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The Bengal famine of 1943

Statesman j.jpg

In 1943 Bengal was a generally accepted name for a large northeastern chunk of the British Raj.

In our own day, part of that chunk is known as Bangladesh. The rest is within India, but is divided into three states: West Bengal, Tripura, and Asam.

However defined, Bengal was the scene of a horrific famine in 1943. More than two million people died either of 'pure' starvation or of diseases common to the region, and seldom fatal except in a body weakened by malnourishment.  The causes of the famine are hotly disputed. Bad harvests were part of it, but the disruption of trading patterns by the war -- which was very close by at this time -- Burma was the front line -- was also part of it. The British government kept the matter as hush-hush as they could manage. They wanted to convey an atmosphere of normalcy in British India to the extent possible. That propaganda-driven denialism surely contributed to the death toll.

Beyond its humanitarian interest, the famine has a lot to do with the Indian people's insistence on independence after the war. As soon as the Japanese threat had disappeared, they clearly wanted nothing more to do with the Empire.

 Amartya Sen, in THE IDEA OF JUSTICE (2009) invokes this famine in order to defend the value of reasoning in politics and in the search for Justice. He is responding here to Jonathan Glover, author of a book critical of the whole idea of public reason, calling this Enlightenment idea a human disaster.

Sen is saying that reasoning about the causes and aggravating conditions of a famine is a good thing. It can assist those who want to help if they are not driven by sentiment alone, but by rational consideration of the facts and the options. Particular lines of reasoning night lead to negative results (as Malthusianism might lead to a hands-off approach), but surely the remedy for bad reasoning isn't the abandonment of reasoning altogether.

In a footnote Sen mentions the fact that so many of the deaths in Bengal were not pure starvation deaths. Reasoning from such facts would suggest that food assistance is not the only valuable sort of assistance famine victims require.


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