By Swapan Dasgupta
History, it is said, is written by victors. Occasionally, it is also rewritten by historians. Last month, the publication of two books has fuelled a revisionist reassessment of two towering figures of the 20th century, men who contributed immeasurably towards shaping the contemporary world: Winston Churchill and Mao Zedong.
Churchill's role in standing up to the tyranny of fascism and heralding the defeat of Adolf Hitler is the stuff of legends. A mesmerising speaker who bolstered the determination of a beleaguered island, Churchill remains an inspirational figure throughout the English-speaking world. He is seen as the personification of bulldog resolve, courage, wit, erudition and style—everything that once signified loftiness and 'character'.
Mao, on the other hand, stood for things entirely different. If Churchill's leadership was unquestionably patrician, Mao was said to have been blessed by the common touch. He didn't merely extricate China from the bondages of feudal oppression and foreign exploitation; he established new parameters of politics. Before Mao's triumph in 1949, the peasantry was the object of politics—the proverbial 'sack of potatoes' as Karl Marx described it. Mao Zedong Thought made it the subject of history, the instrument of radical change in the Third World.
Churchill left no tangible political legacy, not even within his own Conservative Party. Mao, on the other hand, inspired generations of political activists throughout the world, but particularly in Asia. "China's Chairman is our Chairman" screamed the wall graffiti in post-Naxalbari Bengal of the 1970s. And even today, the foremost internal security challenge to the Indian state comes from the CPI (Maoist)—an insurrection that is said to be driven by the passionate desire to empower the wretched of the earth.
Madhuree Mukerjee's Churchill's Secret War is the tale of a less wholesome Churchill. It is the richly documented story of the war hero who was so blinded by his hatred of Mahatma Gandhi, Congress, Indians, Hindus and Bengalis that he facilitated a man-made famine in 1943 and contributed to anything between three and five million starvation deaths in Bengal.
What comes through Mukerjee's study is Churchill's astonishing lack of humanity. Driven by the goal of "total victory", the British Prime Minister's priority lay in ensuring that the Home Front was well looked after. He ensured that the quality of bread for British civilians was maintained and that there was a comfortable food buffer, even if this meant the diversion of merchant shipping to the Atlantic and the denial of much-needed food imports to India.
It could be argued that Churchill made an uncaring but strategic choice to put Britain before India, a land whose "beastly" people had turned "seditious". Mao, however, wasn't confronted with similar conflicting imperatives when he launched his Great Leap Forward in 1958 to catapult China into the league of industrialised nations. As Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine reveals, the Chairman became a demented megalomaniac who laughed his way through the deaths of more than 45 million Chinese.
In coping with what is probably the worst man-made famine in history, Mao's callousness was unbelievable. "When there is not enough to eat", he told those who dared protest, "people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." He told cadres not to worry about deaths, "There should be celebration rallies when people die." His prescription for protests was simple: "We must kill… we say it's good to kill."
In blending ghoulishness with eccentricity, Mao seemed to have acquired the characteristics of both Caligula and Idi Amin. He launched a campaign to eliminate sparrows from the countryside because they ate grain; like the Idea cellphone ad, he mooted replacing names of people with numbers; and he proposed the establishment of an Earth Control Committee to "make a uniform plan for the Earth", an enterprise that may have been inspired by Dr No and Goldfinger.
Mao was nuts and China has rightly turned its back on his legacy. In India, however, those who once informed us that Mao's China ensured food for all and an empowered peasantry are now telling us that Maoists are idealists who have the interests of the poor at heart!