Blame Bengal Famine on anyone but the British

I was flirting with a lot of topics on what to write but I’m just going to leave these tweets out here. We continued the exchange but my blood is now boiling; Vidhi always like to say “calm is a super-power” but I dislike the presumptuousness and arrogance when dispensing on the evil doings of colonialism in South Asia.

I notice many Indian commentators decry UP/Bihar backwardness but it has to do with British policy of bleeding India through her port cities.

British Development in the Subcontinent wasn’t centred in the most populous areas but rather the most productive. Say what you will about the Mughals (and John makes an uncharitable dig at them in a following tweet) but their development focus remained the UP-Bihar.

They may have been a rentier state par excellence but at the very least at least their wealth flowed back into the geographical territories that comprises modern day India

19 thoughts on “Blame Bengal Famine on anyone but the British”

  1. Dont understand why all of a sudden in the last few years, all his Churchill hate and Bengal famine thing has become so mainstream. LOL. Even the white folks are falling for this and trying to justify. Has to do perhaps with our Tharoor/Pankaj Mishra ilk, who have linked a mosquito dying in India to imperialism.

    All this is similar to the whole Chinese dress prom incident , last year, where Non resident chinese /chinese origin folks got worked up about the dress while Resident chinese were wondering what the hell is all this even about.

        1. Could India have developed under the oppression of Tipu Sultan and the Nawebs of Bengal, Audh and so forth?

          Remember Tipu Sultan’s invasions of the Nizam, Marathas and Travancore?

      1. Zack, the English were mixed. The Mughals were mixed too (remember the greatness of Jahanara Begun and Dara Shikoh).

        You are a wise person with a broad perspective of the world. There are no absolutes.

        One example of good the English did in India is creating the British Indian Army . . . one of the great wonders of the world. [Of course the English did not allow meritocratic promotion in the Indian Army until the 1930s . . . so even that is mixed.]

        “The Islamic invasion of India was an evil but it was an order of magnitude less evil than colonialism, which systematically stripped the wealth of India.”

        Zach all were colonialism. All were imperialism. The worst of these was the Delhi Sultanate and the other early Islamist occupiers. It is the Islamists that reduced the total factor productivity (wealth) of India by damaging merit, competence, capacity, physical health, mental health, intelligence of Bharatiya people. It would take several books to explain all the ways why. Islamists colonized the minds of Bharatiyas (or Hindustanis) with inferiority complex to damage atma vishwasana or self confidence. Islamists removed freedom of art and thought. And damaged the brain/nervous system therapy institutions and systems across SAARC (and Iran, Turan, Xinjian, Tibet). Science, math, technology, R&D, multinational capitalism, business rule of law, financial systems was systematically suppressed as “Haram.”

        I don’t want to elaborate more at this time.


        I want to endorse Shafiq’s perceptive comments below.


        With respect to the Bengal famine. Zach, try to see it as an economist would. Yes a lot of the blame goes to the English. But a lot of the blame goes to the elected provincial government of Bengal. A lot of the blame goes to Jinnah. And to WWII with the Japanese.

        Bangladesh was economically poor and dysfunctional for a long time. The 1972-1974 economic depression and famine were comparable to the 1943 famine. Bangladesh avoided many famines and economic collapses because of international bailouts led by the US led block (Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, EU) and India.

        The English structurally mismanaged long term economic development in Bengal from 1858 to 1943, keeping Bengali total factor productivity low, and keeping Bengali institutions weak and dysfunctional. This is the main way the English contributed to the 1943 Bengali famine and recession.

    1. Dont understand why all of a sudden in the last few years

      What is there to understand. Even Tharoor commented on this. His own speech and then subsequent reaction and then a book was taking place in an environment where the other side were in a cycle of Churchill(Empire/British/WWs) glorification phase.

      Just look at the amount of Churchill related media portrayals that have taken place in the last 4 years itself, let alone the body of work on this subject matter post 2000s. No wonder there is a counter reaction.

      1. Var, we should critique Churchill. There is plenty to critique Churchill regarding. Including his views on SAARC people, syncretic muslims (he did not understand what that meant), eastern philosophy (he definitely did not understand what that meant), his rejection of European Enlightenment Classical Liberalism, his assumption that “darkies” were not potentially very powerful and wise, his opposition to meritocratic promotion in colonial institutions (until the rise of Adolph Hitler and Tojo made that necessary).

        The Bengal Famine is a “STUPID” reason to critique Churchill and gives him a pass on far worse things Churchill did. At the very least anyone who brings up the 1943 Bengal Famine who does not also bring up the 1972-1974 economic depression and famine and other post 1947 famines/recessions is a hypocrite or idiot.

