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Madhusree Mukherjee on Churchill's Secret War

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Joined: 07 Aug 2008
Posts: 630

Location: Delta, British Columbia, Canada

PostPosted: Thu Nov 04, 2010 7:13 pm    Post subject: Madhusree Mukherjee on Churchill's Secret War  Reply with quote

Dear Tapas da

Thank you for trying to keep me updated on the google Santiniketan board. As you know, I am in China, and many things that China bans on the internet, include social networks such as Facebook and every bulletin board under google, which includes the Santiniketan board. Gmail works though.

As a result, I have been blissfully unaware of any storm in a tea cup that my comments might have generated. I trust it is providing suitable entertainment for your spare moments.

Anyhow, I wish to use this opportunity to tell you about a book you might consider buying, before you leave for India, and read it on the flight, and later during the quiet moments in the afternoon, reclining on an “easy chair” at your roof top garden varanda in south Kolkata.

I know you are not as avid a book reader as I am, but this is a book you owe it to yourself to read. It name is “Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II”.

It was written by Madhusree Mukherjee.
This is what Ramachandra Guha had to say about the book : “Winston Churchill’s dislike of India and Indians has been known to scholars. But now, in Churchill’s Secret War, we have, for the first time, definitive evidence of how a great man’s prejudices contributed to one of the most deadly famines in modern history. In her book, Madhusree Mukerjee writes evocatively of how hunger and rebellion in rural Bengal was a product of cynicism and callousness in imperial London. Deeply researched and skillfully constructed, this is a major contribution to Indian history and to the history of the Second World War.”

Guha is an Indian and therefore might be a bit biased towards India. I also took note of independent reveiwers, such as W. Andrija. Not a sentimental person, even Andrija found it very hard at times to continue reading, and had to put the book down to wipe off tears that came up automatically, to learn how much Churchill was directly involved in ensuring that Indians, and particularly Bengali folks, died of hunger, how food was deliberately made expensive and out of reach of the poor rural masses, and how he personally thwarted all free offers of humanitarian aid, when Australia and Canada offered to send free shipments of rice, or when Subhash Bose, in the middle of the war, offered free shipment of 100,000 tons of rice from Burma to India.

I read the book, and unlike Andrija, I am partial about India and Bengal, and found it very hard at times to read through. Amartya Sen had given an economic perspective to the Famine in his seminal work several decades ago. There are many other texts on the Bengal famine, mostly from local or western viewpoints. Mukherjee however, places the whole issue as a study in history, and a long chain of events all of it avoidable, and some of it deliberately enacted, that finally lead to the famine, and places the whole episode in its imperial context.

The writer is not a sociologist, nor a historian. She started out as a scientist that did her higher studies in solid state physics in the US, and spend the first few years of her working life as a science section editor for Scientific American magazine. It was then she decided to step away from that profession and get to writing. Her first book “Land of Naked People” depicting the plight of the aborigin tribes in the Andamans who are getting extinct due to first the English and then the Indians destroying their natural habitat and deforesting the islands in the name of “Development and Progress”. It was then she got to a more serious study of the definition of “civilization” and its flip side, definition of “poverty” which eventually lead her to study all aspects of the Bengal Famine. She had an advantage that Nehru, Gandhi, and the historians of post war era did not have - all documents of the time, and minutes to meetings, talks and actions of Winston Churchill, are now in public domain and within reach of any serious scholar. Some sections of Churchill's comments, interestingly, has deliberately been inked out by the British Government, before de-classifying the records, which is tantamount to an admission of guilt and an effort to hide the truth. Anyhow, under the powerful microscope of Mukherjee, there is enough evidence to prove Churchill's culpability.

The book has been raising serious talks already, and the first shot has been fired against it by none other than the Churchill Centre and Museum (winstonchurchill.org), which tries its best to promote the image of Churchill as the most notable of recent world statesman that fought to preserve world freedom and stood up against tyranny.

After reading the book, it came to me that Churchill should have been tried for war crimes, because, in comparison, likely more Indians, specially Bengali folks died as a direct result of deliberate actions of Churchill, than even Jews that died at the hands of Hitler. And Churchill got away with it.

Anyhow, I took it upon myself to send a note to Madhusree Mukherjee to set up an interview on record. She lives in Germany now. I recorded the hour long talk, and will be putting it up shortly on a future podcast.

Meanwhile, you owe it to yourself, to read it. I know, I know, you are now a British citizen, and I am a Canadian resident. But what the heck - we need to read history once again, about one aspect of Bengal that had not been told in its fullest details - what price the Bengali rural poor peasants had to pay,  so Churchill could remain Glorious in the eyes of western history.

The Book : Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II
Author : Madhusree Mukherjee
Publisher: Basic Books (August 10, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465002013
ISBN-13: 978-0465002016
Price through Amazon USA : USD 19
Total pages : 368

If you do not have the energy to read lengthy books, you might consider asking Shompa boudi to read it aloud to you every day for a few pages.

Cheers and have a safe trip to India.

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