Clive in India

I AM NOW IN CALCUTTA. Last time I came here, for miles and miles along the railway lines and at stations, there were starving people. Now there is not a sign of famine – it has been organised with the ability of genius…” 

Thus, wrote Clive Branson (1907-1944) from Bengal on the 11th of November 1944. Later in the same letter, this British soldier in India added:

“… it is reported that in the week ending November 5th, 267 deaths occurred in Chandpur town and in the 53 unions (groups of villages), on an average more than 200 in each. The report states ‘Almost all the dead bodies were thrown into the ‘khal’ and paddy fields – to be devoured by dogs, jackals and vultures – as there was no man available to bury or burn those corpses.”

A few lines later, he adds:

The point is that out in the villages people can starve to death without anyone knowing about it, while on the basis of the falling mortality rate in Calcutta Amery will no doubt claim that the famine is over.”

‘Amery’ to whom Branson referred was Leo Amery (1873-1955), who was Secretary of State for India during WW2. The famine was that which decimated many Indians in Bengal and other parts of India.

clive

Writing on the 28th of August 1943, Branson suggested that the famine was to some large extent man-made rather than the result of natural disasters:

But the fact is there is enough food in India now …”

A major cause of the famine he suggested it was:

“… the hoarders, the big grain merchants, the landlords and the bureaucrats who have engineered the famine …”

And, on the 14th September 1943, Branson wrote:

The thing that stands out a mile is that the Government showed no signs of weakness when it came to the arrest of the Congress in glaring contrast  to its utter helplessness (??) (or should we call it co-operation, tie-up) in the face of the grain profiteers (and in a similar situation – the cloth merchants – the coalowners, re employment of women underground).”

These quotes, damning indictments of the situation Clive Branson observed whilst serving in India come from a book, “British Soldier in India”. It contains the letters that Clive wrote from India to his wife in England and was published in 1944 by ‘The Communist Party, London’. The slender volume contains an introduction written by Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), who was General Secretary of The Communist Party of Great Britain from 1941 to 1956. I came across the book while reading an excellent book about the 1943 Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukherjee, and ordered a copy.

Clive was born in Ahmednagar (India), son of an army officer. Ironically, most of his time in India during WW2 was spent in the town where he was born. He trained to be a painter at The Slade School of Art (part of University College London) and became a prolific and talented artist. Some of his works are housed in London’s Tate Gallery. From the age of 20, Clive became interested in Communism and joined the Communist Party in 1932. Pollitt wrote of him:

He was one of those who endear themselves to all who came in contact with them … he was able to inspire others to hate poverty and fight to remove it, to hate ugliness and see beauty … He was not only a brilliant speaker and organiser, but also did more than his share of what is sometimes called “the donkey work”. Nothing was too much for him …”

During the Spanish Civil War, Clive both recruited for, and from 1938 fought with, The International Brigade. In March 1938, he was taken prisoner by Franco’s Nationalist forces and interned in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, where he painted and sketched the camp and many of its inmates. These artworks are currently stored in the Marx Memorial Library in London’s Clerkenwell Square. Pollitt reports that a fellow prisoner said of Clive:

In any difficult time, Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do … He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners.”

Clive, a true patriot and ardent anti-fascist, joined the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2 and was posted to India where he arrived in May 1942, the month that he sent his first letter published in the book. Pollitt accurately notes that Clive’s letters from India:

“… will make you angry and they will make you sad. They will make you see new colours and shades, an unimaginable suffering and a truly heroic grandeur, extraordinary nobility and equally extraordinary bestiality. It is a vivid and many-sided picture which Clive wanted to record in painting, and which we may be sure he would have executed with feeling and sincerity...”

Reading Clive’s letters today, 76 years after they were composed, still evoked a sense of anger because of the awful things he saw as well as a sense of wonder because of his very evident love and admiration of India and its people.

Whenever he was able, Clive mixed with Indians from all strata of society and delighted in their company.  While in Ahmednagar, Clive was introduced to an Indian artist. At this person’s house, he:

“… did a drawing for 1½ hours of his little niece aged 10. I did it in indelible pencil and ink – this is the medium I shall do most of my work in as it is more lasting – does not smudge – than ordinary pencil. But how difficult are Indian clothes – I shall have to do a lot of careful observation and drawing before I shall know what to do technically’ The Indian just sat and watched me working. He speaks English quite well, and knows a number of famous Indian painters – he himself went to the Bombay School of Art…”

This was noted in a letter dated 13th of April 1943. Several months later, in mid-September, Clive was invited to lunch with his artist friend. I loved his description of the occasion, which was new to him but typically Indian:

We sat on wooden seats about 2 ins. off the ground. The meal was in a room just off the kitchen. Of course we had taken off our boots etc. Each had a large silver plate with the various ingredients put around the edge. A small bowl of what they call butter-milk took the place of water. A pattern, done with vermilion and white powder had been drawn on the ground. In front of me was placed a little silver stand in which a stick of incense burned. Nana’s elder daughter also ate with us. The whole affair was very civilised and friendly.”

