India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia (Book Review)

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In his new book ‘India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia‘, Srinath Raghavan has attempted to highlight India’s contribution to the Second World War, which is otherwise often ignored in the mainstream narrative of the war. Here is a review of the book.

By Nigel Collett

On November 6, 2002, the Queen inaugurated the Commonwealth Memorial Gates and Memorial Pavilion at the Hyde Park Corner end of London’s Constitution Hill. The Gates are inscribed “In memory of the five million volunteers from the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean who fought with Britain in the two World Wars” and the Pavilion’s ceiling is inscribed with the names of the seventy-four of those volunteers who won the George and Victoria Crosses. It had thus taken the British fifty-seven years to publicly recognize that without the men and women of the British Empire, Britain would not have survived the World Wars.

This seems now an extraordinary and unforgivable lapse, but the denial it manifests had begun to emerge even as even as the second of the two wars in question was still being fought. Bill Slim’s 14th Army, which defeated the Japanese in Burma in 1944 and 1945 and was about two-thirds Indian in composition, ruefully called itself “The Forgotten Army”, and at the time there was more than a little truth in that. In Allied strategy, in the supply of manpower and materiel, even in the newsreels shown at home of the fighting around the world, the theaters of war around the Indian sub-continent always took third place to the campaigns in Europe and the Pacific.

This comparative neglect was followed at the war’s end, and particularly as the Empire then ebbed, by a public and academic amnesia that relegated India’s massive contribution to the war to the memoirs of soldiers who had fought on its borders. As the Empire increasingly grew to be a subject of denigration, India’s contribution to both wars became unfairly tainted by imperialism and was largely forgotten.

Public views, however, began to change well before the end of the 20th century. The Empire, now at greater distance, and become again a terra incognita and so once more a source of fascination. Recognition could at last be accorded those who had served in it and had fought for it. In London in 1990, Prince Phillip unveiled a memorial to the Chindits, the men of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade and the Indian 3rd Infantry Division who, as members of Orde Wingate’s long-range penetration groups, fought behind the Japanese lines in Burma. Seven years later, a memorial to the Brigade of Gurkhas was erected in front of the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.

Academic interest became similarly engaged. Cambridge academics Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper’s Forgotten Armies (2005) and Forgotten Wars (2007) brilliantly told the story of the campaigns that ended Britain’s Asian empire. In 2006, Ashley Jackson’s magisterial The British Empire and the Second World War expanded the field of study to examine the contribution of every part of the Empire. Popular writers joined in: in Nemesis, his 2007 account of the last two years of the war against Japan, Max Hastings devoted several chapters to India’s part in the war in Southeast Asia. Most recently, in 2015, Oxford historian Yasmin Khan looked at the conflict from the point of view of Indians who were caught up in it and examined its consequences for India’s independence struggle in her book The Raj at War.

Srinath Raghavan, who, despite living in Delhi, is a colleague of Ashley Jackson at King’s College, London, has now summed up a huge amount of current academic thinking in his masterly India’s War, a work which he rightly affirms is the first major account of all the key aspects of the Sub-Continent’s experiences in the Second World War. Despite the vastness of the fields he has to cover, Raghavan has written a surprisingly comprehensive piece of work, an unlikely but successful combination of both enormous scope and a great depth of detail.

He tells his story chronologically while dividing it into sections covering the politics and economics of the centre as well as each of the campaigns. These, fought in the different geographical areas of the periphery, covered a landmass from Italy in the west to Burma in the east, so there is an enormous amount to pack into even the 520 pages of his closely typed text. Raghavan manages this with aplomb. An accomplished writer, he guides his readers through the labyrinths of the changing military and political scenes while keeping their interest with flashes of rare detail and personal witness.

That India faced war on many fronts is not immediately obvious from the geography of the sub-continent; only Burma was a theater right on its borders. In the imperial system, however, India’s responsibilities ran much further. India was the base from which a great deal of the forces in the Middle Eastern theatre—in North Africa, Italy, Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland—were recruited and supplied. In the Far East, Indian troops garrisoned Hong Kong and Singapore before they were overwhelmed by the Japanese onslaught. They were to do so again at the War’s end, when they also found themselves restoring colonial regimes in Malaya, Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies, as well as for a time taking the place of Japanese forces in Thailand. Raghavan manages the difficult feat of telling the stories of these different campaigns concisely and in their due place.

