The Bengal Famine of 1943

The Role of Winston Churchill and the British Government

 In 1943, millions of people in Bengal starved to death, with most historians setting the toll at 3-4 million. British authorities took advantage of war-time censorship to keep the news quiet; after all, the world was in the midst of World War II. What caused this famine in India's rice belt? Who was to blame?

The Famine Had Multiple Causes

Bengal famine family of victims, Nov. 21, 1943
Bengal famine family of victims, Nov. 21, 1943. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As so often happens in famines, this one was caused by a combination of natural factors, socio-politics, and callous leadership. The natural factors included a cyclone, which hit Bengal on January 9, 1943, flooding the rice fields with salt water and killing 14,500 people, as well as an outbreak of the Helminthosporium oryzae fungus, which took a heavy toll on the remaining rice plants. Under ordinary circumstances, Bengal might have sought to import rice from neighboring Burma, also a British colony, but it had been captured by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The Government's Role in the Famine

 Obviously, those factors were beyond the control of the British Raj government in India or the Home Government in London. The series of cruel decisions that followed, however, were all down to British officials, mostly those in the Home Government. For example, they ordered the destruction of all boats and rice stocks in coastal Bengal, for fear that the Japanese might land there and seize the supplies. This left the coastal Bengalis to starve on their now-scorched earth, in what was called the "Denial Policy."

India as a whole did not have a food shortage in 1943--in fact, it exported over 70,000 tons of rice for use by British troops and British civilians in the first seven months of the year. In addition, wheat shipments from Australia passed along the Indian coast but were not diverted to feed the starving. Most damning of all, the United States and Canada offered the British government food aid specifically for Bengal, once the plight of its people became known, but London turned down the offer.

Churchill's Fight Against Indian Independence

Why would the British government behave with such inhumane disregard for life? Indian scholars today believe that it stemmed in large part from the antipathy of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, generally considered one of the heroes of World War II. Even as other British officials like Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery and Sir Archibald Wavell, India's new viceroy, sought to get food to the hungry--Churchill blocked their efforts.

A fervent imperialist, Churchill knew that India--Britain's "Crown Jewel"--was moving toward independence, and he hated the Indian people for it. During a War Cabinet meeting, he said that the famine was the Indians' fault because they "breed like rabbits," adding "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." Informed of the rising death toll, Churchill quipped that he only regretted that Mohandas Gandhi was not among the dead.

The Bengal Famine ended in 1944, thanks to a bumper rice crop. As of this writing, the British government has yet to apologize for its role in the suffering.


"Bengal Famine of 1943," Old Indian Photos, accessed March 2013.

Soutik Biswas. "How Churchill 'Starved' India," BBC News, Oct. 28, 2010.

Palash R. Ghosh. "Bengal Famine of 1943 - A Man-Made Holocaust," International Business Times, Feb. 22, 2013.

Mukherjee, Madhusree. Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Stevenson, Richard. Bengal Tiger and British Lion: An Account of the Bengal Famine of 1943, iUniverse, 2005.

Mark B. Tauger. "Entitlement, Shortage and the 1943 Bengal Famine: Another Look," Journal of Peasant Studies, 31:1, Oct. 2003, pp 45-72.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Bengal Famine of 1943." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). The Bengal Famine of 1943. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Bengal Famine of 1943." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).