In general, Clive was enamoured of all of the Indians he encountered, both those from sophisticated and also humble backgrounds. He was horrified at the way that the British and their government treated them. This is a significant feature of what he conveyed in his letters. Also, the failure and apparent unwillingness of the British to address the terrible famine concerned and upset him greatly. He communicates this eloquently and powerfully in his writing.

One of Clive’s many observations struck a personal chord. It concerns the bookshops that Clive visited in India in search of reading material. In a letter written from Bombay in September 1942, he noted:

I have said a lot about going to bookshops, but I have never mentioned something which hits you in the face about the general trend of literature: 1. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is on sale prominently at every bookstall …”

Seeing copies of “Mein Kampf” openly on sale in most bookshops in India is something that has always surprised me since my first visit to India in 1994.

As a Communist, Clive’s political views are not concealed in his letters. He showed little or no sympathy for the policies of Gandhi and the All India Congress. On the 10th of March 1943, he wrote:

How stupid Gandhi’s fast looks compared to the grandeur of a handful of Indian peasants and workers uniting to demand their human rights!  No wonder the Viceroy corresponds with Gandhi and sends the police after the people.”

As for the Muslim League in Bengal:

The net result of the League’s scheme is to launch the peasants against the little men and leave the big bastards to control the famine via the black market – such is the first practical application of the policy of Jinnah.” (letter dated 19th June 1943)

Also, as a staunch anti-fascist, he regarded Subhas Chandra Bose as contemptible because he had chosen to fight alongside the Japanese, who were allies of fascist Germany. During his stay in India, Clive met and discussed matters with members of the Indian Communist Party. This is described in the letters and was not removed by the censors. In addition, his harsh but justifiable criticism of Britain’s mishandling of the famine in India passed the censors’ scrutiny and reached his wife’s letter box intact.

Clive was constantly upset by seeing examples of British racism in India. He mentions this often in his letters. The most eloquent example appears in a letter written on the 29th of November 1943:

I am sitting on the grass outside a long army hut. Not far away is an African negro … reading a book. Five minutes ago a B.O.R. [British other rank] came up, stopped, and said to him, ‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the book? Miss Blandish?’ ‘No, Pygmalion.’ I had to record this – whole books could not present the present world situation better.”

(I imagine that the B.O.R. was referring to “ No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, a  raunchy thriller by James Hadley Chase)

In the same letter, Clive noted that the British Conservative MP, Ferris:

“… has made a study of Indian affairs, and has delivered himself of the profound judgement that India is not ready for self-government. I wonder how many whiskies and sodas it took to produce such an original conclusion.”

Sadly, Clive did not live long enough to see India becoming independent in 1947. He was killed in action early in 1944 “…commanding an M3 Lee tank of B Squadron, 25th Dragoons. He was hit a glancing but fatal blow on the back of the head by a Japanese anti-tank shell near Point 315 at the end of the Battle of the Admin Box.” (source: Wikipedia).

Clive’s letters provide a moving collection of well-described observations of India, a country in which many of its citizens were enduring a plight at least as bad as that of people suffering in Nazi occupied Europe. They were under the control of the British, who were fighting to defeat Nazi tyranny. The British were under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who is reported (by his close colleague Leo Amery) to have said:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Here are two short videos well worth watching in connection with what I have written:

https://youtu.be/QI6qg1ERmGE

(Pathé Newsreel with scenes of the famine. Commentary in Punjabi, but images are very powerful)

https://youtu.be/fUjtxHFGUrg

(An Indian historian/author/politician gives a fresh view of Churchill)

 

 

Facts, figures, and famine

blog churchill

 

THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER, Mr Boris Johnson, appears to be strongly dependent on his chief adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings. Mr Johnson’s hero, the late Winston Churchill, was also very reliant on his chief advisor Professor Frederick Lindemann, First Viscount Cherwell (1886-1957), a scientist. Madushree Mukherjee, the author of “Churchill’s Secret War”, wrote:

“On most matters, Lindemann’s and Churchill’s opinions converged; and when they did not, the scientist worked ceaselessly to change his friend’s mind …”

Lindemann created the ‘S Branch’, a group of specialists whose role it was to report to Churchill after distilling “ …  thousands of sources of data into succinct charts and figures, so that the status of the nation’s food supplies (for example) could be instantly evaluated…” (Wikipedia).

Mukherjee noted:

“… the mission of the S branch was to provide rationales for whichever course the prime minister, as interpreted by the Prof, wished to follow.”

