‘Who was really to blame for the Bengal famine?’ asked George Orwell in a 1945 essay titled ‘Notes on Nationalism’ referring to the World War II-era calamity. ‘Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion.’ During the war, Orwell had served with the BBC, writing propaganda for transmission to the Subcontinent. His task was to ensure that the inhabitants of British India supported the war effort, notwithstanding their unhappiness with colonial rule. Orwell had quit the BBC in the autumn of 1943, right after – and possibly because – news of the famine had broken in London.
Born in what in 1903 was Bengal Province, and having been concerned about hunger in the British colonies as an adult, Orwell was no doubt informed about the drivers of the famine that an inquiry commission had subsequently listed. These included the Japanese occupation of Burma in the spring of 1942, which had cut off rice imports for India’s poor; ‘scorched earth’ military measures in coastal and eastern Bengal, designed to retard a feared invasion by the Axis forces; cyclone and pest infestations that damaged the province’s subsequent rice crop; and hoarding by local speculators. However, Orwell could not have known about factors that the famine commission had neglected to discuss, such as inflationary financing of the massive war effort and the War Cabinet’s direct role in exacerbating the famine.
For instance, at Winston Churchill’s personal insistence, India had continued to export rice for the war effort, even as it faced severe shortages. Worse, the prime minister had declined to relieve the famine, instead opting to stockpile wheat – available in Australia – for the use of the United Kingdom and Europe after the war was over. The famine commission had avoided these discomfiting issues. Rather, it had created the false impression that ships were not available to ferry relief, and that only imports of rice, which was scarce worldwide, would have broken the famine. The commission also failed to mention the international offers of rice and wheat that the War Cabinet had rejected.
Certain papers pertaining to these decisions on India were released to the public decades afterward. Along with transcripts of the secret hearings of the inquiry commission, they enable a partial reconstruction of events before and during the calamity. The transcripts were to have been destroyed, but one copy survived thanks to a renegade member of that commission. Nevertheless, at least one relevant file in the records of the India Office, the administrative centre in London that oversaw the Subcontinent’s affairs, is missing and another has been destroyed. Pertinent documents are also missing from the papers of Leopold Amery, who served as the secretary of state for India at the time, and who had heated arguments with Churchill over famine relief. Microfilms of other documents have sections on shipping activity related to India blacked out. And a set of candid notes on War Cabinet meetings, released in 2006, stop unaccountably in mid-July 1943, just before Churchill made the first and most important of his decisions to deny famine relief. The death count in Bengal is estimated at about three million.
Orwell had no way of learning the full truth about the famine, as he suspected. At the BBC, which during the war was strictly supervised by the Ministry of Information, he had acquired experience with the means by which information is tailored for popular consumption. After leaving that organisation, Orwell used the few years of life he had remaining to write Animal Farm and 1984. The latter was an anguished warning about the danger of propaganda erasing truth – with much of the theme modelled on Orwell’s own experience as an employee answerable to the Ministry of Information.
The central character in 1984, Winston Smith, is required to be conscious of the truth, so that he can act effectively, and also unconscious of it, so that he can sidestep guilt. He must therefore master doublethink, ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’ That is, he has
to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.
Imperialists were particularly prone to such intentionally delusional thought processes, Orwell observed in the 1945 essay that alluded to the Bengal famine. ‘All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts,’ he wrote. ‘A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency.’
Orwell might have been remembering Churchill’s declaration, in a wartime speech: ‘Alone among the nations of the world we have found the means to combine Empire and liberty.’ Indeed, Churchill was particularly adept at doublethink. Even as he fended off demands for grain for the famine-stricken colony in the autumn of 1943, for instance, Churchill declared that British rule had bestowed ‘a golden age’ upon India. In defiance of considerable evidence, he held to the faith that imperial rule had given Indians abler governance than they were capable of achieving for themselves. Through the course of six massive volumes on World War II, which became the touchstone for a generation of historians, Churchill failed to mention the famine, writing instead that India ‘had been carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small Island.’ Hearing Churchill read aloud parts of the history he was writing, even his doctor, obviously a healthy sceptic, had wondered, ‘Could it be that he had come to believe what he wanted to believe?’
