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Hungry Bengal : War, Famine and the End of Empire

Janam Mukherjee
Oxford University Press
2015
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Summary: 
Representing both a major front in the Indian struggle against colonial rule, as well as a crucial front in the British/American conflict with Japan during World War II, Bengal stood at the crossroads of complex forces that describe an era of political uncertainty, social turmoil, and collective violence. The period (1939-1946) can be defined, above all, by three interrelated events: World War II, the Bengal famine of 1943, and the Calcutta riots of 1946. Mobilization for war began in 1939, but Britain's sense of urgency was difficult to impress upon a sceptical Indian population already chaffing under the injustices of colonial rule and grave economic hardship. As conflict between Allied forces and Japan intensified, Calcutta emerged as a primary supply-front in the war-effort. This prioritization of Calcutta led to the economic destabilization of the region, resulting in an abrupt rise in prices and eventually catastrophic famine. With starvation decimating the countryside by early 1943, destitute villagers poured into Calcutta seeking relief. Subsequently, Calcutta became a grim landscape of starvation and disease. While colonial officials sidelined the elected provincial government and communitarian-defined parties jockeyed for electoral support, between 3 and 5 million residents of Bengal died. As famine became increasingly entangled in rancorous political debate, communal identities congealed. Calcutta was still enmeshed in famine when it was plunged into still deeper turmoil by communal riots that rocked the city in August of 1946. This work examines these cumulatively devastating events, tracing the human impact of acute scarcity and violent dislocation.
Language: 
English