The Second World War was not India’s war, though over two-and-a-half million Indians bled and fought in it. Three recently published books shed new and essential light on this.
The history of the Second World War is the most popular college course in the United States. Each year, thousands of undergraduates pour into classrooms to learn about, in that cloying phrase coined by Studs Terkel, “the last good war”. Young Americans learn how their grandfathers—perhaps great grandfathers—fought and won on the distant battlefields of Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. The narrative is, not surprisingly, centred around the American war effort; most history, at least at the introductory levels, still focus on forging citizens rather than cosmopolitan elites. No wonder then, that similar courses in Britain would drill the island’s lone and courageous resistance to the Germans, and in Moscow, take credit for the greatest Nazi casualties despite immense losses and suffering.
Yet another view can be had from India. Then a part of the British empire, the colony—which then comprised modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—was dragged into the war by its imperial overlords without as much as a by-your-leave to the elected Indian representatives in the administration or to the leaders of the independence movement. This is perhaps one reason why Indians never saw the war as quite their own; another reason could be that the Indian republic has never celebrated the profession of arms, save for the annual Republic Day parade. In India, the military is not particularly visible in mainstream public life as it is in other countries such as the United States. There are few national memorials for those who fell in in its wars; what chance would the memories of a conflict not its own have?
The centenary celebrations in Europe of the Great War and the diamond anniversary celebrations of the Second World War have turned the attention of some, especially in this era of our globalised community, to India’s role in the conflagration the previous century. In these archival excavations, a fuller story of the war emerges—not necessarily surprising but damning in many ways—that apportions credit for Allied victories more fairly.
Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War is not as much a historical work as it is a quasi-biographical novel. Nonetheless, the tale he recounts offers a glimpse into a certain segment of middle class India of the late 1930s. This is a far cry from the overwhelming majority of Indian conscripts, to be sure, yet there emerge a few threads common to the pan-Indian experience. These are held together by the broader historical and political events that shaped Indian views on the European war.
The war came to India first by way of rising prices, followed by the tugs of ideology and opportunism. These were not necessarily aligned and it showed in how South Asia’s myriad communities responded differently to the war. The Communists boycotted it until the Soviet Union was invaded in June 1941; the Congress, burned by the poor returns despite their enthusiasm during the previous war, opposed it unless London was willing to guarantee political concessions; the nobility, completely dependent on the Raj for their very existence, worked tirelessly to provide the British with materiel; some communities, such as the Parsis, embraced the economic windfall that war meant for merchants; and a very few felt a familial loyalty towards the Crown and enlisted.
In the upper middle class setting of Karnad’s quasi-novel, the war was initially seen as a grand adventure. However, as the fighting crept closer to India from Dunkirk and Manchuria, as scarcity and inflation set in, the rosy tint evaporated. In the Pacific theatre, the widely spread Indian diaspora were overrun by the rapidly expanding Japanese co-prosperity sphere towards the end of 1941 and into 1942. As England, France, and the Netherlands lost their possessions, over half a million Indian labourers employed in British work camps began to stream west to the relative safety of their homeland.
Though Farthest Field gives a general feel of wartime India, it telescopes a very thin socio-economic slice of the Indian populace as any quasi-biography is wont to do. Still, it raises several troubling hypocrisies in the British war propaganda that others like Yasmin Khan have explored further in The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War.
True to its subtitle, Khan offers a thorough exposition of the home front during the turbulent years of World War II. Khan’s work, an academic tome, makes extensive use of not just personal diaries and memoirs some soldiers may have left behind but also government and military archives around the world. The Raj at War does not delve into the politics as much as one might expect but analyses the national experience and social disruptions World War II brought India.
