Our Genocieds, Their Genocides

Why not Reparation from Britain

Garga Chatterjee

More than 70 years ago in late October, ended the Battle of Britain. Britain roughed through a barrage of Nazi assault. I read about it and thought about the glory of Britain at that hour, of Churchill's leadership. I was in awe— shabash (well done) Britain. I am sure many people from privileged circles in India of the time were also relieved. I can trace this strain back in a life and it is interesting to me—how that has changed and how I have changed. I grew up in Kolkata in West Bengal and I do not know where it came from, but an explicit respect, admiration and even aspiration to many things British was there. The same thought, said in English, sounded better, more respectable than when spoken in my mother tongue, Bangla. Then at a slightly later stage, I learned about the Second World War, how Britain and the Allies were fighting a life and death battle not for their survival, but for saving the world from Nazi and fascist dictatorships. The British were occupiers, colonisers no doubt, but they were benign, I learned. The Britishers who plundered Bengal post-1757, or for that matter the Britishers who killed Khudiram or mutilated the thumbs of weavers of Murshidabad, were not the paternalistic civil servants of the 1930s and 40s. They understood and empathised, thought we were almost humans or would get there soon. And, compared to the Nazis who killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, gays and others, the British regime was so much more compassionate. We were taught that, I learned that. All the major Indian political forces, the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party, collaborated with the British, collected war funds. India's political freedom could wait—these were, after all, times of global danger. At least there was no planned genocide in India during the world war like what the German regime of the time did. Or was there?

Doubts started creeping in. That there was a benign colonial occupation during the last phases of the British regime in India is something which many today maintain. They also point to red-brick railway stations, old government buildings and universities and the ridiculous white wig of court judges, transportation, education and justice. The works. We had been saved, verily. God forbid what would have happened if the Nazis or the Japanese came. To me there is nothing more fundamental as a marker of humanity than dignity and commitment towards the preservation of human life. The Nazis had a pathetic record on this count. The British were worse, and except 1770, never more so than in that high noon of solidarity with Britain, during the Second World War.

We have been fed a steady diet about the crimes of mass murders by grain requisitioning and other methods by the regimes of Stalin and Mao. There may be some dispute about the numbers, but those supreme acts of inhuman criminality have been bested by the British regime in my Bengal. In the induced famine of 1770 (1176 of the Bangla calendar, hence Chhiyattorer Mannantar—the famine of 76), British oppressive policies, including but not limited to taxes and grain monopolies, killed one third of my people—10 million of them. In April 1770, as the famine reached its height, land tax assessment for the next year was increased by 10 percent after a five-fold increase since the British usurpation of power. Around 1770, the world population was approximately 800 million. The British managed to kill off more than one percent of the world's population. The Nazis, in their grand visions of cleansing managed to match this—they killed civilians to the tune of 1-2 percent of the world population, in the whole Second World War period. But the British killed too. And they killed us, here in Bengal. We raised money to help Churchill do that.

Three million humans were killed in and around Bengal, by the Britishers and grain-hoarders. An explicit decision was taken at the highest level of the British government to kill Indians by shipping stupendous quantities of grain stocks for the armies in Europe and to feed humans in Britain. This has been exquisitely documented recently by Madhusree Mukherjee in her book, Churchill's Secret War. The provisional government of Free India, led by Subhas Chandra Bose, made an offer of sending 100,000 tonnes of rice as assistance. This was during the Burma campaign. Our non-Nazi benign lords refused it. The armies were fighting the war after all. Our war, indeed. Our army. The brown officers of the Indian Army earned their medals from the British for their collaboration. And the show went on. During the whole period of the war, the number of civilian deaths due to war and repression in Britain was approximately 67,000. In Bengal alone in 1943-44, it was three million. It is with the survivor's sadness that we have been so dehumanised to go so far as to compare death numbers to demand justice, accountability and yes, reparation.

It is in perfect order to want reparation from Britain. It is not an unheard of thing. West Germany gave reparations to Israel due to its genocide of Jews. The gypsies have not got reparation; they do not have a country and they are persecuted everywhere. But what about our countries - India and Bangladesh? Do our governments have any vision of compassion and a spine? To build a world where killers of people will not go scot-free but will be shamed and humiliated, is what the humanity of the brutaliser's stock and the sons and daughters of the accidental survivors among the brutalised must demand. Be it war or genocide, people who kill must atone for their sins, in terms set by the brutalised. We shall not forget genocides. At least this the dead demand from us, the survivors.

Vol. 46, No. 12, Sep 29 -Oct 5, 2013

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