The Bengal Famine of 1943–44, a man-made catastrophe that in total caused the deaths of perhaps five million people, was described by the incoming British Viceroy Archibald Wavell as threatening ‘incalculable’ damage to the Empire’s reputation. It was, he said, ‘one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule.’ Wavell was right about the scale of the disaster. But so effectively has the episode been written out of the histories of the Second World War and the Raj that it can scarcely be said to have damaged Britannia’s reputation. In the prestigious Oxford History of the British Empire: The TwentiethCentury, a volume that surely sits on the shelves of every university library in the English-speaking world, the Famine goes unmentioned. In Max Hastings’s 600-page study of Churchill during the Second World War, Finest Years, it gets barely a paragraph, while Boris Johnson’s cod biography, The Churchill Factor, does not touch on it at all. Jonathan Schneer’s study of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Ministers at War, omits any mention of the discussions the Famine occasioned in the War Cabinet. David Faber’s recent Speaking for England, a political biography of Leo Amery and his sons, says not a word about the Famine, even though its subject was Secretary of State for India at the time.

None of Clement Attlee’s biographies, including Robert Crowcroft’s recent Attlee’s War: World War II and the Making of a Labour Leader, mention that millions died of starvation in Bengal while he was Deputy Prime Minister in Churchill’s war-time coalition. Historians of the Labour Party routinely occlude its complicity in the crimes of Empire, often simply by neglecting to cover Imperial policy; but the deletion of the Bengal Famine from the record is still remarkable. It is altogether missing from the discussion of Attlee’s Labour Party in Nicholas Owen’s The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism 1885–1947. Even Peter Clarke’s recent biography of Stafford Cripps, the quondam Labour mp dispatched to India by Churchill in 1942 to cut a deal with Gandhi and Nehru, fails to acknowledge the Famine. Clearly these serial omissions are not simply the result of poor scholarship—there are too many good historians complicit in the suppression for it to be a matter of individual failings. Rather, they are manifestations of a particularly tenacious imperial discourse, which serious scholarship of the period should challenge head-on.

Meanwhile much Indian historiography of the Bengal Famine has its own blind spots. Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines (1981)—which argues that rising prices, rather than shortages of rice, were the chief cause of starvation in Bengal—points to the absence of a functioning democracy as a facilitating condition for famines, but has nothing to say about specific political agents. Similarly the journalist Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War (2011), while rightly damning of the racist response from Churchill and others to the catastrophe and of their effective sabotage of relief efforts, makes no attempt to connect the Famine to the broader inequalities of Indian society, and breathes not a word of criticism against the nationalist leadership.

A great merit of Janam Mukherjee’s Hungry Bengal is that he aims to challenge both of these traditions. A Toronto-based Bengali-American researcher whose father had lived through the 1940s in Calcutta, Mukherjee’s stated purpose is to investigate ‘the tightly wrought structures of influence and indifference’ that gave birth to the famine, and ‘to unfold the dialectics of influence and power’, from the local to the global, that defined its trajectory. As far as he is concerned, the ‘guilt of empire’—the fact that the orders ‘leading directly to the famine, came down from the War Cabinet in London, under pressure from Winston Churchill’ and that ‘a healthy chunk of blame can be placed at the door of the Secretary of State for India, the viceroy in New Delhi and other high officials’—is beyond denial. But the decisions and actions of lesser officials, both British and Indian, made their own contribution to the unfolding catastrophe. These men often displayed ‘the same contempt’ as Churchill himself. In addition to ‘imperial impunity and colonial indifference’, the story of the Famine must also be understood as that of ‘the enrichment of Indian industrialists’—Gandhi’s great friend and benefactor G. D. Birla among them—who enthusiastically supported stripping the countryside of rice in order to feed their factory workers. Their pursuit of profit, Mukherjee insists, played a non-negligible role in the mass starvation, yet this dimension has been largely absent from most historiography of the Famine—in part, he suggests, due to an emphasis on the explanatory power of ‘culture’, coupled with a convenient neglect of political economy.

