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Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II Hardcover – August 10, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Misremembered as a placid imperial bastion during WWII, India was in fact racked by famine and insurrection, according to this searching history. Mukerjee (The Land of Naked People) surveys a country seething with violence, as Congress Party militants agitating for independence turned to rioting and assassination campaigns after bloody police crackdowns, and an army of Indian guerrillas fought alongside the Japanese against the British. The author's centerpiece is a chronicle of the 1943 Bengali famine, in which at least 1.5 million died while British authorities continued exporting Indian grain. She blames the disaster on British policy, which, she argues, sought to extract as much war production and food as possible from India while printing money to pay for it; the resulting inflation priced food beyond the reach of the poor. Mukerjee sets her well-researched chronicle amid heartbreaking scenes of starvation, bloodshed, and pungent portraits of Winston Churchill and his advisers as studies in racial disdain and deluded imperial nostalgia. This gripping account of a historical tragedy is a useful corrective to fashionable theories of benign imperial rule, arguing that a brutal rapaciousness was the very soul of the Raj. Maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi
“Winston Churchill’s dislike of India and Indians has been known to scholars. But now, in Churchill’s Secret War, we have, for the first time, definitive evidence of how a great man’s prejudices contributed to one of the most deadly famines in modern history. In her book, Madhusree Mukerjee writes evocatively of how hunger and rebellion in rural Bengal was a product of cynicism and callousness in imperial London. Deeply researched and skillfully constructed, this is a major contribution to Indian history and to the history of the Second World War.”

Mike Davis, Professor of Creative Writing at University of California–Riverside
“An epic indictment of British policies that cold-bloodedly caused the death of millions of ordinary Indians during the Second World War. With impeccable research, Mukerjee debunks the conventional hagiography of Churchill, showing ‘the last imperialist’s’ monstrous indifference to the peoples of the sub- continent.”

John Horgan, Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology
Churchill's Secret War is a major work of historical scholarship, which reveals that one of the 20th century's greatest heroes was also one of its greatest villains. Mukerjee's elegant, precise prose and meticulous research make her tale of colonial brutality all the more gripping and horrific.”

“An important though uncomfortable lesson for readers who think they know the heroes and villains of World War II.”

Publishers Weekly
““[W]ell-researched…This gripping account of historical tragedy is a useful corrective to fashionable theories of benign imperial rule, arguing that a brutal rapaciousness was the very soul of the Raj.”

“A clearly written and well-researched study…Mukerjee writes with a careful hand, avoiding an easily dismissible rant and smartly allowing Churchill’s closet advisors to color in the dark details.”

Roll Call
“Mukerjee’s work is an important tool in repudiating the dominant legacy of Churchill.”

Indian Express
“[Mukerjee’s] main point comes through persuasively…never has anything quite this persuasive demonstrated how devastating for the world were Churchill’s personal failings.”

The Independent 
“Mukerjee has researched this forgotten holocaust with great care and forensic rigor…Her calmly phrased but searing account of imperial brutality will shame admirers of the Greatest Briton and horrify just about everybody else.

Sunday Times 
“[A] significant and – to British readers – distressing book…the broad thrust of Mukerjee’s book is as sound as it shocking.”

Churchill’s Secret War is a disturbing read, and one that I recommend.”
“Madhusree Mukerjee’s new book, Churchill’s Secret War, reveals a side of Churchill largely ignored by the West and considerably tarnishes his heroic sheen…Mukerjee’s book depicts a truth more awful than any fiction.”
Time Out for Entertainment
“Mukerjee makes [her] points with a skill and scholarship that are convincing, making the reader see an episode of World War II with new eyes and new sympathy.”
Asian Review of Books
“A vivid account of the subject…Churchill’s Secret War is a book that needs to be read.”

New York Review of Books
“Mukerjee not only writes well, she writes from a point of view that most Bengalis and many Indians would share…her book should be welcomed as a serious attempt to deal in all its aspects with a neglected catastrophe in an era of catastrophes piled grotesquely one on top of another.”

New York Times Book Review
“[Mukerjee] sharpens her point by drawing provocative analogies…Churchill’s Secret War is convincing.”
“[Mukerjee] seeks…to give a voice to a people without a history…Recommended.”


