Through War and Famine (Bengal 1939-45)

Through War and Famine (Bengal 1939-45)

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Item Code: NAH102
Author: Srimanjari
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788125035480
Pages: 288
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 440 gm
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About the Book

World war II and the Bengal famine of 1943 are the two windows through which this book explores the history of Bengal between 1939 and 1945. The social base of the different section of the people in this region determined the impact of both the war and the famine on them. Drawing upon this multidimensional reality, the book presents a holistic history of Bengal during this period. The author delves into questions of how the war transformed the relationship between the imperial state and it subjects, and their political representatives. She focuses on the fear and hopes, and the political ambitions and frustrations of different political group and individuals as the state used propaganda and face to command their loyalty. The work shows how the war provided an opportunity to challenge the validity of the colonial classification of martial and non-martial races as it was applied in Bengal. It highlights the tense relations between the military and civil society and how war and deprivation drew religious and lower-caste group into sectarian politics. Bringing to the fore the alterations in the economic landscape of Bengal, the book discusses the realities of wage cuts, longer working hours, absence of insurance against injury and non-payment of compensation. It draws attention to the economic distress of the peasants, the curious case of the famine unfolding in the rural interiors, and the government's debt collection drive in 1943 that made a mockery of its own famine relief activities. The author argues that it was not just a coincidence or a war-time casualty that a substantial section of destitute women were driven by circumstances into the network of prostitution in the war-years. This book will be useful to students and scholars of history, sociology and politics. About the Author Srimanjari is Associate Professor at the Department of History, Miranda House, University of Delhi.


War and famine evoke images of political upheaval, devastation, and death. Images of such finality provide an entry point to the study of a critical juncture such as that posed by World War II and the famine of 1943 in Bengal. The impact of these two 'events' on Bengal was in some ways like and in many ways unlike the impact of the war on other economies of the world. In the words of Prof. Amartya Sen, Calcutta was 'rather slightly bombed' during the Japanese air raids on the city following the entry of Japan into the war from the winter of 1941 However, when we widen the scope of our enquiry, the war-years reveal political realities and social complexities that were changing at a very fast pace. The study of wartime Bengal therefore provides a window to both the distinct and obscure experiences of different sections of society.

The war threatened eastern India from late 1941 and formed a constant backdrop to the slew of emergency ordinances, enforced donations for the war, the intrusive presence of the military in the interior and the panchasher manvantar or the 'famine of fifty' (1350 Bengali era, CE 1943-44). According to unofficial estimates, the famine took a toll of more than 3.5 million lives in Bengal. This book foregrounds war and famine out of the many realities of 1939-45. It delineates major trends in the history of Bengal during this period. By drawing upon the perceptions of those who lived through the times, the book acknowledges the scope and sweep of these events in shaping their lives.

World War II began within two years of the institution of Provincial Autonomy in Bengal in 1937 under the terms of political devolution outlined by the 1935 Act.? The election of 1937 gave political parties in Bengal an opportunity to evolve strategies in the institutional arena to strike a better deal. The three leading parties in this election were the Indian National Congress (INC), which won fifty-two seats, followed by the All India Muslim League (AIML) with thirty-nine seats and the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) with thirty-six seats. As none of the political parties won an absolute majority in the elections, the formation of a coalition ministry became inevitable. Under the existing separate electorate systems, in an Assembly of 250 members, the largest number of seats (121) reserved for a majority community went to the Muslims. It was thus certain that the majority community would provide the leverage in forming the government.' The KPP leader, A. K. Fazlul Hug, headed the first coalition ministry in Bengal in April 1937 with the support of the Muslim League." However, despite provincial autonomy and an elected government at the helm of affairs in Calcutta, the decision-making powers vested with the Governor and thereby with the central government at New Delhi.

With the outbreak of the war, the British propaganda machinery swung into action to generate 'war-preparedness' in Bengal. The support of political parties in India to Britain's war effort became indispensable because the war made unusual demands on Indian society and its resources. After routing British forces in the East in late 1941-42, the Japanese army posed a direct threat to eastern India, particularly Bengal with its industrial centres and ports. The vulnerability of the British Empire stood exposed when the Eastern Command accorded priority to 'destruction' (of ports, oil installations, the wireless, cable and telegraph systems) and 'denial' (of paddy/rice, boats and other means of transport) over 'protection' in strategic and military considerations. The developments provided an extremely dramatic setting for a heightened sense of political hysteria and social doom. Structures of power, both imperial and provincial, glossed over issues of hunger and destitution. Subsequently, when it grew difficult to overlook the sight of the ailing and famine-stricken population in the towns and cities of Bengal, the central and provincial authorities pinned responsibility on one another for the famine and the massive loss of human lives.