In the early days of the war, the British could afford to be choosy about whom they recruited into the imperial army and they maintained their theory of martial races despite it having been proven wrong in the great European war just a quarter century earlier. However, as time passed and Axis gains became overwhelming, London was forced to expand its selection pool to all of Indian society. From the Indian side, the reasons for enlisting were varied and not usually patriotic. Some young men signed up because they hailed from a martial tradition that had sent at least one son into the army for generations—which political authority that army served seemed not to matter. Others joined up to escape marriage proposals, debt collectors, or law enforcement; yet others were lured by pecuniary enticements offered them or their families by the maharajas who sought to curry favour with the Crown in anticipation of the difficult post-war years. Many saw the military as an employer or even an educator who would provide skills that would prove useful after the war. It is not clear if any of these volunteers ever saw a contradiction in fighting for a country that had colonised and oppressed their own; did nationalism not exist in the Indian heart even as late as 1939 or were these decisions simply about daal chawal? Khan does not venture into the Indian soldier’s mind.
With more and more scholarship in recent years exposing Western hypocrisy about freedom in the first half of the 20th century, it would not come as a surprise to readers to discover that racism was rampant in the British military. Not only were Indian soldiers paid only about a quarter of what their British counterparts received, soldiers of colour were also not entitled to the same perks as white men in uniform. This included not just rations of tobacco and other wartime luxuries but extended even to the war front where Indian soldiers were assigned separate messes, hospitals, and even brothels! It is difficult to imagine what motivated Indians to remain in uniform despite suffering such indignities. Even more puzzling are some of the letters exchanged between home and front in which the men or their fathers expressed their prayers and good wishes towards the King of England. While the pre-enlistment sense of service and duty or pecuniary expectations might be explained away by utilitarian reasoning, differential treatment under fire is harder to fathom.
Khan also discusses the impact of the war on Indian industry. Although, normally, wars spur industrial growth, World War II had only a mild effect on Indian businesses. Despite shortage of materiel in the Asian and African theatres, there was severe opposition from London to setting up advanced armaments plants, shipyards, and ammunition factories in India for the war effort, no doubt with a partial eye to the post-war colonial order. The more immediate concern was that if industry grew, wages would rise too and this would hurt recruitment. After all, why would anyone volunteer for a foreign army to fight on distant shores when there were opportunities to be had right at home? Even with the modest growth in Indian industry in the 1940s, this was exactly what happened.
It is interesting to note how Indians reacted to Japan’s early victories in Southeast Asia. Here was an uncolonised Asian power that was shellacking the Europeans out of the region. The mixture of awe and distaste—awe for the accomplishments and distaste for the inhumanity shown to the conquered fellow Asians—filled Indian leaders and people alike. While Khan does not explicitly talk about this, Japanese successes must have surely inspired confidence in the possibility of a technologically advanced, independent, and prosperous Asia in the near future. Until the fall of Singapore, it was just a plausible theory but since, it was a virtual certainty.
Khan’s The Raj at War is a splendid analysis of the impact of World War II on India—how the European war changed the Indian economy, society, and politics. Some of these changes would last—the skills Indian officers and soldiers picked up in Africa, Italy and Burma, for example, would serve the new republic well in its own conflicts with the equally new and irksome western neighbour, Pakistan. It is beyond the scope of the book, however, to consider how many of these changes stuck—despite the nudge towards industrialisation and Jawaharlal Nehru’s scientific temper post-Independence, India steadily fell back in the community of nations in industrial production and scientific achievement. How much of this was due to stifling government policies and how much was simply because India was a largely illiterate country that was not yet ready for an industrial revolution?
Two aspects Khan does not cover in her otherwise marvelous survey of India at war are the global and military dimensions. Khan’s focus is clearly on the domestic front, but over two and a half million Indian men were shipped abroad to fight England’s enemies around the globe. This lacuna is addressed by Srinath Raghavan in his India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945.
Perhaps erroneously titled and sporting a slightly grandiloquent subtitle, Raghavan’s work is nonetheless a fantastic and much needed contribution to Indian military history. By this, I do not mean a dry recounting of battles and casualty figures interspersed by the occasional map, but a rich weaving of economics, politics, and war as any good military history ought to be. India’s War begins by explaining at length the various positions taken by the dramatis personae—London, the British government of India, the Congress party, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the Muslim League, just to name the most prominent. At times, these positions would prove to be dynamic, depending upon the reactions of other parties. This may explain the near-bipolar Congress response to how the British dragged India into the war.
