The Bengal Famine of 1942-43, in which nearly four million Indians are estimated to have perished, is one of the most traumatic events in our past. It has received considerable artistic, popular and scholarly attention, most famously in Satyajit Ray’s 1973 film, Ashani Sanket, based on the novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, and Amartya Sen’s 1981 book Poverty and Famines, An Essay on Deprivation and Entitlement. Communist activists and artists were among the first to alert the national and international community to the disaster, to offer penetrating analyses of it that anticipate Sen’s, and also to graphically detail the suffering it entailed. Even more importation, they, and especially communist women, intervened dynamically at the local level to bring food and other relief to the people. Today, their contributions are both overlooked and appropriated without acknowledgement by those who write about the famine, or indeed about the grim record of British rule in their last decade in India.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The British authorities were indifferent to the starvation of poor Indians. They refused to invoke their own Famine Code of 1883 which obliged the government to provide relief to stricken areas—until late in 1943, they chose not to recognize that there was a famine at all.[/pullquote]
Sen’s ground-breaking thesis was that famines are political not natural events, and that they have less to do with the shortages of food than its fair distribution; indeed, Sen argued they are “so easy to prevent that it is amazing that they are allowed to occur at all.” The Bengal famine was not just “allowed” but created by the colonial regime; one recent study claims that it was the result of deliberate policy decisions taken by Winston Churchill. Briefly, what happened was that India’s Eastern borders became increasingly crucial to the colonial government after the fall of Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma to Japan in 1942. Rice imports from Burma stopped, refugees from Burma poured in, and the threat of a Japanese invasion of India loomed large. The British government adopted a “Denial Scheme”, whereby all available stocks of rice were to be acquired by it so that if the Japanese army invaded India, its troops could not be fed. On the contrary, the rice would feed Calcutta and its industrial labor force. Acute food shortages resulted as all available rice, acquired by force and at “controlled” prices, went to government godowns. However, what followed would not have been possible without wide-spread hoarding and black marketing, both in Bengal and then outside. Prices soared endlessly, and the government did not enforce any price-control, resulting in mass starvation among the poor. Hunger increasingly crept up the economic ladder as well, but the worst affected were naturally those who had little to begin with.
The British authorities were indifferent to the starvation of poor Indians. They refused to invoke their own Famine Code of 1883 which obliged the government to provide relief to stricken areas—until late in 1943, they chose not to recognize that there was a famine at all. The British press went along until Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, flouted this silence giving horrific details of the human suffering and death resulting from the famine, and bitterly critiqued the attitudes of the administration. Madhusree Mukerjee’s recent study of the famine acknowledges Stephens’s exceptionality: “Until Stephens publicized it, the calamity in Bengal had been unknown to most of India and utterly unheard about in the rest of the world. In a bid to keep the news from leaking out, the Government of India had allegedly destroyed all but one of the five thousand copies of Hungry Bengal, a collection of sketches and reportage on the Midnapore famine….”.
The Hungry Bengal she refers to was the work of Chittaprosad, an artist who worked for People’s War, the newspaper of the Communist Party of India. The paper reproduced vignettes and pictures capturing the devastation of the Midnapore region that he had published in various other communist publications. One of his heart-rending pictures shows a boy’s body being eaten by jackals and dogs.
Censorship was imposed on both words and actions and Chittaprosad reported that the government refused to allow communist workers to hold public meetings to discuss the food crisis. Posters that asked people to unite to fight famine were taken down by police, who also threatened people with dire consequences if the posters were seen again.
Chittaprosad, P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the party, and other writers and artists, reported extensively on the rural suffering as well as the urban misery of the poor, painting a chilling account of “mass starvation of a type people outside [Bengal] can’t even imagine”. In August 1943, People’s War carried a report of hungry dogs attacking children as prey. It reported too that thousands of starving people were thronging into Calcutta. In September the paper called these “queues of death”. It carried a story of a jackal biting off the limbs of a starving child, and of children being sold by parents for two rupees. Recent scholarship that covers the same terrain also claims that the human costs of the famine have been neglected, so it is all the more important to go back to the documentation offered by communists at that time.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Communists did more than document and analyze the famine as a man-made disaster. They were at the forefront of relief efforts, and here women played a leading role.[/pullquote] In November 1943, P. C. Joshi bluntly called it a “man-made famine”. He pointed to the complicity between the bureaucracy and the black-marketeers, and the communist press reported such connivance wherever possible. After a six week tour of Bengal, Joshi wrote a searing account of the famine which recounted how mothers were murdering their own children to save the latter from painful deaths by starvation, how young women were forced into sex-trade on a massive scale, how destitution and disease were rampant. In other words, he wrote, “humanity is being dehumanized” in Bengal. The photographer Sunil Janah accompanied Joshi and these pictures became well-known all over the world. They remain some of the most important visual accounts of the famine. Janah himself later noted that “the Party paper became the first, among the Indian new media, to use the ‘picture-story.”
