Rajput caste mobs unleashing violence in Indian streets in protest of the Hindi movie Padmaavat are chasing a mirage. The group, calling themselves the Karni Sena (Karni Army), wouldn’t know history from fiction. This is evident, since they know that the poem Padmaavat written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi five centuries ago is not history but fiction. Napoleon Bonaparte exhorted his son to “read history, as it is the only truth.”
Take the movie Darkest Hour currently playing in many of India’s better cinemas in all major cities. The anglicized Indian elite, who still largely lionize Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, are beating pathways to the movie halls.
Nearly every review in India’s major newspapers is quite breathless. The Hindu writes that director Joe Wright’s “focused single-minded direction takes the audience on a journey, plummeting with Churchill’s low spirits and soaring with his triumphs. It makes history fade into the background.
“What remains instead is only that one figure, who is supported by brilliant performances from [Ben] Mendelsohn and [Stephen] Dillane. Special credit also goes to Kazuhiro Tsuji, the makeup designer genius who brings historical figures to life on the big screen. There are plenty of close-ups of Churchill’s face but never once does his leathery wrinkled skin, thinning hair or liver patches appear artificial.”
The Times of India reviewer writes: “While Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk largely focused on the evacuation of those soldiers from the beaches, Darkest Hour documents the days leading up to those events, particularly around Churchill’s thought process before choosing the fate of his country.
“It’s no easy call to make, and this weighs heavily on Churchill’s mind and stooped shoulders, embodied brilliantly by Gary Oldman, who gives the performance of a lifetime. Disappearing under all the prosthetics and makeup, Oldman plays Churchill as temperamental and riddled with doubt. He infuses the otherwise grandiose wartime leader with a human sense of vulnerability that indicates the pressure the man was under at that time. An Oscar nomination for Oldman would be well earned, and a win not too far-fetched.”
However, we might be more usefully educated by seeing the 1973 film Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), which is set in rural parts of the state of Bengal at the time of the British-induced famine of 1943-44 and examines its effect on the villages of Bengal through the eyes of a young doctor, Gangacharan, and his wife Anaga. India’s most famous filmmaker, Sagtyajit Ray, shows the human scale of a cataclysmic event that killed nearly 4 million people.
The film unfolds at a leisurely pace that reflects the rhythms of village life, but gradually shows the breakdown of traditional village norms under the pressure of hunger and starvation. It does not even mention Churchill. Yet it is mostly about what he wrought on Bengal.
In 2002, The New York Times considered it among the 1,000 greatest films ever made. The only references to a distant war are the planes flying overhead to and from Burma as village children happily cheer them on. The idyll ends with a wizened old man from a neighboring village looking for rice. Soon the famine is all-enveloping. See this movie instead and realize how Churchill devastated Bengal.
Churchill is still a very outsized figure in India. Many Indians see him as a resolute and heroic leader who took his country from the deepest despair to a final victory. Nearly every morning I walk past a neat stone bungalow in the Bolarum cantonment in the city of Hyderabad called “The Retreat” on which a large sign proudly maintains that Winston Churchill lived here. The Indian Army is still very proud of its colonial origins, but I often think its pride in its antecedents is a bit misplaced.
The Bangalore Club has encased very proudly in a glass-topped box at its main entrance a letter to Churchill suspending his membership for not paying his dues.
Those who celebrate Winston Churchill should read Madhusree Mukerjee’s 2010 book Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II. It’s a chilling account of how Churchill was no different from Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin or Mao Zedong when it came to sanctioning the deaths of millions.
The Bengal Famine of 1943-44 must rank as the greatest man-made disaster in India. Nearly 4 million Indians died because of an artificial famine created by the British government, and yet it gets little more than a passing mention in Indian history books and seldom in Indians’ conversations.
When urgently beseeched by his secretary of state for India and viceroy Archibald Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Mahatma Gandhi hadn’t died yet
Bengal had a bountiful harvest in 1942, but the British started diverting vast quantities of grain from India to Britain, contributing to a massive food shortage in the areas comprising present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh. Consequently, by 1943 hordes of starving people were flooding into Calcutta, most dying on the streets. The sight of well-fed white British soldiers amid this apocalyptic landscape was “the final judgment on British rule in India,” said Jawaharlal Nehru.
Churchill could easily have prevented the famine. Even a few shipments of grain would have helped, but the British prime minister adamantly turned down appeals from two successive viceroys, his own secretary of state for India Leo Amery, and even the president of the United States.
When urgently beseeched by Amery and viceroy Archibald Wavell to release food stocks for India, Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Mahatma Gandhi hadn’t died yet. Churchill’s attitude toward Indians can be summed up in his words to Amery: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
According to Mukerjee, “Churchill’s attitude toward India was quite extreme, and he hated Indians, mainly because he knew India couldn’t be held for very long.” She further writes, “Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over.”
British attitudes toward Indians have to be seen in the backdrop of India’s contribution to the Allied war campaign. The resources that Britain obtained from a poor India were comparable to or exceeded by those provided by an increasingly prosperous United States.
While American materials were provided after Britain signed an agreement on Washington’s terms, the Indian story was different. In lieu of payments for goods and services drawn out of India, Britain held out promissory notes that were to be redeemed in the future. The goods nevertheless had to be purchased in India against a cash payment to individual sellers.
The Reserve Bank of India rose to the occasion and its printing presses went into overdrive. Consequently in just two years the amount of money in circulation in India more than doubled. The result was an inflation rate of 350%. Such inflation impoverishes the poor even more by taking out their purchasing power. Couple this with a reduction of goods in the market and you can well understand the devastation. The millions of deaths in the Bengal Famine of 1943 were a consequence of such British policies.
Britain’s debt to India is too great to be ignored by either nation. Instead of repaying India in cash, as it did with the US, Britain allowed Indian promissory notes to be expended in war-ravaged Britain, which had little industrial capacity left. India was fended off with war surpluses, which is how it ended up with Vampire fighters, Wellington bombers, warships, and even an aging aircraft carrier.
Forget the money. Did the British have the grace to offer an apology? The English monarch and even prime ministers, despite visiting Jallianwala Bagh, the site of a major massacre in 1919 by British troops, have never apologized. It seems unlikely the British will ever issue an apology that even India’s elites don’t seek. Like Churchill, they continue to delude themselves that English rule was India’s “Golden Age.” And will we continue to celebrate Churchill?
Today Indian cinemas are showing Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s movie about Winston Churchill resolutely resisting defeat. He is depicted as a dark and brooding drunken hero instead of the monster he was. Churchill once said, “History will be kind to us. We will write it.” He was right. Some victims just don’t get it.
Indians should remember their own history, and how it is interpreted.