Raghavan’s analysis of the politics is not restricted to India and Indians just because his is a subcontinental story. In fact, India is shown as a more autonomous limb of the British empire and a decision maker in its own right; it is also shown as a strategic region with a direct bearing on geopolitics in Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East. New to many readers will be the disagreements between London and its servants in Delhi on military strategy—for example, General Claude Auchinleck was convinced that an unsettled Iraq threatened Iran and Afghanistan and therefore India, while General Archibald Wavell did not want to be distracted from more important missions around the Mediterranean.
Of course, one might ask of what significance this is—a difference of opinion between London and its representatives in Delhi hardly makes it an Indian story. At best, Raghavan has shown that each command had its own priorities in the war in much the same way the Army, Navy, and Air Force compete with each other for strategic significance and hence the budget. In favour of the author, one can argue that this sort of autonomy was seen nowhere else in the British Empire—after World War I, the British mandate of Mesopotamia had technically fallen to India, not England. And towards the end of the war, India nationalists’ interests fascinatingly coincided with imperial interests in retaining Indian pre-eminence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Still, even if not satisfactorily Indian for some, that (white) Delhi’s views on arms production and military strategy clashed with the High Command in London is an interesting facet of the history of World War II.
The sinews of war receive their share of Raghavan’s attention, too. India contributed not just men but also materiel to the war effort. Although modern industries such as armaments, heavy machinery, and vehicles was actively discouraged by London, Whitehall retained India in its traditional role as an exploited colony. The subcontinent provided ores, agricultural products, and other raw material which were then fashioned into supplies. In monetary terms, these outflows were enormous. Since Britain insisted on administering India with local revenues alone, materiel with fees and fines added for imperial upkeep, such as compensation to the British families affected by the 1857 mutiny or the Anglo-Afghan Wars, for example materiel the Raj had been in debt to Britain at the beginning of hostilities in Europe in 1939. By the end of the war, Britain owed India £1.3 billion.
This is not to say that these resources were spent on the defence of the subcontinent or even in training and equipping units raised from India. In fact, Indian units were frequently ill-equipped and insufficiently trained even when fighting far away from South Asia, in the Middle East or Europe. While the administration in India begged London for fighter planes, radios, artillery, and other equipment, these were luxuries for Indian troops even at the front.
An interesting nugget in India’s War is the revelation of the importance placed by Winston Churchill on American views. From the start, each major policy decision that involved India was additionally examined in the light of what effect it would have on American public and political opinion. Washington’s sympathies towards Indian independence are well known, and with wartime Britain’s desperate need for American aid, it seems only natural that these factors would come together. However, as the United States itself joined the war, one would have expected such considerations to take a backseat to the strategic imperative. Whether this was so in American minds or not, Raghavan explains that Whitehall was certainly not taking any chances.
Perhaps one of the most useful contributions Raghavan makes is his coverage of Indian troops under fire. Although the trend has so far been to depict World War II battles as a colossal clash between two Western (and white) sides, the fact is that millions of colonial troops—black, brown, and others—participated in the war in the British, French and other armies. India’s War lives up to its title at least in this regard, in volume of Indian blood spilled in the pursuit of European goals. Indian soldiers were deployed everywhere from Hong Kong to England and everywhere in between—France, Italy, Crete, Greece, Cyprus, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somaliland, Yemen, Singapore, Burma, Thailand, Malaya—and fought with such bravery that even Churchill had to accept the “unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers.” After the war, they found themselves staying on to restore colonial regimes all across Southeast Asia.
Farthest Field, The Raj at War, and India’s War all portray a different history of World War II, a refreshing narrative that is not Manichean. The same allies who fought in the name of holy liberty also enslaved half the world in the shackles of imperialism. As the Japanese advanced into Burma, the Raj preferred to use the few available lorries to evacuate their lawn furniture back to India over the tens of thousands of Indian men, women, and children caught up in the turmoil; many perished in the jungles during their long march.
For all of India’s importance to the war effort—in terms of men, resources, strategic geography, money—Indians remained casual objects in the imperial scheme of things, ones that may be useful and cherished at times but ultimately not in the same hierarchy. The Second World War was not India’s war, though millions of Indians bled and fought in it.