More generally, historians of India have focused on the nationalist struggle and the path to Partition and Independence, relegating World War Two and the Bengal Famine to footnotes. But, Mukherjee asks, can the social-political consequences of so many million deaths really be marginal to the larger history of a nation in the making? In particular, he traces the social fissures running from the Famine to the communal riots that engulfed Calcutta in 1946, heralding the vaster Hindu–Muslim slaughters of Partition. The hatreds of 1946 emerged from cumulative tensions, he argues, compounded by the War, but brought to a head by the Famine. Mukherjee is alive to the contradictions of class, caste and communal politics in pre-Independence India. The system of colonial ‘self-government’ instituted from 1935, in response to the nationalist agitation, saw provincial assemblies and chief ministers elected by extended suffrage in 1937, under the continued dominion of the British viceroy and his provincial governors. War sharpened the tensions between rulers and ruled. After Viceroy Victor Hope, the Marquess of Linlithgow, declared war against Germany in 1939 on India’s behalf, the Congress provincial governments resigned in protest at his lack of consultation with them and began a ‘non-cooperation’ policy. British policy tilted to the Muslim League, which offered at least tepid support for the war effort. In rural Bengal, a hotbed of anti-imperial sentiment, nationalist posters proclaimed: ‘The British Empire Is on the Verge of Annihilation. Don’t Be a Recruited Soldier!’ With Japan’s lightning conquest of British-ruled Burma in the spring of 1942, the restless mega-colony found itself at the forefront of an inter-imperialist war, waged within the larger configurations of World War Two.

Bengal was now the frontline of Allied South Asia, with Calcutta its main industrial centre. A province of over 60 million inhabitants, 90 per cent of whom lived dispersed in some 90,000 villages—many only reachable by boat along 20,000 miles of waterways, often winding through thick jungle—it had already experienced considerable hardship during the Great Depression; there was widespread hunger in the countryside. The British response to the fall of Burma would sharply exacerbate it. Fearing the Japanese Army would soon be sweeping into eastern India, the War Cabinet in London imposed a scorched-earth policy, known as ‘denial’, which involved stripping Bengal’s coastal districts of ‘surplus’ rice supplies and seizing local transport in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the invading forces. War-time mobilization lent ‘authoritarian resolve’ to the predatory dynamics of colonial rule, Mukherjee argues: the British Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, sidelined the elected provincial government under Fazlul Huq, a genial anti-communalist populist whose slogan in the 1937 elections was ‘Lentils and Rice!’, and appointed an English official, L. G. Pinnell, to implement Denial at top speed. Pinnell approached a well-known supporter of Jinnah’s Muslim League, the rice merchant M. A. Ispahani, offering his company 2 million rupees to carry out the operation. The predictable ‘hue and cry’ from the other parties prompted Pinnell to appoint four more Denial agents on a party-communalist basis, for ‘balance’—leading, Mukherjee says, to even more chaos and corruption. In April 1942 Pinnell called for a levy of 123,000 tons of ‘surplus’ rice; stocks were seized by force where farmers resisted; compensation payments drove up prices across the board. In May 1942 Pinnell turned to boats: 43,000 vessels were destroyed or confiscated over the next few months, crippling the ‘essential riverine transport infrastructure’ upon which millions of the poorest Bengalis depended; boat owners were compensated, but not those who leased them for their livelihoods; potters and fishermen were left destitute. At the same time, as Mukherjee points out, rice was still being exported from Bengal: 45,000 tons in January 1942 rising to 66,000 tons in April.

It was at this point that the refugees from Burma arrived. The Japanese victory saw some 600,000 Indian workers fleeing the country, at least 80,000 dying on the 600-mile march to the Bengal border. While the British Imperial government did its best to look after Europeans fleeing the Japanese advance, the Indians, men, women and children, were left to fend for themselves. The survivors increased the demand for rice in Bengal at precisely the time when Denial was stripping stocks bare. Adding to the indigent were thousands of peasant families evicted wholesale by the British authorities for purposes of military expediency: 36,000 people from Diamond Harbour, 70,000 from Noakhali and so on. Many of these deportees were left particularly vulnerable and would be among the first to perish with the onset of mass starvation.