The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit

The Bengal Famine: How the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit

Rakhi Chakraborty | August 15, 2014 at 7:30 am


“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    -Winston Churchill

The British had a ruthless economic agenda when it came to operating in India and that did not include empathy for native citizens. Under the British Raj, India suffered countless famines. But the worst hit was Bengal. The first of these was in 1770, followed by severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44. Previously, when famines had hit the country, indigenous rulers were quick with useful responses to avert major disasters. After the advent of the British, most of the famines were a consequence of monsoonal delays along with the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by the British for their own financial gain. Yet they did little to acknowledge the havoc these actions wrought. If anything, they were irritated at the inconveniences in taxing the famines brought about.

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The first of these famines was in 1770 and was ghastly brutal. The first signs indicating the coming of such a huge famine manifested in 1769 and the famine itself went on till 1773. It killed approximately 10 million people, millions more than the Jews incarcerated during the Second World War. It wiped out one third the population of Bengal. John Fiske, in his book “The Unseen World”, wrote that the famine of 1770 in Bengal was far deadlier than the Black Plague that terrorized Europe in the fourteenth century. Under the Mughal rule, peasants were required to pay a tribute of 10-15 per cent of their cash harvest. This ensured a comfortable treasury for the rulers and a wide net of safety for the peasants in case the weather did not hold for future harvests. In 1765 the Treaty of Allahabad was signed and East India Company took over the task of collecting the tributes from the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. Overnight the tributes, the British insisted on calling them tributes and not taxes for reasons of suppressing rebellion, increased to 50 percent. The peasants were not even aware that the money had changed hands. They paid, still believing that it went to the Emperor.

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Partial failure of crop was quite a regular occurrence in the Indian peasant’s life. That is why the surplus stock, which remained after paying the tributes, was so important to their livelihood. But with the increased taxation, this surplus deteriorated rapidly. When partial failure of crops came in 1768, this safety net was no longer in place. The rains of 1769 were dismal and herein the first signs of the terrible draught began to appear. The famine occurred mainly in the modern states of West Bengal and Bihar but also hit Orissa, Jharkhand and Bangladesh. Bengal was, of course, the worst hit. Among the worst affected areas were Birbum and Murshidabad in Bengal. Thousands depopulated the area in hopes of finding sustenance elsewhere, only to die of starvation later on. Those who stayed on perished nonetheless. Huge acres of farmland were abandoned. Wilderness started to thrive here, resulting in deep and inhabitable jungle areas. Tirhut, Champaran and Bettiah in Bihar were similarly affected in Bihar.

Prior to this, whenever the possibility of a famine had emerged, the Indian rulers would waive their taxes and see compensatory measures, such as irrigation, instituted to provide as much relief as possible to the stricken farmers. The colonial rulers continued to ignore any warnings that came their way regarding the famine, although starvation had set in from early 1770. Then the deaths started in 1771. That year, the company raised the land tax to 60 per cent in order to recompense themselves for the lost lives of so many peasants. Fewer peasants resulted in less crops that in turn meant less revenue. Hence the ones who did not yet succumb to the famine had to pay double the tax so as to ensure that the British treasury did not suffer any losses during this travesty.

After taking over from the Mughal rulers, the British had issued widespread orders for cash crops to be cultivated. These were intended to be exported. Thus farmers who were used to growing paddy and vegetables were now being forced to cultivate indigo, poppy and other such items that yielded a high market value for them but could be of no relief to a population starved of food. There was no backup of edible crops in case of a famine. The natural causes that had contributed to the draught were commonplace. It was the single minded motive for profit that wrought about the devastating consequences. No relief measure was provided for those affected. Rather, as mentioned above, taxation was increased to make up for any shortfall in revenue. What is more ironic is that the East India Company generated a profited higher in 1771 than they did in 1768.


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Although the starved populace of Bengal did not know it yet, this was just the first of the umpteen famines, caused solely by the motive for profit, that was to slash across the country side. Although all these massacres were deadly in their own right, the deadliest one to occur after 1771 was in 1943 when three million people died and others resorted to eating grass and human flesh in order to survive.

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Winston Churchill, the hallowed British War prime minister who saved Europe from a monster like Hitler was disturbingly callous about the roaring famine that was swallowing Bengal’s population. He casually diverted the supplies of medical aid and food that was being dispatched to the starving victims to the already well supplied soldiers of Europe. When entreated upon he said, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.” The Delhi Government sent a telegram painting to him a picture of the horrible devastation and the number of people who had died. His only response was, “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

Winston Churchill: Image Source






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This Independence Day it is worthwhile to remember that the riches of the west were built on the graves of the East. While we honour the brave freedom fighters (as we should), it is victims like these, the ones sacrificed without a moment’s thought, who paid the ultimate price. Shed a tear in their memory and strive to make the most of this hard won independence that we take for granted today. Pledge to stand up those whose voice the world refuses to hear because they are too lowly to matter. To be free is a great privilege. But as a great superhero once said, “With great freedom comes great responsibility.”