Doublethink, a form of self-deception or cognitive dissonance, has recently been recognised as a universal skill in highly social and communicative species such as humans. Orwell not only anticipated this socio-biological discovery, but also the experimental finding that the powerful are particularly prone to self-deception. ‘In our society’, he wrote of the fictional Oceania in 1984, ‘those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are the furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane.’ Churchill’s passionate attachment to the empire, and his equally intense hostility to those who would wrest it from him, made it particularly challenging for him to view the colony’s matters objectively. ‘I am by no means sure whether in this subject of India he is really quite sane,’ commented Secretary of State Amery after a War Cabinet fracas on the subject.
The capacity for self-deception appears to reside in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is also the region that produces language – rhetorical ability such as Churchill possessed might indicate a susceptibility to self-deception. Politician Charles Masterman once described Churchill’s thought processes in the following way:
In nearly every case an idea enters his head from outside. It then rolls round the hollow of his brain, collecting strength like a snowball. Then, after whirling winds of rhetoric, he becomes convinced that it is right; and denounces everyone who criticizes it … He sets ideas to Rhetoric as musicians set theirs to music. And he can convince himself of almost every truth if it is once allowed thus to start on its wild career through his rhetorical machinery.
Churchill was aware, even proud, of his tendency to allow instinct, rather than reason, determine his course. In his autobiography, he wrote that he had ‘adopted quite early in life a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe.’ That almost mystical trust in his convictions might have been his greatest strength – for instance, in the dark days when Adolf Hitler overran Europe. But it also seems to have been one of his greatest weaknesses, such as when he pushed the disastrous Gallipoli expedition of World War I or remained resolute in denying relief for Indian famine.
When it came to the British Empire, Churchill’s strategy of doublethink was deliberate. He maintained his Victorian outlook, for instance, by reading books such as Mother India, which described Hindus as paedophiles, and Verdict on India, which likened Mohandas K Gandhi to Hitler. He also consistently refused to consider information that could shake his dogmas. ‘I am quite satisfied with my views of India,’ he had told the viceroy of India, Edward F L Wood, in 1929, when the latter urged him to talk to a few of the colony’s subjects. ‘I don’t want them disturbed by any bloody Indian.’ Two years later, when Gandhi visited the UK and asked to meet with Churchill, already the Mahatma’s fiercest critic, the latter refused. In the years to come, Churchill would describe Gandhi as ‘a malignant subversive fanatic’ and a ‘thoroughly evil force’ – terms as vehement as those he used for Hitler. Declining to release ships and wheat for Bengal, he would allege that the people, who were dying like flies, were rather ‘breeding like rabbits.’
Interestingly, Churchill’s decisions to withhold relief were forced through the bureaucracy by means of doublethink. In early 1943, for instance, when the viceroy of India, Victor A J Hope, better known as Lord Linlithgow, wrote of severe food shortages and asked for 600,000 tonnes of wheat to feed the army and war workers until the next harvest, the prime minister asserted that the UK was living ‘hand to mouth’ and could not afford to release ships for India. The claim was false. Nevertheless, a shipping official conveyed to the India Office the impossibility of sending grain, while expressing hope that the Indian ‘demand is at least watered down, if not eliminated.’ In other words, he insisted that the colony’s administrators ignore the information they were gathering from the ground and alter their grain estimates in tune with the UK’s priorities. The viceroy, who privately anticipated famine, ultimately accepted with little protest a mere five percent of the wheat he had declared as essential.
The Indian government, in its turn, imposed doublethink on the administrators of Bengal province. ‘This shortage [of rice] is a thing entirely of your own imagination,’ officials in New Delhi told officials in Calcutta. ‘We do not believe it and you have got to get it out of your head that Bengal is deficit.’ They advised instead ‘attacking and confining on a large scale’ those who were warning of shortages. At the time, New Delhi’s officials were estimating the rice shortfall in Bengal to be two million tonnes; but they had to deny the threat of impending famine in order to force Bengal to continue exporting rice, as Churchill had ordered. Such institutionalised doublethink, rippling down the chain of command, would enable the starvation deaths of millions. Meanwhile, in the UK, stocks of food and raw materials built up to 18.5 million tons by the end of 1943, the highest total ever, in or out of war.
