The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 21 Mar 2018

The 1943 Bengal famine

A couple of years ago I was reading Wikipedia's article about the the 1943 Bengal famine, and I was startled by the following claim:

"If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?"

Winston Churchill's response to an urgent request to release food stocks for India.

It was cited, but also marked with the “not in citation” tag, which is supposed to mean that someone checked the reference and found that it did not actually support the claim.

It sounded like it might be the sort of scurrilous lie that is widely repeated but not actually supportable, so I went to follow it up. It turned out that although the quotation was not quite exact, it was not misleadingly altered, and not a scurrilous lie at all. The attributed source (Tharoor, Shashi "The Ugly Briton". Time, (29 November 2010).) claimed:

Churchill's only response to a telegram from the government in Delhi about people perishing in the famine was to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet.

I removed the “not in citation” tag, which I felt was very misleading.

Still, I felt that anything this shocking should be as well-supported as possible. It cited Tharoor, but Tharoor could have been mistaken. So I put in some effort and dug up the original source. It is from the journal entry of Archibald Wavell, then Viceroy of India, of 5 July 1944:

Winston sent me a peevish telegram to ask why Gandhi hadn't died yet! He has never answered my telegram about food.

This appears in the published version of Lord Wavell's journals. (Wavell, Archibald Percival. Wavell: The Viceroy's journal, p. 78. Moon, Penderel, ed. Oxford University Press, 1973.) This is the most reliable testimony one could hope for. The 1973 edition is available from the Internet Archive.

A few months later, the entire article was massively overhauled by a group of anglophiles and Churchill-rehabilitators. Having failed to remove the quotation for being uncited, and then having failed to mendaciously discredit the cited source, they removed the quotation in a typical episode of Wikipedia chicanery. In a 5,000-word article, one sentence quoting the views of the then-current British Prime Minister was deemed “undue weight”, and a failure to “fairly represent all significant viewpoints that have been published by reliable sources”.

Further reading: In Winston Churchill, Hollywood rewards a mass murderer. (Tharoor again, in last week's Washington Post.)

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