      2. Var is talking. I also mentioned Shashi, still waiting to see my comment.
        Btw. VAR means (in old Serbian) – tower, castle. Var-dun (‘tower on the sand’) was the previous name of Babylon (=’the gate of Ilya’ in Serbian, the name given by it’s founder, the other names for the god Ilya are Indra and Perun, the son of Svarog). Similarly, Varuna, ancient Serbian god, the ruler of the ‘sky castle’ (i.e. pantheon)…Interesting?

      3. And there’s also the recent renewed glorification of Empire by people like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts (and the American neocons implicitly endorse that narrative too.)

  2. This is a very uninformed post. The British were by no means a developmental empire but their ill impact on the present state is exaggerated beyond all reason. For millenia human economic wealth production was tied to primarily agriculture then mining and crafts. UP and Bihar were not richest provinces of India for at least last two thousand years. The Mugals may have settled there but their revenues mainly came from outlying provinces. Bengal was the most sought after region and Konkan, Malabar coasts. The Mugal and Nawabs also were supremely extractive. In Bengal, the famous cloth weavers did not seek to produce too much even if hey had time and wherewithal to do so because the more they produced, the more were extracted.

    1. I believe I qualified that the Mughal state was a rentier state.

      However it doesn’t justify European colonialism.

      The Islamic invasion of India was an evil but it was an order of magnitude less evil than colonialism, which systematically stripped the wealth of India.

      1. To point to pre-British Indian feudal powers as exploitative and by contrast making the Brits look good is missing the point. The British monarchy itself didn’t come into existence as a welfare state. It grew into one. Indian feudal powers did not have the chance to undergo a similar organic evolution. They were forcibly replaced by a foreign power that did not put the interests of its Indian subjects on par with its own British subjects. It is unthinkable that a human disaster of similar proportions as the Bengal famine in Britain itself would have been met with the kind of sophistry with which Indian starvation deaths were (and are) being dismissed.

        Ultimately that is the difference between the most incompetent corrupt local democracy and the most enlightened foreign tyranny. The former is still better than the latter in most circumstances.

        1. “To point to pre-British Indian feudal powers as exploitative and by contrast making the Brits look good is missing the point. ”

          I don’t agree. People are people. Souls are souls. The east minus the Chaarvaakas believe in reincarnation. So there is no such thing as “foreigners” from the perspective of eastern philosophy.

          What matters is ceteris paribus. Were the English better than what immediately preceded them or not. The English were always going to be a short term transient presence. SAARC people could use the English for a while and then discard them. The English presence in SAARC was at the pleasure of the SAARC people. The English lost legitimacy after WWI when they did not give India dominion status like the promised. After this the SAARC people asked the English to leave and they did.

          The welfare state and fabian socialism has arguably harmed the poor in England. Why would any other country want English dysfunction and viruses?

          The English brought stability and unity to SAARC + Burma + Malaysia + Singapore. This was a great achievement. This allowed a measure of economic integration and partially free trade that brought prosperity. Before the English SAARC + Burma + Malaysia + Singapore was in a deeply complex multi-sided civil war and global war devastating everything.

          “They were forcibly replaced by a foreign power that did not put the interests of its Indian subjects on par with its own British subjects. ”

          This question is more complex than it appears. Most of SAARC + Burma + Malaysia + Singapore was not governed by the crown, but governed by various mini nation states who belonged to a major regional alliance. They were citizens of their own mini nation states and in many cases loyal to them.

          Some places were governed directly by the crown. Indians from these places were citizens of the crown. This gave them rights in England and throughout the Queen’s empire.

          Indians (here defined as SAARC + Burma + Malaysia + Singapore) did not fully take advantage of these rights. And that is primarily the fault of the locals.

          Indians also failed to push for an expansion of their rights across the English empire and England.

          I am a big critic of the English. But the English need to be understood to be critiqued properly. Most Indian historians and academics who critique England do not have a deep understanding of what England and the Empire were.

          In the words of Sri Aurobindo India’s greatest problem is thought phobia. So very true. The mediocrity of the Indian intelligentsia stands out.


          “It is unthinkable that a human disaster of similar proportions as the Bengal famine in Britain itself would have been met with the kind of sophistry with which Indian starvation deaths were (and are) being dismissed.”

          Wish that were true. Sadly this is not so. Look at the way India (the country that gave Bangladesh her independence and freedom) quietly watched as Bangladeshis died and starved in the Bangladesh recession/famine of 1972-1974. Look at the way America, Japan, Australia, Europe, Brazil, USSR, China watched from a distance, helping little.

          1972-1974 was a disgrace for the entire homo sapien sapien modern species, for the whole world.


          “Ultimately that is the difference between the most incompetent corrupt local democracy and the most enlightened foreign tyranny. The former is still better than the latter in most circumstances.”

          I would choose the later almost every time as long as the later gave freedom of art and thought, liberty, good rule of law, and economic freedom.

          Hong Kong has pragmatically accepted Chinese rule. They were “right” to do this despite all the costs. We need to be practical.

          Another example is the way Iraqis are currently accepting help from Iran, Russia and America. Iraqis also need to be practical.

          Afghans, Libyans, Nigerians, Lebanese, Somalians, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Sudanese, Tunisians, are requesting help from the entire world. And they are right to do so.

          Haiti is under long term indefinite UN occupation and rule. And most Haitians want the UN to stay over the long term. Look at it from the Haitian perspective.

  3. I wrote before that English during 185 years of their rule in India killed and starved 85 millions of people. It will be needed thousands of such media exchanges to be articulated a common platform by SA people to press on UK government to recognise their genocides. Apologies not needed because if it comes from the sneakiest people and government it has no any value. It is up to today’s SA youth to organise such action which will take for several years before it achieve full political representation (I think that Shashi is doing something in UK).

    There are some photos and one excerpt from the text:

    “…In 1765, British conquerors bought the Indian province of Bengal-Bihar-Oris for only 26 rupees! They wanted to show their domination and power to the rest of the subcontinent after heavy fighting with rebellious peasants. They asked that all the rebels surrender.
    The hunger was particularly terrible in 1768 and 1769 in the Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar, but also hit Orissa, Jharkand and Bangladesh.
    Bengal suffered the worst, especially in the Birbum and Murshidabad areas. Thousands of families have left their homes in the hope of finding food elsewhere, but they have not found it. Those who remained have died. The British acted as if nothing dramatically happened. Millions, especially children, died.
    And when they decided to give half-dead people a minimum of food, the British would require them to work for it first. Most were so exhausted that almost everyone died before they got food.
    During this great famine in Bengal, the British took all the cattle from this province and took rice and other food items and sold them out of India. In the fields of rice and cereals, the British planted poppy (opium) in order to export it to China and earn huge sums of money. And that’s why 10 million Indians soon died of starvation….”

  4. I know some of you don’t like links in the comments section, but do click on the following image just once. (Since as a commentator I can’t post images, I have to provide a link).

    The image is a cartoon published in Punch magazine. It speaks volume about the attitude of British towards the starving folks of India. The cartoon is criticizing some good Samaritan trying to provide relief to the starving folks.

    British considered famines as a nature’s way of wiping out the excess population of the subjugated people. To provide food to dying masses was to interfere in the market economy, and to the mercantile British mind interference in the market was a greater sin than let people die of hunger.

    Not only British turned a blind eye towards the mass death all around them during famines, they actively scuttled the efforts by private individuals (mostly wealthy Indians who were culturally inclined towards the acts of charity) to provide succor to starving folks.

    Now think for a moment about this. How was this attitude of British different from the Nazi’s attitude towards people whom they considered inferior races?Both are completely Darwinian views applied to human species, not worthy of any civilized nation.

  5. Scorpion Eater, the solution to famine “IS” globalized free market capitalism. What is wrong with the cartoon?

    The English intentionally did not allow globalized free market capitalism in Bengal or India. Instead they promoted fabian socialism, marxism, structuralism and post modernism in the colonies. They colonized the minds of their imperial subjects with inferiority complex to damage their self confidence (Atma Vishwasana). This kept Bengal down and poor. The English impeded the creation of meritocratic, high capacity, highly competent pan empire, pan Indian and Bengali institutions. The English did not facilitate increased physical health, mental health and intelligence on the part of Bengalis. The English did a terrible job with the Indian education system. This is why the English should be critiqued.

    Bengalis also deserve a lot of the blame. Bengalis could have surged their own merit, competence, capacity, physical health, mental health and intelligence and mostly chose not to do so. Between the English and Bengalis, Bengalis deserve greater blame.

    Any critique of the English requires a deep understanding of the English as they were “THEN”. Which few academics and commentators now have. You can read my other comments on this thread for elaboration.

  6. This may be related to a phenomenon Razib and Omar and their guests observed in the last couple of podcasts: of academics and others on the left in western countries having (and expressing) a really dim view of Hinduism and Hindu civilization, even vis a vis Islam and Islamic civilization.

    My guess is that whenever a colonial atrocity is pointed out, even with sufficient evidence, people automatically think of the caste system, untouchability, Sati, etc. at the back of their minds, and that makes them come up with excuses for the coloniser. (Almost no other religion or civilization seems to have so many negatives associated with it in the Western mind, Yoga and stuff notwithstanding.)

    1. Remember that a young Marx wrote 50 articles about India. Marxism comes out of a critique of India, hinduism Buddhism.

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