected Bengal provincial government, which was responsible for food distribution, and by slow intervention on the part of the viceroy’s government at the Centre.

The attempt to lay all this at Churchill’s door stems from a sensationalist book by a Bengali American journalist called Madhusree Mukerjee. As its title, Churchill’s Secret War, indicates, it was a largely conspiracist attempt to pin responsibility for undoubted mistakes on the ground in Bengal on an elderly 67-year- old British prime minister, who was thousands of miles away, fighting a World War that threatened Britain’s very survival. Far from willing the starvation of Bengalis, Churchill believed, based on the information he had been getting, that there was no food supply shortage in Bengal, but a demand problem caused by local mismanagement of the distribution system. Ironically, his view has found unexpected support in a recent exchange between Mukerjee and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the world’s foremost expert on famine in India.

Commenting in the New York Times, Sen said of Mukerjee, that ‘she seems satisfied with little information’ and that her data came from only two rice research stations, and those in only two out of 27 districts in Bengal. ‘The analysis I made,’ countered Professor Sen, ‘using data from all districts, … indicated that food availability in 1943 (the famine year) was significantly higher than in 1941 (when there was no famine)…. There was indeed a substantial shortfall compared with demand, hugely enhanced in a war economy…, but that is quite different from a shortfall of supply compared with supply in previous years… Mukerjee seems to miss this crucial distinction, and in her single-minded… attempt to nail down Churchill, she ends up absolving British imperial policy of confusion and callousness.’

Much of Mukerjee’s case, and of those who follow her, rests not on Churchill’s actions, but on his words; namely, his various racist comments about Indians, Hindus and Bengalis in particular. Most of these have been taken out of context. Churchill was infuriated by Gandhi’s decision to launch the Quit India movement in the middle of the war, seeing it as a stab in the back when Britain most needed and deserved loyal support. He also (like many Indian liberals and socialists) saw Gandhi’s frequent resort to political fasts as a form of emotional blackmail. And he was appalled, as were many Congressmen, by Subhas Bose joining hands with Hitler and the Japanese, a fact not calculated to endear Bengalis in general to Churchill.

His abusive and offensive comments about Gandhi and Bengalis have to be seen in that context. They also have to be seen in the context of Churchill’s unfortunate penchant for making outrageous comments that he didn’t really mean in order to shock or tease. The long-suffering butt of many such remarks was his childhood friend and cabinet colleague, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India. Churchill used to rag him when they were at school together at Harrow and once even threw him into a swimming pool fully clothed. Amery grew up into a worthy but rather longwinded and tedious speaker with a talent for boring his listeners at cabinet meetings. Winston liked to interrupt Amery’s long perorations on India with racist jokes designed to tease himand cut him short. Amery was not amused and once responded by likening Churchill’s language to Hitler’s. None of this was meant to be taken very seriously, but Amery made a habit of writing it all down in his diaries. When these were published in 1997, they proved a bonanza for Mukerjee and others of her ilk, who seized on Churchill’s every racist word as evidence of yet darker deeds.

Even Mukerjee never blamed Churchill for causing the Bengal famine, but for compounding it by refusing to allow relief shipments of food grains from Australia and Canada, which were bound for Europe, to be diverted to Bengal. Mukerjee’s camp-followers have taken this accusation one degree further with fantastical claims that Bengal was being forced to export food to Ceylon, while Australian food shipments were forced to sail past Calcutta without stopping en route to Europe. The fact is that Bengal only ever sent one food shipment to Ceylon that year, and it was an equal exchange of grain for rice. As for Australian food shipments being diverted from Calcutta, one has only to look at a map of the Indian Ocean to see what a nonsense it would have been for Australian ships bound for Europe to come anywhere near the Bay of Bengal.

The true facts about food shipments to Bengal, and these are amply recorded in the British War Cabinet and Government of India archives, are that more than a million tonnes of food grain arrived in Bengal between August 1943, when the war cabinet first realised the severity of the famine, and the end of 1944, when the famine had petered out. This was food aid specifically sent to Bengal, much of it on Australian ships, despite strict food rationing in England and severe food shortages in newly liberated southern Italy and Greece. The records show that, far from seeking to starve India, Churchill and his cabinet sought every possible way to alleviate the suffering without undermining the war effort.

