Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own.
Many people believe that the greatest crime in history was sending 6 million Jews to gas chambers in extermination camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, etc by the Nazis.
Germans are blamed for this, but does anyone talk of what the British did to Indians during their rule here? It was probably 20 times worse, but no one talks of that. Let me explain.
Before the British came to India, India was a prosperous country, having over 30% of the world’s trade. By the end of British rule in 1947, it became impoverished, and our world trade was reduced to only about 2%.
We had a massive handicraft industry in India before the British advent, exporting huge amounts of cotton textiles, silk, spices, handicrafts etc to the Middle East and Europe. After the battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company established its direct rule over Bengal, which then included Bihar, Orissa, and Assam ( and later extended all over India ).
Within 40 years thereafter our exports almost stopped, because of the exorbitant export duty imposed by the British, and was replaced by imports of British mill-made goods on a large scale, with almost no import duty. The upshot of British rule was the destruction of our massive handicraft industries, which resulted in tens of millions of Indians becoming unemployed, many starving to death, tripling of the land tax, and the devastating famine of 1770 which killed over 10 million people, one-third of the then population of Bengal.
Two decades later, in 1793, the British Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, created the ‘permanent settlement’, which resulted in British landlordism in India and dispossession of 20 million small farmers, many of whom starved or became beggars, or criminals.
Famine became a regular feature during British rule, killing millions of Indians by starvation every 10 years or so. No doubt there were famines before the coming of the British too ( due to failure of rains),. but these were ordinarily localized affairs, and the local kings used to store grain for such contingencies, so there was far less suffering. People during such famines used to get less to eat, but few starved to death. It was only during British rule that such horrors became a regular feature in India. In 1834 the British Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, said ” The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”
An important work to understand the role of British during the period 1939-45 (World War II), is Madhusree Mukerjee’s book “Churchill’s Secret War” where she shows that the 20th Century’s greatest hero is also its greatest villain.
When asked to release more grain to India as people were starving, Churchill said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” When the Delhi Government sent a telegram to him painting a picture of the horrible devastation and the number of people who had died, his only response was, “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
Similarly, no one remembers the Odisha famine which killed 1 million people in that state.
Nobody talks of this Holocaust, since very few people even know about it. If one were given a choice between death in a gas chamber and death by starvation, many people would opt for the former, as the latter is much more painful and prolonged.
So the British have got away with their horrible crimes, and still strut around like peacocks, often being praised for their ‘ democratic spirit and liberal traditions ‘, while the poor Germans are impaled.
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