It would seem from this that Churchill pulled the strings, and even the great Lindemann was somewhat of a puppet. In contrast, it is difficult to say whether the puppet-master is our present prime minister or his chief adviser.

Two Commonwealth countries, Australia and New Zealand  erected large war memorials to their citizens near Hyde Park Corner and the gardens of Buckingham Palace. A more modest memorial complex, the Commonwealth Memorial Gates (inaugurated 2002), was put up to commemorate the great contribution that people from countries in the Indian subcontinent, the West Indies, and Africa made to defending the British Empire during the Second World War. An information panel informs the viewer that during the First World War, 1,440,500 men and women from the Indian subcontinent and Nepal “Volunteered for military service in the Indian Army”, and during WW2, “…over 2,500,00… “ men and women from the subcontinent fought for the forces of the British Empire. Between about 64,500 and 74,000 of the military personnel from the Indian subcontinent died in combat during WW1, and over 87,000 Indian (that is from pre-1947 ‘British India’) soldiers died during WW2. These figures are of necessity approximate and without doubt horrific. However, during WW2, the number of Indian citizens, who died of starvation in their own country during WW2 is far more difficult to know. The most reliable approximations give the number of Indians dying of starvation in Bengal during WW2 as being at least three million, that is about half the number of civilians who died because of Hitler’s demented racial theories.

The three million or most probably more Indians, who starved to death, lived mainly in Bengal. They did not perish by accident, as Madhusree Mukerjee explained in her book, which has been highly acclaimed. Unlike other famines in India caused by failures of harvest, what happened in Bengal in 1943 and ’44, the starvation of the Bengalis was probably largely man-made. And, as the book suggests using damning evidence that has come to light since WW2, two men who were most significant in its making were Churchill and his chief adviser Lindemann. 

Churchill was quite rightly focussed on winning the Second World War and at the same time preserving the integrity of the British Empire, which was being challenged by Indian nationalists throughout the two decades leading up to the outbreak of war and after the fighting began. For reasons I cannot explain Churchill did not like the Indian people. To give just one example, he is reported to have said of them in November 1942 that they were:

“… the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.”

His adviser, the eugenicist Lindeman (Cherwell) was also no lover of the Indians. Mukerjee wrote in her book:

“Inferior as the British working class was in Cherwell’s view, he nonetheless ranked it far above the black and brown subjects in the colonies.”

Later, she wrote:

“All the evidence points to the prime minister and his closest adviser having believed that Indians were ordained to reside at the bottom of the social pyramid …”

Long after India had become independent, Lindemann described (according to Mukerjee who provides reference for this):

“… ‘the abdication of the white man’ as the worst calamity of the twentieth century – more deplorable than the two world wars and the Holocaust”.

The gist of Mukerjee’s book is that important amongst the reasons that the 1943 famine in Bengal was not relieved was that Churchill was not in favour of releiving it. The author wrote that although at times vital supplies and shipping were at critical levels, there were opportunities for famine relief supplies to be sent to Bengal. However, the British government under the leadership of Churchill came up with many excuses to avoid supplying famine relief.

I found the evidence provided in Mukerjee’s book to be reliably persuasive. However, there are many who would prefer not to hear anything but good of the man who helped Britain and its allies win WW2, Winston Churchill. For a defence of Churchill’s behaviour during the Bengal famine, I refer you to https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/in-the-media/churchill-in-the-news/bengali-famine/, an on-line article that tries to demolish an article by Gideon Polya with the title “Media Lying Over Churchill’s Crimes”, published in 2008 (see: https://sites.google.com/site/afghanistangenocideessays/media-lying-over-churchill-s-crimes). 

You can judge Churchill’s possible role in Bengal’s 1943 famine however you wis,  but see what Professor Amartya Sen, a former colleague of my father at the London School of Economics  said. Michael Portillo said to him in a BBC interview on the 14th of January 2008:

“What’s interesting about your description is that it doesn’t appear to rest upon a shortage of rice.”

Sen, who appears to be far more generous than Mukerjee about Churchill’s attitude to the famine, replied:

“No it wasn’t. I think I have to say the British Indian government was callous. I don’t think they were criminal but they were certainly extremely callous and didn’t really worry too much about it. And secondly they were badly misinformed. What had happened is that there was a considerable expansion of demand for food because of the war boom. And with the same supply they were having rising prices. So it wasn’t connected with food deficit at all.”

(https://sites.google.com/site/drgideonpolya/bengal-famine-broadcast).

