Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World
by Madhusree Mukerjee.
Published by Basic Books, a member of
the Perseus Book Groups, New York. 319 pages, 2010.
Reviewed by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN
I have the great privilege to teach officers selected for the vital Afghanistan-Pakistan
Fellows Program at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington D.C.
These men and women spend a year totally immersed in the politics, culture, religions,
and policies of Southwest Asia. One of my main challenges is to cultivate
empathy and get students to walk in the shoes and emotions of the region.
Madhursee Mukerjee, a scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, who resides in Germany, had written
an uncomfortable book critical of allied policy towards India that led to the death
of millions. She opens by introducing a 1943 famine in Bengal that killed
1.5 million people, and which was a result of the British decision to use the resources
of India to fight Germany and Japan. The economic stressors placed on India
during World War II, led to deprivation and anarchy which tore the fabric of society
leading to independence in 1947. This is the hidden side of World War II,
and decisions that did not make Winston Churchill's memoirs.
The book discusses England's divide and conquer strategy to govern the subcontinent,
which only perpetuated the partition of India. In 1943, nationalist Subhas
Chandra Bose headed a liberation army known as the Indian National Army comprised
of Indian laborers and 60,000 captured Indian Prisoners of War (POWs) captured by
the Japanese. World War II brought calls among India's intellectual elites
and political activists on whether India should be granted dominion status like
South Africa or Canada or should India be placed on a trajectory towards independence.
All these policy questions would be deferred or ignored by British policymakers.
Mahatma Gandhi was appalled by Nazi bloodshed. Chapters discuss how Hitler's
racism could not allow the Nazi's to fully exploit liberation movements, such as
the treatment of Ukrainians, Slavs, and Russia's ethnic minorities who despised
Stalin. Bose, the Indian nationalist, asked Hitler, in a face to face meeting,
to repudiate passages in his book "Mein Kampf," that were contemptuous of Indians.
The Fuhrer predictably ignored him. Japanese leaflets were showered over the
Indian metropolis of Calcutta urging Indians to revolt against British colonization.
In 1944, mass prostitution among village women in Bengal was a result of desperate
food shortages. A 1944 survey found 90 percent of 30,000 women laborers digging
ditches and building runways had venereal disease, trading sex for rice to feed
their families. Ms. Mukerjee has written a fresh study of the underside of
World War II, and allows readers to empathize with India's, Pakistan's, and Bangladesh's
sensitivity to its national independence.
Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein is the author of "Militant
Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat," published in 2010 by Naval
Institute Press. He is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College
of the Armed Forces in Washington D.C. and an expert on Violent Islamist Ideology
at the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism.