Thursday, July 01, 2010

Guest Post: was Churchill a hero?

The first of my guest posts this week is from Rob Ray who is international editor of Freedom anarchist newspaper and a member of the Black Flag magazine collective.

I've always had a bit of a thing about heroes where if I see one I always wonder what's behind those green curtains in the corner of the room. What dark little secrets are being quietly forgotten about while they strut their stuff for an awe-struck Dorothy and friends?

The reason I'm confiding this is twofold, first because the master of The Daily Maybe himself stoutly defended the boys featured in Band of Brothers to me the other day before asking for this missive, and second because I've recently been looking back through my own blog and remembered that I'd been meaning to look properly at a previous bit of rummaging I'd done around the life of Winston Churchill - that irascible grandaddy of heroes.

In particular a sideswipe I'd made about his relationship to India was something I wanted to look more closely at, as it was only the basics of something much more complicated, so for this blog I decided to go back to it.

Quit India

India in the 1940s was in something of an uproar. Ghandi was a powerful man and his independence movement, backed by an influential local bourgeoisie, was gaining a great deal of ground across the subcontinent. There was huge anger over the decision of governor-general Lord Linlithgow to unilaterally declare India for the Allies and in July 1942, after failed negotiations with the British representatives, a declaration of independence backed by the threat of mass disobedience was launched.

There are conflicting reports of what happened next. To listen to Churchill's reports to parliament, it would sound like a violent rebellion with little mandate broke out featuring a tiny minority of the population which was "repressed and punished with incredibly small loss of life."

To hear other voices however, the British Raj had unleashed a wave of brutality at the very thought of independence, for which Churchill was ultimately responsible as Prime Minister. For Indian histories, the tale is one of overwhelmingly non-violent protests, strikes and processions organised mostly by students, which became violent only after days of beatings, mass arrests and sackings.

With the excuse of pacifying "violent rebels" the British and their allies rounded up and jailed over 100,000 people, with thousands facing torture and public floggings being implemented across the country against any hint of dissent, be it violent or not. Churchill himself noted that a "small loss" amounting to least 500 people killed in the wave of terror they unleashed - while non-British estimates put the death toll in the thousands.

A particularly interesting take on this debate comes from Clive Branson, a British soldier who served in India at the time. His 1942 reports on the repression and on the subsequent man-made famine which followed (I'll come to this in a moment) suggest Churchill's line that it was a small minority with no mandate being put down by a loyal majority was disingenuous to say the least:

Millions upon millions in this country live on the borderline of starvation always. Their poverty is too dreadful to describe.... Year after year of living underfed, appallingly housed (if one can use the word to describe a tent-like structure made of rags, bits of matting - floor space 4ft by 8ft and maximum height 5ft - in which a whole family shelters in monsoon, cold and heat, the smallest children without clothes at all) and gaining a livelihood by scavenging, doing a sweeper's work in the filthiest places, etc.

Such communities are to be found outside every village or town. In speaking of them, one is not speaking of the slum dwellers whose standard of living is 'higher'. Millions upon millions of poorest peasantry - ill-fed, uneducated, downtrodden - patiently accepting their hideous lives only because they cannot see any way out. This immense abuse of all human decency by our British imperialists - all this is taken by Halifax (British appeasement Foreign Minister-GB) to mean that there is 'popular support for our way of governing India.
Using the economic threat of destitution and keeping a reserve workforce of the desperate to intimidate everyone else into silence should be very familiar to us even here in Britain - it doesn't imply popular support for your cause. Yet Churchill twisted a situation which should have been the shame of parliament into a confirmation of its nobility.

Churchill's Ireland

And this method of control and humiliation through want took a far more sinister turn shortly after the rebellion. In 1943, India experienced the worst famine of modern history with between three and four million people dying, four times the number who perished in the Irish famine. But what made this unforgiveable, and turned Churchill into one of India's most despised figures, was that like the Irish famine of the 19th century, this was a deliberate, man-made event. It was described at the time as the Bengali Holocaust, and again, Clive Branson illustrates why:
The endless view of plains, crops and small stations turned almost suddenly into one long trail of starving people. Men, women, children, babies, looked up into the passing carriage in their last hope for food... When we stopped, children swarmed round the carriage windows, repeating, hopelessly, Bukshish, sahib, with the monotony of a damaged gramophone... I saw women, almost fleshless skeletons, their clothes grey with dust, not walking, but foot steadying foot, as though not knowing where they went. As we pulled towards Calcutta, little children naked, with inflated bellies stuck on stick-like legs held up empty tins towards us...
Because the British refused to ration or expropriate food for the masses, instead following an ideological commitment to free markets and taking large quantities of food away for British troops fighting the Japanese, a situation where there was just enough corn and just under enough rice turned into a nightmare, compounded by the Japanese capture of Burma admittedly, but also worsened by the deliberate stifling of British shipping in the region.

Churchill himself was directly involved in the denial of food shipments, berating the Indian population for "breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing by us about the war." (an attitude which so disturbed Indian viceroys dependent on regional industry to supply their troops they quietly censored many of his comments). Even, as biased a site as you're likely to find on the subject, notes:
"It is true that Churchill opposed diverting food supplies and transports from other theaters to India to cover the shortfall: this was wartime."
In fact, wartime was not the issue. Britain was still at war in April 1944 (when the famine had been officially declared over) when he wrote in a secret letter to Roosevelt asking for aid in shipping Australian grain to India saying: "I am no longer justified in not asking for your help." He wasn't indeed. Within the decade, popular fury would have ended British rule in the subcontinent.

None of this, incidentally, made it into Churchill's six-volume history of the Second World War which claimed, outrageously, that Britain had "carried Hindustan through the war on her shoulders."

But then, if you're writing the first draft of history with yourself as the hero, you can afford to leave some of your notes behind that bulging green curtain.


Jim Jepps said...

I think the whole idea of Britain carrying "Hindustan" is wonderfully surreal in the circumstances, and what a way to write off other people's contributions and sacrifices!

This Clive Branson bloke seems interesting - do you know anything more about him?

Ingenuity Lee said...

Great post Rob. Not exactly the traits I'd expect of the winner BBC's "greatest Briton".

Rob Ray said...

Not much, he was a reasonably well-known artist and fought in the International Brigades in the Second World War. His wife Noreen was better known as a historian and activist, a fair bit of their correspondence still exists in the Bishopsgate library. His book's still knocking about as in various places as well as having a few extracts online.

Rob said...

Spanish Civil War, even.