Basic Books, £18.99, 322pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Churchill's Secret War, By Madhusree Mukerjee

Ihave not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," Winston Churchill famously declared in 1942. That passion for empire did not, however, entail the duty of protecting the lives of the King's distant subjects, especially Indians, "a beastly people with a beastly religion." In 1943, as millions were dying of starvation in 1943 in Bengal, the birthplace of the Raj, Churchill not only refused to help but prevented others from doing so, commenting that Indians "bred like rabbits." The Churchill industry, more interested in the great man's dentures than in his war crimes, has managed to keep this appalling story fairly quiet.

Much has been written on the Bengal famine in India and America, but mostly concentrating on local factors. Madhusree Mukerjee's Churchill's Secret War, however, sets the disaster in its imperial context, showing how the story of the famine was interwoven with the history of Gandhi's "Quit India" movement and the attitudes and priorities of Churchill and his war cabinet. It establishes how Churchill and his associates could easily have stopped the famine with a few shipments of foodgrains but refused, in spite of repeated appeals from two successive Viceroys, Churchill's own Secretary of State for India and even the President of the United States.

Famines, never unknown in India, became increasingly lethal during the Raj because of the export of foodgrains and the replacement of food crops with indigo or jute. The Second World War made things worse, especially after Japanese forces occupied Burma in 1942, cutting off Indian rice imports. Then a destructive cyclone hit the Bengal coast just when the crucial winter crop was maturing and the surviving rice was damaged by disease. Officials of the Raj, fearing a Japanese invasion, confiscated everything that might help the invading force – boats, carts, motor vehicles, elephants and, crucially, all the rice available. The Japanese never came but a panicking public – and many crafty businessmen – immediately began to hoard rice and the staple food of the people quickly disappeared from the marketplace.

Government stocks were released but only to feed the people of Calcutta, especially British businesspeople and their employees, railway and port workers and government staff. Controlled shops were opened for less important Calcuttans and the urban population never suffered too greatly. The rural masses, however, were left to the wolves. This was when Churchill could have made a difference by sending wheat or rice to Bengal, and not enormous quantities. The point was to make hoarding unprofitable and as the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow pointed out, "the mere knowledge of impending imports" would have done so by lowering the price of rice.

Churchill and his war cabinet, however, decided to reserve available shipping to take food to Italy in case it fell to the Allies. Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, then fighting with Axis forces, offered to send rice from Burma but British censors did not even allow his offer to be reported. Australia and Canada were eager to send wheat but virtually all merchant ships plying in the Indian Ocean area had been moved to the Atlantic in order to bring food to Britain, which already had a comfortable stockpile.

So hundreds of thousands perished in the villages of Bengal and, by the middle of 1943, hordes of starving people were flooding into Calcutta, most dying on the streets, often in front of well-stocked shops or restaurants serving lavish meals. The very air of the metropolis, a journalist noted, was pervaded by that "distinctive sourish odour which the victims give off a few hours before the end."

In London, Churchill's beloved advisor, the physicist Frederick Alexander Lindemann (Lord Cherwell), was unmoved. A firm believer in Malthusian population theory, he blamed Indian philoprogenitiveness for the famine – sending more food would worsen the situation by encouraging Indians to breed more. The prime minister was of the same opinion and expressed himself so colourfully that Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, exploded at him, comparing his attitudes to Hitler's.

The Churchill industry has always denied that their idol could have done anything to relieve the Bengal famine. Shipping, they claim, was scarce and it just wasn't possible to send food to Bengal. Mukerjee nails those "terminological inexactitudes" with precision. There was a shipping glut in summer and autumn 1943, thanks to the US transferring cargo ships to British control. Churchill, Lindemann and their close associates simply did not consider Indian lives worth saving.

Mukerjee has researched this forgotten holocaust with great care and forensic rigour. Mining an extensive range of sources, she not only sheds light on the imperial shenanigans around the famine, but on a host of related issues, such as the flowering of nationalism in famine-hit districts, Churchill's fury about the sterling credit that India was piling up in London, or the dreadful situation in the villages even after the famine was technically over. Her calmly phrased but searing account of imperial brutality will shame admirers of the Greatest Briton and horrify just about everybody else.

Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London

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