Seeing the war memorials near Hyde Park Corner and a Holocaust memorial nearby in Hyde Park, and having recently finished reading Mukerjee’s book, inspired me to write this short piece in order to provoke interest in one of the horrible tragedies that happened during WW2, the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Mukerjee’s book presented me with one very superficial resemblance between Churchill and his admiring biographer Boris Johnson. Both had their devoted advisers. Although Churchill might not have done things to everybody’s satisfaction, he did play an extremely important role in suppressing the forces of evil that were threatening Britain and its allies during WW2. Let us hope that Boris will follow in Winston’s footsteps in our fight against another evil enemy, the Corona virus, and lead us to victory.

 

Taking a plunge

blog Plunge

Whatever happens in the UK’s current tumultuous parliament, it is more likely than not that the UK will leave the European Union (‘EU’). Whether this happens on the 31st of October 2019 or later, the UK is certainly taking a plunge into a possibly frightening unknown. When a majority of the British people voted in favour of leaving the EU, nobody could foresee the problems that we are now facing and will face as time moves on. Sadly, many of those who voted (largely without understanding what is involved and often for xenophobic reasons) for ‘Brexit’ will suffer the consequences more than many who voted not to leave the EU. Our present Prime Minister is optimistic about the future of the UK outside the EU, but as Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill wrote:

There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The . . . people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”

(Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. 3 [1951])

In the club

The Bangalore United Services Club was established in its present pleasant premises in 1868 by members of the British military, the United Services. It was an officers’ club. With a very few exceptions (some members of Indian royal families), the Club only admitted Europeans (i.e. white people).  One of its best-known members was Winston Churchill, who did not like Bangalore and left the city leaving an unpaid bill at the Club. After WW1, some Indian military officers were admitted as members, but other Indians were excluded. After 1946, the Club was renamed “The Bangalore Club”, and civilians, both ‘white’ and Indian could become members. My late father-in-law became one of the first Indian members in the early 1950s.

CLUB 1

Today, the Bangalore Club is regarded as being one of the top (elite) social clubs in India. To become a member, applications must be made, and a hefty amount of money must be deposited with the Club. Then, the prospective member is put on a waiting list. The average waiting time is currently about a quarter of a century. This slow method of entry can be bypassed if you are the child or the spouse of an existing member. It so happens that I married a member of the Club. I was eligible to become a ‘spouse member’.

Simply being married to a member is not enough to get you into the Club. The spouse candidate needs first to apply, and then to find six sponsors, who are already members of the Club, and then to attend an interview. The interviews are only held a few times a year. Missing the interview might wreck the candidate’s chances of ever becoming a member. So, the candidate, who might be living anywhere in the world, must drop everything and attend when he or she is summoned.

I was lucky. My father-in-law (‘Daddy’), a well-respected and much-loved member of the Club, arranged that I would be called for interview on a date, when he was certain that I would be in India. However, he did not tell us about the interview before we left London. Had I known, I would have packed my only smart suit, but I did not. As soon as we arrived in Bangalore, Daddy told us about the interview, and we told him that we had not brought my suit. Undismayed, he rang around his friends in the neighbourhood, and he and I drove from house to house, trying to find a suit for me to borrow. Eventually, some kind person lent me his incredibly smart double-breasted jacket suit, which fitted me well. Unfortunately, I had to return it after the interview.

For a few days before my interview, Daddy and I visited several venerable members of the Club to get their signatures for my sponsorship. At each of their homes, I was received kindly, offered drinks and snacks while my potential sponsors became acquainted with me. At last, I was ready for the interview.

On the day of the interview, I woke up with an attack of influenza. My temperature was high, but the interview could not be missed. I was dosed up with paracetamol. Just before we left the flat, with me in my smart suit, Daddy sprayed me with some Eau de Cologne, saying it was best that I should smell pleasant when I met the interviewing committee.

I arrived with Daddy at the Club, where we joined about ten other candidates. Each candidate was chaperoned by a member, who would introduce him or her to the interviewers. Daddy was my chaperone. The interview procedure involved introducing me to each of several Club Committee members. Each Committee member asked me questions. Daddy was clearly worried about what I might say in response. So, as soon as I was about to answer any of the questioners, Daddy would interrupt me, saying something like:

You remember me. I have been a member since 1954. How is your father? He joined at the same time as me, you know.”

I do not recall having answered any of the questions. Being Daddy’s son-in-law was enough to persuade them that I would be an acceptable member of the Club.

As we walked away from the interviewing room, Daddy congratulated me for becoming a member of the esteemed club. He led me to the Men’s Bar (for men only), where we downed draught Kingfisher beer. Oddly, my influenza symptoms were beginning to subside by then.

CLUB 2

Sadly, Daddy is no longer around. Today, the Men’s Bar is no longer for men alone. Its name changed in about 2017, by which time both men and women were permitted to use its facilities. Daddy would, I believe, have approved of the liberation of the former Men’s Bar.

 

Finally, let me emphasise that I do not agree with Groucho Marx, who said:

Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member