Rakhi Chakraborty

Writer at YourStory. Student of human rights. Thrives on stories, ideas and innovation

Farmer’s crisis, Our crisis

I look at the food on my plate
and think of those who grew it
With the few rupees I spent
I trust I paid  those
who put the effort
and those whose land it was.

What I pay is meagre
and it does not reach
whose produce reaches me
For their children remain hungry,
those who empower me.

And if I go to a good restaurant
I pay hundreds, even thousands
of rupees more
none of which is even meant
for those who grew the main course
while those who wait
and those who manage
and those who count
keep the bill
and the tip.

When I buy a good cotton t-shirt
I pay hundreds, even thousands more
some for the person
who thought of the great slogan
a lot for the logo of the company
that  made ’em
and the shop that displayed ’em
but for the cotton that the farmers grew
what they must have got, does it need
even ten fingers to count?

Its not that their children
get to wear the cotton
whether woven by hand or the mill
for they are deep in crisis
those who grew the clothes
that define me.

And it is not that I don’t spend,
I splurge at the mall
where I shop,
I have caterers and cuisine
from several countries
for no one should
go without great food
and a grand dessert
at the parties I throw –
except for the farmer
and those who
labored on the fields.

Isn’t it strange
that it is easier
for their products to
reach me
than for my money to reach them
and yet we need to find a way
so that it isn’t they who pay.

–Ravi Kuchimanchi

బతుకు బేరంపై దర్యాప్తు: గుంటూరు రైతుల కిడ్నీ అమ్మకాల పై దర్యాప్తు. రాష్ట్ర మానవ హక్కుల కమిషన్ లో ఫిర్యాదు…


గుంటూరు, మాచర్ల, ఫిబ్రవరి 14: గుంటూరు జిల్లాలో అప్పులపాలైన రైతులు కిడ్నీలు అమ్ముకుంటున్న వైనంపై రాష్ట్రప్రభుత్వం దర్యాప్తునకు ఆదేశించిం ది. ‘ఆంధ్రజ్యోతి’ ప్రధానసంచికలో ‘బతుకే బే రం’ శీర్షికన ప్రచురితమన ప్రత్యేక కథనం సర్కారులో కదలిక తెచ్చింది. దీనిపై కలెక్టర్ సురేష్‌కుమార్, రూరల్ ఎస్పీ సత్యనారాయణ దర్యాప్తునకు ఆదేశించారు. హైదరాబాద్ నుంచి సీఎం పేషీ ఆరాతీసింది. కలెక్టర్ ఆదేశాల మేరకు డీఎంహెచ్‌వో గో
పీనాయక్ శుక్రవారం రెంటచింతలలో ఇంటింటికీ తిరిగి వైద్య పరీక్షలు చేస్తున్నారు. గురజాల ప్రభుత్వాస్పత్రి బృందం కూడా రెంటచింతల చేరింది. స్పందించిన మానవ హక్కుల కమిషన్
హైదరాబాద్: గుంటూరు జిల్లాలో రైతుల కిడ్నీ అమ్మకాలపై రాష్ట్ర మానవహక్కుల కమిషన్ స్పందించింది. ‘ఆంధ్రజ్యోతి’లో వచ్చిన కథనాన్ని సోమరాజు అనే న్యాయవాది హెచ్చార్సీ దృష్టికి తీసుకెళ్లారు. దీనిపై స్పందించిన హెచ్చార్సీ చైర్మన్ నిస్సార్ అహ్మద్ కక్రూ ఏప్రిల్ 2లోగా నివేదిక ఇవ్వాలని గుంటూరు రూరల్ ఎస్పీకి ఆదేశాలు ఇచ్చారు.

సాగుకు చేసిన అప్పు తీర్చేందుకే..
కలెక్టర్, రూరల్ ఎస్పీల ఆదేశాలతో రెవెన్యూ, పోలీసు అధికారులు వేర్వేరుగా విచారణ చేపట్టారు. బాధితుడు మారెబోయిన అప్పారావు నుంచి వివరాలు సేకరించారు. రెండేళ్లు చేసిన సాగు తనను అప్పులపాలు చేసిందని అప్పారావు ఆవేదన చెందాడు. మొదటి సంవత్సరం ఐదెకరాలు, రెండో సంవత్సరం నాలుగెకరాల పొలం కౌలుకు తీసుకొని సాగు చేసి రూ.9 లక్షలు అప్పులపాలయ్యానన్నారు. అప్పు తీర్చే పరిస్థితి లేక ఆత్మహత్య చేసుకోవాలనిపించి.. భార్య గుర్తుకొచ్చి ఆగిపోయానని చెప్పారు.

