In Defence of Churchill: A Response to Shashi Tharoor


Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician, has published an article accusing the World War 2 British prime minister, Winston Churchill, of being a mass murderer. It has become fashionable to attack Churchill and I did not think much of it initially, until I read through it.

Of Churchill’s alleged quotes, the witticism, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” was immediately recognisable, but many of the others were unfamiliar. The most ridiculous was the claim that Churchill not only had a hand in the Bengali famine, but had caused it. This is, at best, a gross simplification, and at worst a blatant deception.

Tharoor’s article is unconcealed manipulation of quotes and facts; a complete lack of historical academic sources, lazy fact-checking across media, and the sad fact that Tharoor, alongside journalists from The Guardian, BBC, Independent and Telegraph, didn’t seem to read many of the sources they used in their articles.

Quotations meant to show Churchill as a terrorist, were manipulated from the real quotes where he, in fact, called for the curtailing of loss of life.

Tharoor alleges that Churchill said, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes; it would spread a lively terror.”

This was quoted out of its broader context. Churchill, in fact, said that non-lethal gasses should be used, so to minimise casualties:

“[G]asses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”

Churchill did call for the use of poison gas, but by poison gas, he was referring to non-lethal substances – the equivalent of tear gas, which is used extensively across the world to break up riots. This knowledge and the full quote was gained from the same source as appears in Tharoor’s article. The only difference is that I did not twist it so it appeared to suggest the opposite of the truth.

The article also accuses Churchill of saying, “[The Pasthtuns] needed to recognise the superiority of [the British] race”. This is a grave twisting of the source, which actually states:

“Pashtuns “recognise superiority of race.”

As a soldier in an imperial war machine, Churchill was naturally going to be aggressive about the people he was fighting against. It is unreasonable to condemn him for the threats against his enemies. To his credit, Tharoor rather condemns him for his racism. But the quote doesn’t reveal as overt racism as Tharoor’s twisted quote may suggest. Rather, it suggests that Churchill is commenting on the Pashtun culture itself as being racialised.

The twisting of quotes and sources isn’t exclusive to Tharoor, and is committed by many other journalists, who accuse Churchill of causing the Bengal famine and stating that Indians “breed like rabbits”.

It is right, indeed, that this section in the article does not have any citations, as it is blitheringly fallacious. No serious famine researcher or historian blames Churchill for having any part in the cause of the famine. The main cause was the fall of Burma by the Japanese, which cut off vital supply routes and imports. Churchill, rather than cause the famine, sent relief – even though he could have been excused if he had not due to the state of the war. As an additional irony, the articles attacking Churchill and accusing him of the racist quote actually cite a website that states that there is little evidence that Churchill said this, and rather tried to aid Bengal.

This accusation is blatant ahistoricism. Not only is it easily refuted by facts, the opposite is true. He did all in his power to help Bengal during the famine, while the causes cannot be reasonably laid at his feet.

We shouldn’t tolerate such barefaced twisting of fact. All articles should be held up to at least one academic standard: they should not be allowed to lie.

Churchill’s imperialism deserves its own article, but it is clear by the overwhelming manipulation in Tharoor’s article that it cannot be trusted as a proper attack on Churchill.

More can be said about a maverick such as Churchill. He had his flaws. All humans do. But the more one does research about him, the more one must realise that the biggest condemnations levelled against Churchill are nothing but hot air by the insecure, looking for recognition.