Published On: Sat, Feb 11th, 2017

The Great Bengal Famine: an Indian Holocaust

Emaciated children roam the streets in search of food. Dogs and jackals feast on the remains of dead bodies in villages. People, out of desperation, beg for the starchy water in which rice has been boiled. Starvation. Malnutrition. Disease. Millions are dead and many more are left fighting for their lives.

In 1943, India faced one of its worst famines in history. It is estimated that nearly 6 to 7 million people died from starvation during this time, and many more suffered from serious malnutrition and disease. The primary cause of such devastation: Britain’s greediness. This man-made famine has been casually wiped from history, even though it was largely due to the neglect of British leaders like Winston Churchill.

The first signs of famine began in the winter of 1942 when Bengal was hit with tidal waves and a fungal disease. Earlier that year, the Japanese had invaded Burma, a large rice-exporter, and seized to import rice to Bengal. The wealthy, out of fear, bought massive amounts of rice to hoard. The decline in rice availability caused the prices to become inflated, putting a strain on the poor. These events may not have been as detrimental if the British weren’t reserving food for the two million Indian soldiers and workers who were supporting them in World War II. Even as signs of famine set-in, the British continued to export grain to the United Kingdom for the war effort. This only caused the prices to sky-rocket even further, making grain unaffordable for most of the poorer classes.

To further exacerbate the situation, Churchill implemented a policy to destroy food stocks and seize boats used for fishing, in order to discourage the Japanese from invading. Offers from Canada and America for food aid were turned down, under the veil of a lack of ships, while ships containing Australian wheat sailed by India to the Mediterranean to stockpile food for the war. Bengal was only able to recover from this disaster because of a fruitful harvest the following year but the damage had already been done and millions of lives had already been lost. However, Winston Churchill and the British were only concerned with their own agenda. They completely neglected the needs of the starving Indians, whom they had been exploiting for hundreds of years prior.

Not the First Time

The Bengal Famine of 1943 was not the first time Indians had been brutally assaulted like this by outsiders. In fact, this was not even the first Bengal Famine. During the British occupation in India, there had been as many as 17 famines, accounting for the death of tens of millions of Indians. Prior to invasion, when the threat of famine due to ecological distress arose in regions of India, native rulers would quickly respond with aid and avoid any major tragedies. However, when invaders arrived, they were more focused on promoting their own economic agenda rather than the wellbeing of the natives and as a result countless Indians suffered. At times, they even actively inflicted harm to the Indians.

Bengal Famine of 1770

The Bengal Famine of 1770 was the first of many to come. During this time, ten million people died because of the callous attitude of the British and the East India Company. Their only concern was trying to figure out how to exploit the Indians for the greatest profit. When the East India Company took charge, they started taxing the natives 50% of their cash harvest. Traditionally, if there was ever a low-yielding season, the surplus from the previous year would be sufficient enough to feed the people. However, with the exorbitant tax, there was no built in safety net in case the crops were not fruitful that year. Furthermore, because the British had forced the Indian farmers to grow cash crops, like indigo and poppy, for export, instead of their normal crops, like vegetables and rice, there was already less yield of food.

In 1768, the harvest was meager and in the following year, signs of a draught started to appear. Though starvation began in early 1770, the East India Company ignored the impending consequences. By 1771, people started to die. Instead of waiving the taxes, like Indian rulers had in the past, the British decided to raise the land tax to compensate for the loss of income from the death of so many peasants, who would not be paying taxes. The East India Company had only one interest: profit. They made no attempt to provide relief for the natives who were utterly devastated by the famine. As the Indians would see in the coming years, the colonial rulers were not concerned with the basic human rights of the people. They were only there to exploit them.

Rarely does the common man understand the atrocities that India endured at the hands of invaders. Rarely do the masses hear about the exploitation and ravaging of India’s people and resources. Rarely do Indians themselves acknowledge the physical, psychological, and political assaults that had to be overcome in order for India to still be standing today with all its glory. Instead, as Indians, we let the Eurocentric western society write our history, allowing us to forget our storied past.



  1. Was Churchill Responsible for the Bengal Famine? – Madhusree Mukerjee in History News Network
  2. The Ugly Briton – Shashi Tharoor in TIME
  3. The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit – Rakhi Chakraborty in Your Story
  4. Bengal Famine Of 1943 – A Man-Made Holocaust – Joseph Lazzaro in International Business Times
  5. How Churchill ‘starved’ India – Soutik Biswas in BBC
  6. Bengal Famine – Gideon Polya in MWC News


By – Poornima Venigalla

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