మాచర్ల వెళ్లినప్పుడు అక్కడ శ్రీను అనే దళారి చెప్పడంతో.. అతడి మాటలు నమ్మి కిడ్నీ అమ్మేందుకు హైదరాబాద్ వెళ్లానన్నారు. ప్రకాశం జిల్లాకు చెందిన ఓ వృద్ధుడికి తన కిడ్నీ ఇచ్చేందుకు రూ. 4.55 లక్షలకు బేరం కుదిరిందని, కానీ, మొత్తమ్మీద తనకు ముట్టినది రూ. 2.65 లక్షలేనని, మిగిలినది దళారి శ్రీను తీసుకున్నాడని వాపోయారు. కిడ్నీ అమ్మినా అప్పులు తీరకపోవడంతో.. పేరు మార్చుకుని మాచర్లలో ఉంటున్నట్లు తహసిల్దారుకు ఆయన తెలిపారు. కిడ్నీ ఇచ్చేందుకు జరిగిన రాతపత్రాలను బాధితుడి నుంచి పోలీసులు తీసుకున్నారు.


-9% growth suggests agrarian crisis: experts

If experts and policy makers are to be believed, the dip in agricultural growth from 18.8% in 2010-11 to -9% in 2011-12 — as reflected in the economic survey — could be symptomatic of an ongoing agrarian crisis in the state. Picture this. The production of cereals, pulses, oil seeds, cotton and almost all produce in the food basket dipped in 2011-12, the fall ranging from 6 to 24%. The state produced 96.62 lakh metric tonnes of cereals as against our requirement of 132.06 lakh metric tonnes.

Dr Ajay Dandekar, agrarian economist, Central University, Gandhinagar, said: “This kind of decline is not one-off. It is reflective of an ongoing agrarian crisis across the country. It will have its implications on food security in the future.”

Lack of support from the government and no ownership for agriculture has made farming increasingly unviable, he said. More than 6,000 cotton farmers in Vidarbha have committed suicides because of debts. The suicides continue unabated despite compensation packages to the tune of Rs8,000 crore in the last six years.

The high cost of production in comparison to the returns is the prime reason behind the phenomenon. “The contribution of agriculture to state income was 15-18% five years ago. Now, it is just 12-13%. It is a telling sign of decline. Increase in farmers’ income is important for the growth of agriculture  sector,” said Wardha-based agrarian expert Vijay Janwadia.

Steps by the state government such as improving dry land irrigation, market intervention for sale of produce, better credit facilities, control over price fluctuations and more subsidies could help increase farmers’ income, feel experts.

Critics, however, feel that sincere efforts by the government are unlikely. “In the last one year, the state has failed to provide fertiliser subsidies on time.

They have promised compensation, but have not handed it out and have banned exports when prices were good in the global market. The regressive policies of the state and central governments are to be blamed for the decline,” said Raju Shetti, MP and farmers’ leader.

62% farmers cannot meet educational needs: Survey by Punjab Farmers Commission, TNN | Feb 27, 2012, 02.22AM IST

CHANDIGARH: A recent survey on government’s plan to shift small and marginal farmers away from unprofitable agriculture and engage them in economically viable activities, has found the government initiatives lacking in preparing the farmers undertake the transition.

The survey conducted in 50 villages by Punjab Farmers Commission has revealed that 62% of Punjab farmers holding land up to 10 acres do not earn enough to take care of their educational needs.

The survey has revealed that the dropout rate among the farmers’ children is so high that only 0.4% of students reach the post graduation level and only 5% get technical education. Also, only 73% of posts of teachers are filled in rural areas.

The rural schools are facing an economic exclusion – majority of these students being from scheduled castes. Farmers of upper strata of villages are sending their children to private schools, which however do not have qualified and sufficient staff.

The survey found that in a test conducted in 147 government and 174 private schools on the syllabus of class V and VI syllabus, only 16% students of mathematics and 31% of science in the government school could answer questions. The same ratio in private schools was 3% and 8% respectively. And 12% and 16% of mathematics and science students respectively in government schools could not offer a single answer. In private schools, 21% students just could not offer any reply about questions on mathematics.

The study has suggested that a separate cadre of rural teachers should be created and that a teacher should work for 10 years in rural areas before being transferred to urban areas. For ensuring attendance of teachers, biometric and SMS-based attendance should be introduced, it said.