From the East India Company to the Raj, India was a British colony until the mid-20th century. And despite nostalgic imperialists extolling the virtues of the empire’s rule, it left behind millions of victims.
The 1919 Amritsar massacre, the grim anniversary of which India marked on Saturday, is one of the best-known examples of the atrocities committed by the British during their two-century colonial rule of India. But, numerically, its total of 1,600 victims looks like a small blot among the millions of deaths India suffered during the empire’s prolonged misrule and exploitation.
From the 18th to the 20th century, various parts of India endured over a dozen devastating famines, which killed tens of millions of people, most of the events exacerbated, if not outright caused, by the colonial administration.
The East India Company (EIC), merchants with their own army who ruled India on behalf of the British crown, were ruthlessly effective in generating exports and profits from the colonized land – ruthlessness being a key part of the efficiency. Exports of Indian produce – rice, tea, wheat, and even, illegally, opium – were a vital boost for the British economy, helping keep food prices low at home and generating income from sales to other nations, like China.
The EIC did not hesitate to decrease the areas for food crops and even destroy food plants to make room for other crops needed for export, including opium poppies. Many scholars agree that in a lot of the cases, famine would have come anyway, considering the poor rainfall and underdeveloped transportation, among other things – but it was made that much worse by the Brits, who exploited agriculture while failing to offset its troubles with proper investment.
The British response to famine was often inaction, at least until their troops were affected, like in Orissa in 1865, where a third of the regional population died before aid was finally sent in. As the Great Famine of 1876-78 struck Madras and Bombay, the British administration thought the free market would sort it out and government interference would only hurt in the long run. It took 5.5 million deaths for the Brits to begin relief work. At the turn of the century, the British Viceroy cut rations (saying famine relief was “philanthropy” and “complacency”), which resulted in another million deaths.
The most recent and infamous is the Bengal Famine of 1943-44, when 1.5 million people starved to death and another 2.1 million are estimated to have died from related causes.
Until recently, the Bengal Famine was attributed to the sheer ineptitude of the British administration, which could not be bothered to divert attention and resources from the war effort. But the 2010 book ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ lays the blame directly at the feet of then-prime minister Winston Churchill and his “racism.” Citing unearthed documents, author Madhusree Mukerjee says Churchill not only refused to divert supplies from British troops, but blocked Canada and the US from delivering aid, and even forbade India from tapping into its own currency reserves to buy food abroad.