Book Review: Churchill's Secret War

Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World

War II

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.

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Indeed, the Pentagon has long had an indulgent attitude toward Pakistan and its military. Retired Gen. Tommy Franks, former chief of U.S. Central Command, showers the Pakistanis with praise for their cooperation in the invasion, citing Islamabads quick accession to "a detailed list of 74 basing and staging activities to be conducted in Pakistan."

His empathy with Musharraf is deeply revealing: "It struck me as appropriate that we both wore uniforms," Franks wrote. "For years, American officials and diplomatic envoys in business suits had hectored soldier-politicians such as Pervez Musharraf about human rights and representative government."

http://www.aei.org/article/25363

This is what I meant by suspicious but I wonder if I am cherry-picking factoids in order to fill in a narrative of suspicion that I already have? Maybe I'm not being fair.

Regarding the subject of the post and the book review (this is a fantastic series of book reviews, btw. I so need to order Commander Aboul-Enein's book):

Churchill and the Bengal famine is a topic that leads to truly rambunctious arguments at any Indian diaspora website I've been on.

Somehow, the comments and the conversation always leaves me a little sad. First, the nature of the topic, but second, because empathy needs to go both ways and sometimes it seemed as if there was empathy for the Indians that died but little empathy for British victims of the war. Shouldn't I strive to feel something for both?

This is a complicated topic and I'm explaining things badly.

At any rate, historically, it's a bit of an argument isn't it? I mean, historians argue this one back and forth. I bet the conversations in class are pretty amazing.

The other thing that always leaves me sad about this conversation is the tendency to turn men into gods. Neither Churchill nor Gandhi were anything other than human. And human beings never can bear too much scrutiny, even the great men and women of history.

Especially the great men and women of history.

@ davidbfpo:

You might find the following article in The American Interest (by C. Raja Mohan) of interest:

If so, it would not be the first time that India has done so. Western analysts, some British excepted, seem not to appreciate two historical facts: that the Indian armed forces contributed significantly to Allied efforts in the 20th centurys two world wars; and that Indias British Raj was the main peacekeeper in the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond. And it is not just the West that is ignorant of the security legacy of the British Raj; Indias own post-colonial political class deliberately induced a collective national amnesia about the countrys rich pre-independence military traditions. Its foreign policy establishment still pretends that Indias engagement with the world began on August 15, 1947.

http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=803

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.

I have said some pretty awful things regarding our military and South Asian studies in the comments section around here and I ought to be ashamed. I am ashamed of the comments. SWJED and others: I'm sorry.

I suppose I am slightly suspicious of American military ties to the Pakistani Army.

And I suppose, as with Egypt, the question of what type of military-to-military ties we ought to have with certain allies is not going away any time soon.

This is a common refrain from me around here - and one amply illustrated by current events - but we need to rethink some of our Cold War aid regimes and the nature of the alliances.

I do not doubt this book seeks to draw attention to the hard times World War Two meant in India, for all concerned.

Does this book reflect on what India did contribute? Like Kamal Ram, a juvenile who was awarded the Victoria Cross in Italy and in an amazing newsreel clip receives his medal from the King - who salutes him. Youtube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLdZI8i6iVE and Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamal_Ram

Curiously this aspect of those times has undergone a small revival as those of imperial Indian descent look at our shared history.