But communists did more than document and analyze the famine as a man-made disaster. They were at the forefront of relief efforts, and here women played a leading role. By September 1943 communist women were feeding 1100 people daily, running over 12 kitchens, and trying to set up homes for destitute women. In her autobiography, Manikuntala Sen describes how “the cry of ‘Phan dao’ the voice of the peasant, the grower of rice, was unbearable. Soon the ultimate victim of hunger was the peasant woman” (69). Sen and her comrades pressurized the authorities to start subsidized rice shops and then played a role in ensuring shared distribution: “Hundreds of men and women from the villages rushed into Ballygunge Station by the 3 am train to collect rice. On hearing the clamour from our homes, we too would get there at that time, make them stand in queues, and when the shop opened in the morning make sure they obtained the rice. We had to fight with the shopkeepers on their behalf regularly.” These communist workers were very young women, and their hard work attracted sympathizers who donated both money and food, enabling canteens and food kitchens to be set up. They also lived hand to mouth themselves: Manikuntala writes that “the price of rice had risen from Rs. 4 or Rs. 5 a maund to Rs. 28. It became difficult to procure food for ourselves and on many a day nothing was cooked.” Manorama, one of Manikuntala’s comrades, had two young children who also lived on the edge of starvation, and Manikuntala recalls how they would be sometimes given all the pitiful rations that were available.
These communist women realized that it was hardly possible to save people by feeding them gruel, and so they launched a movement to force the government to bring down the price of rice and open ration shops. Large numbers of poor peasant women managed to enter the legislative assembly; Manikuntala recalled that “such a thing had never happened before. Nowadays the assembly is gheraoed at the drop of a hat.” The peasant women were all given two seers of rice each and ultimately sixteen fair-price shops were opened. But all news of the women’s efforts was suppressed, although foreign newspapers picked up on them. Manikuntala points out that it was peasant women who were behind the opening of the first fair price shops in the country. It was out of such organizational efforts that communist women had the idea of setting up a women’s organization that would not be limited to educated or rich women, as was the All India Women’s Congress, the first major women’s organization in the country. Hence the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity (MARS) was born. It not only continued to work among those affected by the famine, but also ran a monthly journal called Ghare Baire which included the writings of their activists and was staffed entirely by women. The organization spread all over Bengal, intensifying its work among very poor women. Manikuntala recalls how some people would criticize their “constructive work” asking “Will this lead to revolution?” In conjunction with communist women in other parts of the country, MARS continued to work among women who were among the worst affected in the famine.
At the same time, communist women and men shaped new forms of cultural performance as they tried to raise money for famine relief. It is well known that some of the most dynamic writers, musicians and artists were part of the left movement. Now, performers wrote new songs, choreographed dances, and devised theatrical shows that innovated upon traditional forms to raise consciousness about the devastation of the famine. For example, Bijon Bhattacharya wrote a play called Nabanna (New Harvest) which combined the story of a single family and historical perspective, using folk storytelling techniques to both tragic and radical effect. Inspired by this play and by Kishan Chandar’s searing Urdu novella Annadata (Giver of Grain), K. A. Abbas went onto make Dharti Ke Lal which featured Balraj Sahni. Activists also performed in these productions, Manikuntala Sen acting the role of an old woman in Nabanna to great effect and Usha Dutt, a young communist organizer, in Dharti Ke Lal. Usha had also electrified audiences throughout the country in a “Dance of Hunger” which raised money for famine victims. In Andhra, after the dance, poor peasants showered the podium with coins and whatever little jewellery they had. During the year 1943-1944 the Bengal branch of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) organized a cultural squad which toured the toured the country to collect money. When they went to Punjab, Uday Shankar sent two performers from his dance company and Harindranath Chattopadhyay participated. In Punjab, Shiela Bhatia composed songs about the famine and raised a train full of grain for famine relief. Singer K.L. Saigal declared that the Communist Party’s work had impressed him, and he went around Dehradun collecting money for the Party Fund.
A recent book on the famine—Janam Mukherjee’s Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire—takes its title from Chittaprosad’s pioneering attempt to chart the famine. It rightly argues that at the time, the nationalist leadership was unequal to the task of responding adequately to the famine, and because it was “deeply beholden to the Indian industrial interests (reaping record profits in wartime Calcutta at the time), many of the policies and practices that precipitated famine in Bengal…met with little opposition from this same leadership. It is striking that Mukherjee takes his title from Chittaprosad’s book, but entirely omits the analysis of the famine and the work done by communists in addressing the crisis of hungry Bengal. Ironically, one of the most salutary features of the intellectual and activist work of the communists was its insistence on inclusiveness, its desire to involve people across religious, political, gender and class divides. As P.C. Joshi’s report that I mentioned above, which was later issued as a small book, put it: “Who Lives if Bengal Dies?”
 Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal suggest that between 3.5 and 3.8 million people were killed. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, Delhi: OUP, 1997, 157.
 Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
 Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War, 175
 Janam Mukherjee Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire (Noida, Up: Harper Collins, 2015). 5.