For example, on August 4th, 1943, the war cabinet chaired by Churchill agreed to ship 150,000 tonnes of grain to Bengal. A month later, it approved a further 250,000 tonnes to be shipped over the next four months. Then, on February 14th, 1944, Churchill called an emergency meeting of the war cabinet to see if they could send more aid to Bengal without wrecking Allied plans for the coming Normandy invasion. ‘I will certainly help you all I can,’ Churchill telegraphed Viceroy Wavell before the cabinet met. The next day, he wired Wavell: ‘We have given a great deal of thought to your difficulties, but we simply cannot find the shipping.’ Allied logistics had already been stretched to breaking point by new fronts in Italy and by the need to send supplies to starving Russia; there was simply no spare cargo space. In April 1944, Churchill appealed to US President Roosevelt to spare some shipping for Bengal famine relief, but less than two months to go before the planned D-Day landings in France, the US too could spare no ships.

To Churchill must go the credit for appointing in October 1943 the man who was arguably British India’s most able and conscientious viceroy. Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, with his long and distinguished record of service in India, his intimate knowledge of its peoples and languages and his experience of large-scale military logistics, was just the person to halt the Bengal famine in its tracks, drafting the army to get food supplies moving quickly from surplus to deficit areas. Had Attlee’s post-war Labour government not later replaced Wavell with the flashy and impetuous Mountbatten, India might even have escaped Partition, an outcome Churchill had been determined to avoid.

FOR CHURCHILL HIMSELF, the accusation that’s likely to have hurt most was that he was somehow soft on fascism or even flirted with it in his younger years. The evidence, if one can call it that, seems remarkably thin. Yes, he may have admired Mussolini’s early years, as did socialists like George Bernard Shaw and the Fabian leaders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who saw Il Duce as a welcome change from Italy’s proverbial political chaos. But Churchill had no truck whatsoever with the British fascist leader Oswald Moseley, though he couldn’t help being related to him by marriage.

Far more revealing were Churchill’s close links, maintained through secret correspondence and meetings, with leading members of the German Resistance to Hitler, especially during the run up to the disastrous Munich Summit of September 1938, when British Prime Minister Chamberlain gave Hitler the green signal to invade Czechoslovakia. Churchill, then in opposition, was convinced of the need to bring about regime change in Germany, if possible by backing a peaceful coup d’etat by Hitler’s opponents, but if necessary by going to war in defence of the Czechs. The German Resistance, led by top members of the military high command, the foreign service and opposition parties in what came to be called the Oster Plot, were confident that they could overthrow Hitler and restore democracy, if only Britain would stand firm over Czechoslovakia. They failed because Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement prevailed over Churchill’s, and the world paid the price of war.

It’s because his opposition to Nazism had been so consistent and unyielding that Churchill was brought back from the political wilderness in 1940 as the only wartime leader under whom both Labour and Conservatives were prepared to serve. Churchill was unimpressed by his Labour Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, describing him as “a modest man with much to be modest about” and “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”.

It was a measure of Attlee’s generosity and Churchill’s charisma that Attlee later described him as “the greatest Englishman of our time— I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time…. Here was a man of genius, a man of action, a man who could also speak superbly and write superbly…. I do not think everybody always recognised how tender-hearted he was. I can recall him with the tears rolling down his cheeks talking of the horrible things perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany…. Then I recall the long days through the war—the long days and the long nights—in which his spirit never failed; and how often he lightened our labours by that vivid humour, those wonderful remarks he would make which absolutely dissolved us all in laughter, however tired we were.”

A fitting tribute from Britain’s finest peace-time prime minister to its greatest war-time leader, even though they led opposing political parties. Were he still around, Churchill would have the last laugh on even the most eloquent of his present-day detractors. He will be remembered and admired by historians and loved by millions around the world long after most other political reputations have turned to dust.

This article was originally published in Open Magazine.