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Hunger, starvation and Indian soldiers in World War II

  • On the 80th anniversary of the start the war, we need to look beyond a narrative glorifying it as a fight against fascism
  • Understanding the Bengal famine of 1943 as a product of World War II is crucial to its legacy

Troops of the British Indian Army in Myanmar in 1944
Troops of the British Indian Army in Myanmar in 1944 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An Indian havildar, or junior officer, who was part of a Sappers and Miners unit stationed in Egypt during the height of World War II, wrote back home in June 1943: “From my personal experience I can tell you that the food we get here is much better than that we soldiers get in India. But whenever I sit for my meals, a dreadful picture of the appalling Indian food problem passes through my mind, leaving a cloudy sediment on the walls of my heart which makes me nauseous and often I leave my meals untouched."

The soldier identified with this imagined community of sufferers in his homeland through his own body, as the pain of distant hunger reached out, resulting in him being heartsick and unable to eat. Another havildar clerk, writing to relatives, related his feelings of helplessness to the extraordinary conditions of the Indian wartime marketplace: “I am terribly sorry to learn about the food situation in India and it seems as if there is no salvation for me.… What is the use of money when we are unable to obtain the necessities of life in exchange for it? The situation would drive even the most level-headed of us to madness and when we think of conditions in India we become crazy as lunatics."

Yet another sepoy, also from the Middle Eastern and North African theatres of war, declared in 1943 that his colonial war service was no longer doing him any economic good. “You write to me so often that things have become very expensive and you ask me to send you more money and more money. Where can I get money? Why doesn’t your land which supplied us all before all this produce enough for you to eat something?" he complained to his family. “I know what mistake I have committed. But it is too late. It was better if we had all worked on the land, at least we would have lived as before. Now I cannot earn even enough grain to last you two months."

Tanks of the British army manned by Indian troops in Italy.
Tanks of the British army manned by Indian troops in Italy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

These letters are from military censorship reports archived at the India Office Records at the British Library, UK. Nausea, helplessness, madness and despair—Indian accounts from World War II convey a spectrum of emotional responses to global conflict and its atrocities that claimed over 60 million lives, and changed the face of geopolitics across the world. In 2019, in the 80th anniversary year of the start of this war and with Remembrance Sunday services being held on 10 November, it is more important than ever that we move beyond American and Eurocentric frames of reference. We need to make space in our public memory for the forgotten voices from the former British empire, and continue to uncover its complicated afterlives. Understanding the Bengal famine of 1943 as a product of World War II is one such legacy.

What happened in Bengal—and other parts of India, such as the princely state of Travancore in south India—in 1943? As Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s Poverty And Famines—An Essay On Entitlement And Deprivation (1981) argues, the famine was manufactured and not natural. Later research has confirmed that those people whose lives were already financially precarious starved because they couldn’t afford to buy food rather than there being an overall shortage of its supply. Historians have compared food prices in wartime Britain to those in India, and found that prices were controlled by government subsidies in Britain and rose by 18%, whereas here the price of even rationed food during the 1940s rose by an extraordinary 300%. It is this lack of price control which became a crucial factor leading to famine. More recently, Madhusree Mukerjee has shown, in Churchill’s Secret War (2011), that it was the colonial government’s agricultural, economic and export decisions, informed by war priorities, that resulted in death from starvation and the associated diseases of cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery in Bengal.

War and hunger, then, remained inextricably connected as violence spilled over from international battlefronts to claim civilian lives on the home front. Indian soldiers who were killed or injured in World War II numbered around 90,000; the famine claimed over three million victims.

Indian troops of the British empire in Mandalay.
Indian troops of the British empire in Mandalay. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Letters written by Indian soldiers during the war tell us that although the men themselves were far removed from hunger and were well looked after by the colonial authorities, they empathized and commiserated with one another’s familial misfortunes. A havildar clerk wrote home to west India, a region that was also experiencing food shortages, although to a lesser degree: “(A)s you say, that it is difficult, dear, and grain is unobtainable. But look at these people in Bengal. Their situation is ten times worse than our home district. There are many Bengalies (sic) in the army here with me, and when they get their letters from home, they seem to be very worried and by their appearance, I guess that the public in Bengal is suffering badly. Many times they have shown me their letters and when I read their sufferings, it breaks my heart."

Extracts from letters composed from the heart of hunger in Bengal survive today. But many of the writers were unable to formulate words to describe the enormity of witnessing the famine. A doctor in the wartime Indian Medical Service received a letter from his home in Bengal that simply said, “The plight of our country is beyond description." Another letter, addressed to a captain in the Indian Medical Service, asked: “What will happen if the war lasts longer? Can you imagine?"

These writings by soldiers and their loved ones at home reveal that there was no homogenous Indian war experience. The letters become evocative fragments, testament to a complex range of emotions that cannot be contained within the narrow prisms of “heroism" and “sacrifice" with which we are made to remember this war today. More than wreaths and monuments, it is these narratives—letters, diaries, memoirs, even novels and poetry—that bring the range and depth of such experiences alive. Remembering Indian involvement in this anniversary year through soldiers’ and civilians’ letters means that we recognize how colonial participation complicates the story of the “good war" that was World War II. It was not simply a fight against fascism, but one where imperialism of all hues was implicated.

Diya Gupta’s doctoral research, from King’s College London in 2019, is a literary and cultural examination of Indian experiences in World War II.

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