The distant thunder
In Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) Satyajit Ray brought alive, with great sensitivity, the misery inflicted by the Bengal famine of 1943. The film was made three decades after that harrowing experience which returned to haunt Bengalis during the mid-1960s and became the leitmotif of the Communist movement in West Bengal. Based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's novel, Ray's award-winning film suggested, without recourse to crudity, how hunger stalked people amidst plentiful food stocks. Neither Bandyopadhyay nor Ray was treading new ground in making this point. After all, the famine of 1943 was a man-made disaster that claimed four million lives as the colonial Government chose to ignore its horrendous consequences.
The Bengal famine of 1943 - there were famines earlier, too, but none so devastating - has been evocatively described as the 'forgotten holocaust', a crime not recognised by history and now no more than a fading memory in the Bengali conscience. Hence the need to recall the sequence of events that led to hunger, disease and death on an unimaginable scale in rural Bengal where people pleaded for a fistful of rice but were spurned by a callous administration and corrupt hoarders; both joined hands to zealously guard overflowing godowns.
The distant thunder in Ashani Sanket referred to Japanese bombers. In real life, it was the killer cyclone of October 1942 which destroyed paddy fields along the east coast stretching from Bengal to Orissa. With no autumnal harvest, farmers, most of them landless or marginal, had no other option but to dip into emergency stocks at home which ran out by the summer of 1943. Meanwhile, sensing a scarcity, traders began to hoard whatever they could lay their hands on.
But the cyclone was only one of the contributing factors and its impact could have been mitigated if the colonial administration had not acted in the most selfish manner. Huge quantities of rice were stockpiled for British soldiers by seizing stocks meant for civilian consumption. Worse, even as the stark contours of the famine were emerging, rice was being exported to Sri Lanka for British soldiers garrisoned there.
Later, much after vultures had feasted on the dead and the dying, Britain tried to explain the crippling shortage by citing the suspension of rice imports from Burma, then occupied by Japanese forces. But Burmese rice, at best, accounted for not more than 15 per cent of Bengal's requirement. In any event, every effort was made to mop up all available rice from rural Bengal and either store it for soldiers or ship it out to what was then Ceylon. The little that escaped British appropriation was picked up by traders, nearly all of them collaborators of the civil administration, and sold at exorbitant prices. Wartime Kolkata, flush with money, did not experience the hunger of rural Bengal; tragically, Bengalis who could afford to buy rice at black market rates were deaf to the pitiful cries of starving fellow Bengalis. Latter day economists would say that market forces decided the price of rice. It would, therefore, be incorrect to blame the colonial Government alone for the colossal loss of lives.
Winston Churchill, who refused to acknowledge the famine till it became an embarrassment for the Empire, was to later slyly pretend it never happened by glossing over this dark chapter of British rule in India in his six-volume History of the Second World War. On the contrary, disdainful of natives and remorselessly untouched by their suffering, he claimed, "No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the people of Hindustan. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island." The four million people who died in the made-in-Britain famine of 1943 were inconsequential for the Empire's last standard-bearer.
It is unthinkable that so many lives would be lost today even in the worst possible circumstances. In food surplus India, Government often claims, there are enough provisions to ensure that nobody dies of starvation. No matter how scary the distant thunder may be, rest assured you shall not go hungry. Yet, in rural Bengal we are witnessing food riots: People are demanding their rightful share of supplies through the public distribution system but dealers are reluctant to meet their demand.
It is not that there are no supplies, but these are being diverted to the 'open market' to reap windfall profits. For instance, wheat which is sold at Rs 6.75 a kg through the public distribution system, fetches as much as Rs 13 in the 'open market'. Modern day economists will insist that there is nothing wrong with market forces deciding the price of foodgrains in rural Bengal. But that is as facetious as Churchill's claim of protecting Hindustan "from the horrors and perils of the World War".
If traders hoarded rice during the famine of 1943, accentuating the shortage and fuelling the famine, under the benign gaze of an uncaring civil administration controlled by Britain's equally unfeeling wartime Government, public distribution system dealers in districts across West Bengal - Bankura, Burdwan, Nadia, Murshidabad and Birbhum are witnessing food riots every day - have either hoarded rice and wheat or diverted supplies to the 'open market' with more than a little help from CPI(M) leaders and the hugely corrupt administration they run.
There is a difference, though: In 1943, famished men, women and children meekly surrendered to their fate, as the accompanying photograph of a peasant and his two sons shows. There was no struggle for survival: Godowns were not raided by hungry masses, traders were not attacked, administration offices were not set on fire. Today, there is no such meek surrender. Ration shop dealers, who are also card-carrying members of the CPI(M), are being beaten up and their shops and godowns are being ransacked. Local Marxist chieftains who dare intervene on behalf of the dealers-turned-hoarders are being chased, in some cases out of villages.
The Left Front Government of West Bengal claims the agitation is being stage-managed by Maoists and Jamaatis. To prove that there is no shortage of food, it points to well-fed, well-nourished Kolkata, forgetting to mention that the city was untouched by the famine of 1943 too. Such pathetic efforts to discredit the impoverished, hungry masses would convince only those who sit in the airconditioned confines of AK Gopalan Bhawan, agonising over the India-US nuclear deal even as the distant thunder rolls nearer from West Bengal.