In Darwinian terms, doublethink might not be a weakness at all: unlike millions of men, women and children in faraway Bengal, Churchill suffered no consequences of his decisions regarding the famine. That observation might in turn explain why famine has never occurred in a democracy, as economist Amartya Sen has noted. Democracy renders politicians answerable to those over whom they rule, and forces them to renounce the kind of doublethink that harms voters. Churchill and his close friend Frederick Lindemann, who repeatedly advised against sending famine relief to India, were concerned by what post-war British elections might hold in store for them, and therefore were deeply attentive to British needs. (Lindemann was not a politician, but derived his power from Churchill.) When it came to caring for the British public, they erred on the side of extreme caution – and transferred all the economic risk to India by means of their allocations of shipping. Had the colony’s voters also been able to depose Churchill, he would have been less likely to wish their needs away.
Just as bad
When it came to facing repellent truths about the empire, Churchill’s opposite was Orwell. In his first novel, Burmese Days, Orwell described the misery of a British official in Burma who no longer could stand to live a falsity, ‘the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them.’ Orwell had started his own career as a policeman in Burma, departing in disgust when he became unable to live with the inner conflict that his job induced. Back in Britain, he bemoaned the prevailing ‘double-faced attitude towards the Empire’ (note this precursor of doublethink), and described the English as a Victorian family that maintained ‘a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income’ – the colonies. In 1939, he blamed colonialism for chronic hunger in India, and asked: ‘What meaning would there be, even if it were successful, in bringing down Hitler’s system in order to stabilise something that is far bigger and in its different way just as bad?’
When World War II broke out, however, and poor health precluded his joining the army, Orwell accepted a job at the BBC in the hope that he could help bring down fascism without giving succour to imperialism. At work he was known by his birth name, Eric Blair, but for private correspondence he used his adopted name, Orwell. Asked whether he would sign off his broadcasts as George Orwell – Indians were familiar with his anti-imperial writings, and the name alone would render the propaganda more effective – he agreed, asking only that he be excused on occasions when he ‘could not in honesty’ say what he was required to say. (Interestingly, Eric Blair could lie but George Orwell would not.) Censorship was pervasive. Orwell could not invite H G Wells or George Bernard Shaw for his talk shows, for instance, because these writers were perceived as ‘loose cannons’. Two officials previewed every broadcast, one for security and the other for politics, while a third stood ready to cut off a speaker should he or she deviate from the script.
In the autumn of 1942, when the authorities violently suppressed Indian agitation against British rule, Orwell became despondent. ‘It is strange, but quite truly the way the British government is now behaving in India upsets me more than a military defeat,’ he wrote in his diary. References to Jawaharlal Nehru had to be omitted from one broadcast, ‘Nehru being in prison and therefore having become bad.’ Not long after, a discussion with a BBC official who had returned from the Subcontinent convinced Orwell that ‘affairs are much worse in India than anyone here is allowed to realise.’ To a man plagued almost his entire life by a gift for discerning the truth, Orwell’s duties of composing propaganda and submitting to censorship must have become increasingly painful. In 1984, he would recreate Room 101, where he met with superiors at the Ministry of Information, as the torture chamber where Winston’s tormentor finally destroyed his allegiance to the truth.
On 24 August 1943, Orwell informed a friend that he planned to resign from the BBC. ‘At present I’m just an orange that’s been trodden on by a very dirty boot,’ he wrote, without offering details. In his subsequent resignation letter, he explained that ‘in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.’ Some scholars suggest that he resigned because his programme had very few listeners. But Orwell had known that for almost a year. The timing of his decision suggests that it was the Bengal famine which provided the last straw. That fall, the British press and public were debating the famine, news of which had been broken in August by The Statesman; and Orwell’s target audience, the people of the Subcontinent, were infuriated by the calamity. Orwell could scarcely ignore the famine in his news broadcasts, but to deal with it he would have had to explain it away, a task that he would have found repugnant. Instead, he left the BBC, taking with him impressions and ideas that he would incorporate into Ninteen Eighty-Four, one of the paradigmatic novels of the 20th century.