In 2012, the BBC carried out a poll on the hundred greatest Brits, and as a result of that poll, Winston Churchill emerged as the greatest Briton. The results of that poll were subsequently taken down, but there is no question that in the minds of many Brits, even today, Winston Churchill is the greatest of them all. Yet, with the publication of books such as Madhusree Mukerjee’s award-winning “Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II”, it is clear that the greatest Briton was actually not only a war criminal who committed crimes against humanity, but deserving of a more special epithet, that of a “genocidal dictator”. Revelations in Mukerjee’s splendid book suggest that Winston Churchill widely considered to be a great war hero had far more in common with his arch enemy Adolf Hitler than the English and indeed much of the Western world would care to admit.
Defenders of Churchill will express outrage at the idea that you could compare him with a monster like Hitler who killed millions of Jews. Shashi Tharoor does not, however, exaggerate when he suggests that Churchill was as bad as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Whereas Hitler ordered the slaughter of millions of innocent Jews, Churchill withheld food from millions of Bengalis who would eventually die of malnutrition or disease during the Bengal famine of 1943-44. British officials on the ground wrote to him time and again but to no effect. As word of the famine spread, the Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders all offered food, but Churchill could not find a single ship to carry the grain and save millions of lives.
Six millions Jews were murdered by Hitler by either shooting them or placing them in chambers filled with poisonous gas If instead of shooting or gassing the Jews to death, Hitler had made arrangements to simply starve them to death, would such a decision, have been, in any way, kinder or more humane? It could be convincingly argued that gassing people to death or shooting them are quicker, easier, and far less painful deaths as compared with starving people to death which is a slow and arduous process that also involved watching other loved ones starving to death over a protracted period of time. At least Hitler was, in a way, upfront about his evil intentions. Churchill was far more deceitful and duplicitous, it could be argued.
For a definition of “war crime” and “crimes against humanity”, we may look to the Charter of the International Military Tribunal that conducted the Nuremberg Trials. Article 6 of the Charter defines “war crime” as including murder and other ill treatment of civilian populations in occupied territories that were not justified by military necessity. “Crimes against humanity” also defined in the same article includes murder, extermination and other inhumane acts with respect to civilian populations. Would admirers of Winston Churchill claim that the starvation to death of more than two million Indians was a military necessity? If it wasn’t, should Churchill also have been on trial at Nuremberg together with the Nazis?
Judging by contemporary standards, there is no question that an impartial international tribunal, sifting through incontrovertible historical evidence, would judge Winston Churchill to be a war criminal guilty of committing crimes against humanity.
This raises a further question. Was Churchill also a genocidal dictator, a term often applied to Hitler, Mao and Stalin? Let us consider the second aspect first, that of Churchill being a dictator. The United Kingdom was a democracy, so how could Churchill possibly be a dictator? Yet if you consider that he was the commander-in-chief of the British Empire, which ruled much of the world, was he not a dictator on behalf of the empire with respect to the lives of hundreds of millions of non-British lives? Democratically accountable to his own people perhaps, but a pure despot with respect to millions who were under the British Raj. Should we be using the expression “dictator” to speak of a king who rules benevolently over, say, a subject population of a few million? Similarly, should we call someone who rules in a cruel and vicious manner, over a subject population of hundreds of millions of people, with complete lack of accountability, a “democrat” just because he is freely elected by a relatively small population. It is time perhaps to revisit such definitions. According to a more considered definition of the term, in modern times, Churchill and his predecessors in office should all be judged to have been dictators. Now to the question as to whether or not he was a “genocidal” dictator. Under the 1948 Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, racial, religious or ethnic group in whole or in part. Churchill’s action of taking away grain from people who needed to eat, and further inaction in not allowing grain to reach those people once they were starving, certainly caused millions of completely preventable deaths. Now to the question: was there an intention of causing the extermination of that particular race or nation?
The intention was there. Numerous countries came forward with offers of food assistance, but Churchill refused to accept those or sanction a ship to transport grain to millions of starving Indians. “Wheat,” lamented an Australian minister, “was practically waiting to be loaded on boats.” What clearer proof of intent can there be?
With India’s rise, world and colonial history needs careful re-examination and scrutiny, and contemporary Indian intellectuals and historians must show that they are up to the task, and challenge dominant colonial narratives that have prevailed for far too long. Once India’s intellectual elite offer up fresh perspectives based on available historical material, surely it will just be a matter of time before the name of the greatest Briton of all will be added to the not-so-illustrious list of genocidal dictators.
Rajesh Talwar is an author of 36 books across multiple genres, and has worked for the United Nations for over two decades across three continents. His latest book is ‘Trading Flesh in Tokyo: Nine Short Stories and a Play.’