In 1939-40, the imperial state trumpeted the need for stepping up the war effort. The administrative and executive apparatus in the province rose to the occasion. Political positions defined as pro-war and anti-war were now the yardsticks for judging the loyalty and dissent expressed by individuals and political groups towards state and social classes. The contention in this book is that the support extended to the war effort in Bengal or opposition to it was not merely a matter of ideological intonations of nationalist or other political aspirations; it had a bearing on the career-graph of individuals and organisations. In addition, the war-years (1939-45) established beyond doubt that the successive governors of Bengal had greater faith in the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha than in the KPP and the Congress.

The profile of the city of Calcutta, mainly the way in which it had attracted opportunity seekers from the mofussil (outlying districts) and other parts of the country, explains, to some extent, the support that some of these migrants lent to the imperial cause during World War II. Upper middle-class families, who had moved to Calcutta in the course of the nineteenth century, were mostly loyal to the British imperial authority. The fortunes of the family of 'Maharaja' Durga Charan Law, suvarnabaniks (gold merchants) from Chinsura, who had migrated to Calcutta in the late nineteenth century, were dependent on imperial patronage. The family began money-lending business in the name of Pran Krishna Law & Co. The 'tradition of loyalty and sound level- headed common sense' (and unintended comicality) was evident in the change of name to 'Prawn Kissan Law & Co'. Durga Charan Law climbed up the social ladder when the authorities nominated him to the Imperial Legislature and conferred on him the title of 'Maharaja'. The family of the Laws is representative of all those who waxed eloquent about their loyalty to the powers that be when the war broke out in 1939.

As far as the working-class migrants to the city of Calcutta are concerned, in 1931 they comprised 56.80 per cent of the total population of 1,140,862. Ten years later they comprised 62.20 per cent of the population of 2,108,891, and in 1951, 66.79 per cent of the population of 2,548,677. The census figures from 1921 to 1941 show a general decline in the ratio of females per 1,000 males in the industrial towns of Calcutta and Hooghly, and a marginal increase in Howrah.

Calcutta, thus, grew into a city of immigrant men-folk, who lived here mostly without their families. The compulsions of earning a livelihood a considerable distance away from home hampered family life. As the 'up-country' population settled down in Calcutta, biases and prejudices formed against them. They invited allegations of unruliness and were at times an irritant for the settled population of Bengalis. Following the air raids by Japanese bombers, a large number of migrants vacated the city that had provided them with succour and shelter. World War II revealed the extent to which migrant labour was indispensable for the middle-class citizens of Calcutta and the war industries.

The present work delves into the question of how World War II transformed the relationship between the imperial state, its subjects and their political representatives, induced alterations in the economic landscape of Bengal, and brought to centre stage the repercussions of the tense relations between military and civil society in a colonial setting. In Chapter 1, the focus is on the fear and hopes, political ambitions and frustrations of different political groups and individuals in Bengal during World War II vis-a-vis the expectations of the imperial government that they would support the Allied cause in the war. As the imperial state geared itself through propaganda work and use of force to compel the colonial subjects to remain loyal to the Allied powers, debates about the extent and type of help to be extended to the state engaged political parties at the early stages of the war.

In fact, the war had a dramatic and unsettling effect on organisational and factional politics. It exacerbated the leadership crisis in regional politics. Fazlul Huq, the premier of Bengal, whose public image was that of a spokesperson of the prajas (subjects / tenants) and krishaks (peasants) of Bengal, now couched his pro-war sentiments in sectarian language. The raison d'etre for the metamorphosis was the need to get even with the political leadership of the Muslim League that had constantly sidelined him. Changes were at work in the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha as well. While the Congress Working Committee banned participation in the war effort, the Hindu Mahasabha instructed its members to join the war committees in their individual capacity.

The sinking of ships on the high seas during the war and increase in the price of rice, fishing-nets, kerosene oil, etc., transformed the lives of lascars (Indian, / non-British sailors in the British merchant navy), dockworkers, fisherfolk, landless labourers, and poor and marginal peasants, who were increasingly reluctant or unable to pursue these vocations. It was an opportune time for political parties like the KPP and the Muslim League to target these groups to widen their support base. Anti-war rhetoric of the Communists reverberated mainly among the jute mill-workers. The Hindu Mahasabha upheld the 'ideal of the Empire' and demanded military recruitment of 'Hindu youth'. Loyalty and defiance mingled in the demand for recruitment of Bengalis and denunciations of the 'martial race' theory.




  List of figures and tables ix
  Acknowledgements xi
  List of Abbreviations xiii
  Prologue 1
1 Gathering of War Clouds: Fears and Hopes 16
2 Civil Society in the Shadow of War 46
3 Political Economy of War: Industry, State and Labour 78
4 Denial, Dissent and Politics of Hunger 95
5 Making of the Famine 147
6 Social Aspects of Destitution 191
  Epilogue 218
  Appendix - Tabulated Statement of Civil-Military Clashes 1942-45 230
  Glossary 234
  Bibliography 238
  Index 257


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