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (August 10, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465002013
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465002016
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #416,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mukerjee's book is a powerful indictment of British imperial policy in India, callous as always but even moreso in the difficult years of the Second World War. This volume is a very important work in two heretofore separate areas of scholarship: The effects of British colonialism in India on the one hand and the Re-examination of World War 2 on the other. In the first instance, this book reminds us of Mike Davis's brilliant "Late Victorian Holocausts" and in the second, reminds us of the works of David Glantz (on the Soviet role in defeating Nazism.) In both cases, the stories handed down to us and considered normative are appallingly imperfect, motivated, and frankly incorrect.

As Britain prosecuted the war against Nazi Germany, much of her food and material inputs came from her Indian colony. This was a hoary tradition beginning at the outset of British colonialism in India, in which a rich country was ravaged by the expansive needs of a colonial master, who used the subject nation's wealth to fund the industrial revolution. While Indian starved in the millions, the British maintained a steady supply of calories as they fought the war- all because of a deliberate colonial policy, devised at the hands of Winston Churchill.

Elegantly written with the right balance of facts and clear outrage, this book must be read.
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Format: Hardcover
I am 45 years old, grew up in Kolkata and now live in Europe. Yes, this is the history my parents witnessed as children and were too scarred to repeat to me. This is the history my grandparents witnessed as young adults and would allude to me in the most indirect manner possible - it was obviously too painful to describe to a child. My grandparents died years ago and my father died two years ago. I am glad someone recorded this history - our generation's immediate history - in such an accurate and scholarly manner.
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Format: Hardcover
Between 3 and 5 million people died of starvation and famine in Bengal in India in 1943. The drought was a result of nature. The resulting famine and the millions of deaths can be attributed to the policies of the colonial power ruling India - the British, and one person is most culpable in this crime against humanity - Winston Churchill. This scandal is what the author details immaculately, punctuated by impeccable research. Human, economic, political, imperial, racist, and social angles are all brought out in vivid detail. The case against Winston Churchill turns out to be damningly severe, even to the author - "I had no idea the book would end up targeting Churchill to this extent", but the evidence is as strong as could be. As it turns out, the carefully constructed narrative and myth of the gentlemanly and benevolent nature of British rule in its colonies is shattered, devastatingly so.

The book is part history.
It tells of the riches in India and Bengal before the advent of the East India Company and then English rule. This is covered in the Prologue. The bulk of the book then deals with the famine of 1943. Since that was a tumultuous period - in India on account of the independence struggle with Mahatma Gandhi at the forefront, and in the world on account of World War II, we are provided pertinent accounts of key events that had a relevant bearing on the famine. Of Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha, of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army, of local uprisings in Midnapore and the now mostly forgotten revolutionaries like Sushil Dhara, Ajoy Mukhopadhyaya, and others, of the Japanese conquest of Singapore, Burma, and their landing at the doorstep of India'a eastern borders, of the Denial Policy (really a scorched earth policy).
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Winston Churchill was my hero while growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s. I remember grown men crying at the news of his passing. Having read this compelling history, I am now not so sure that my hero worship of Churchill was well-placed. His policy of starving millions of Indians to death, simply to keep England well-fed during WWII, would seem to place Churchill along with Stalin and Mao. I would like to learn of other people's opinions on this matter.
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Format: Paperback
The hypocrisy of Westernism is starkly revealed in Mukerjee's narrative of Britain's starving its "lesser peoples" of the Empire for reasons of state. Stalin was demonized as a totalitarian tyrant for doing so to his own "colonial" peasants; yet when Western leaders do the same to people other than "their own" they must be given a free moral pass. After all, by standing on the right side of history, they can only do wrong for the best reasons.

I thought the book was rather heavy on the policy aspects, dwelling on the attitudes and loyalties of the top men responsible as opposed to the downflood of misery spouting from them. However, if one can morally excuse Churchill's action as necessary for national survival and winning of the war, one must say the same for Stalin: his crash industrialization, resulting in famine in the 30s, enabled the USSR to withstand the same Nazi enemy a decade later. (Much like Hillary Clinton's contemporary hype over Syrian dictators who kill "their own people": at least they don't go halfway around the world to kill someone else's.) Mukerjee shows the West cannot eat its moral cake both ways.
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