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Hungry Bengal: War, Famine, Riots, and the End of Empire, 1939-1946

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  • The Cumalitive Violence In War-Time Calcutta
  • India.
  • Economics
  • Medicine
  • Political Science


Representing both a major front in the Indian struggle against colonial rule, as well as a crucial front in the British/American conflict with Japan during World War II, Bengal stood at the crossroads of complex and contentious forces that served to define an era of political uncertainty, social turmoil, and collective violence. The period between 1939 and 1946 in Bengal, can be defined, above all, by three interrelated events: World War II, the Bengal famine of 1943, and the Calcutta riots of 1946. Mobilization for war began in 1939, but Britain's sense of urgency was difficult to impress upon a skeptical Indian population already chaffing under the injustices of colonial rule and grave economic hardship. When Japan bombed Calcutta in 1942, the injustices and hardships only multiplied. This attack on Britain's most easterly industrial port brought the Second World War home to India, causing a mass exodus from the former colonial capital and driving residents of the city into the rural districts of Bengal. As conflict between Allied forces and Japan in Southeast Asia intensified, Calcutta emerged as a primary supply-front in the war-effort. This prioritization of Calcutta, in turn, led to the economic destabilization of the entire region, resulting in an abrupt rise in prices, which precipitated catastrophic famine throughout the province. With starvation decimating the countryside by early 1943, residents of Bengal poured into Calcutta seeking relief. Subsequently Calcutta's already fragile infrastructure buckled under the immense pressure of famine refugees, becoming a grim landscape of starvation and disease. While colonial officials sidelined the elected provincial government and communitarian-defined parties jockeyed for popular support in anticipation of the end of colonial rule, at least three million residents of Bengal died. As famine became increasingly entangled in rancorous political debate, social stratification intensified, and communal identities congealed. As such, Calcutta was still deeply enmeshed in famine when it was plunged into still deeper turmoil by the communal riots that rocked the city in August of 1946. This dissertation examines these cumulatively devastating events, and traces the human impact of this period of acute scarcity, violent dislocation, and enduring calamity.

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