Raghavan has unearthed, through extensive research, a myriad of facts that have been little-known or completely unknown. His account, for instance, of the factional reactions in India to the outbreak of World War II and to the Viceroy’s declaration of war on Germany, a declaration made without the consultation of a single Indian, is detailed and groundbreaking.

Also new, certainly to this reviewer, is the revelation of the importance placed by Churchill and his ministers on American views. Raghavan makes plain that, from almost the start of the War, each major policy decision regarding India was examined in the light of the effect it would have on American public and political opinion. The British sensitivity to American pressure could only grow with the inexorable increases inAmerican material and human contributions to the war effort in India. American involvement, Raghavan makes clear, eventually included the takeover of some of the functions in the vast military base area of Assam and Bengal. Had it not been for American expertise and energy in running railways, for instance, the buildup of manpower and stores in the areas behind Imphal and Kohima would not have made possible the Indian Army’s successful resistance to the Japanese attack.

Of particular value is the fruit of Raghavan’s research into the economic and social effects of the struggle. He enumerates the cost to India’s population and economy of the tremendous effort the War involved. When it ended in 1945, over two half million Indians had borne arms voluntarily. Over 90,000 of these had been killed or had gone missing in action. Many millions more had been employed in the war effort, in manufacturing, agriculture, construction, services to the military and transport. This was a catharsis that transformed the attitudes and expectations of India’s people. The country itself had become much more urban as masses had flocked to the cities to find work and escape the poverty, rampant inflation and famine that the War brought in its train.

In the process of winning the War, the British Raj finally broke itself. By its end, Britain was virtually bankrupt and owed India huge sums spent to pay for it. Politically, the conflict had destroyed the political balances of the interwar years. The prestige on which the Raj had relied to hold its place in the sun had evaporated. The Empire was left with no real means left to coerce and in any case its rulers, save for a very few like Churchill, could no longer believe in the justice of coercion. In all respects, the game was no longer worth the candle. This made both rapid independence and the creation of Pakistan impossible to avoid, but it also made inevitable the horrors of partition which followed.

Inevitably, in a single account of such an enormous subject, Raghavan has to rush the pace on. India’s interior politics, for example, disappear from view for long periods; the detail of military units and movements can at time be so terse as to be confusing, and too many of the places named are not shown on the otherwise very useful and plentiful maps. Nevertheless, this book is, and will remain, an important overall account of the war as it affected the subcontinent. It will take its place as an indispensable work of reference.

Raghavan allows himself little emotion in his writing but is rightly proud of India’s wartime achievement. Together with many of his predecessors (one thinks of Field Marshal Viscount Slim and the writer Philip Mason), he is in some awe of the way the Indian Army evolved from a colonial garrison to an effective all arms, multi-national force, one which by the end of the War had largely eradicated the prejudices and protocols that had so disfigured the Raj. As he closes he quotes novelist John Masters, then a Colonel in the 14th Army, describing what he saw in Burma:

The Indian Army had not been allowed to possess any field artillery from the time of the Mutiny […] Now [this Indian commanding officer of an artillery regiment], bending close to an English colonel over the map, straightened and said with a smile, ‘O.K., George. Thanks. I’ve got it. We’ll take over all the tasks at 1800. What about a beer?’

This reviewer’s career owed something to that hard-won mutual respect. Forty years after Masters and his Indian Colonel marched on the road past Mandalay, I had the honor to serve in a Gurkha regiment that wore upon the sleeve of its tunics the Prussian Eagle badge of the 14/20 King’s Hussars. They in turn were proud to wear crossed Gurkha kukris on their sleeves. These singular honors commemorated the occasion in 1945 when these regiments of the British and Indian Armies fought side-by-side up the streets and through the buildings of the town of Medicina to liberate it from the Germans.

Once such an equal relationship had been reached, there could be no going back to what had been before. Neither side could have stomached that. The tragedy was, of course, that it had cost so much to get to that point.

In India’s War, Srinath Raghavan has now shown us just exactly what that cost was.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book is Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung.

Credit: The article first appeared at The Asian Review of Books and is thankfully acknowledged.