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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.

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The Errant Son: Mir Murtaza And Al-Zulfiqar

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders?

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Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Tania Bhattacharya
Tania Bhattacharya

By: Tania Bhattacharya

India-Pakistan relations have hit a record low following the dastardly Pulwama Attack on a CRPF convoy in Indian administered Kashmir, on the 14th of February this year. Curiously, the Pakistan PM Imran Khan, made a statement a few days ago, endorsing the Indian PM Modi, and suggesting, that in case there was a re-election of the latter, the Kashmir issue may be finally resolved. This scenario is significant, given that both Imran and Modi, are perceived hardliners in their respective nations. As some South Asian policy watchers have noted, it is hawks like the two aforementioned heads of state, and not peaceniks, who are more likely to take large risks over bilateral issues involving the two neighbours, since if any of them is required to acquiesce, they cannot be labelled as anti-nationals. Peaceniks, their good intentions aside, are looked upon with suspicion in their countries, which accuse them of selling out.

 

These are the heady days of jingoist patriotism in South Asia, where Right Wing organizations seem to be faring much better than the other political alternatives; but there was a time not very long ago, when Southern Asia was in a sweet spot between Dictatorship and Democracy, where conducive factors facilitated the spectre of Left-Wing radicalism, in both India and Pakistan. Between the imprisonment of Pakistan’s democratically elected PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the mysterious plane crash that killed President Zia ul Haq in 1988, a shadowy entity by the name of Al-Zulfiqar had emerged out of the pale, and rocked the Zia dictatorship, with its nuisance value. What were the origins of Al Zulfiqar, and who, was its chief executive officer?

The PIA Hijack drama
The PIA Hijack drama

We must retrace our steps to the early 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the Pakistan president. His eldest son, and second-born, Mir Murtaza, would build a lavish tent on the sprawling lawns of 70 Clifton, the Bhutto residence at Karachi. Inside the private sanctuary he had made for himself, the young lad would read the influential works of prominent Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. The walls of his tent would be adorned with posters of world-famous figures, who had adopted Marxist techniques and applied them to their personal agendas. Murtaza had become deeply involved with the guerrilla warfare ethos of Socialist insurgents and quickly became a role model for his younger male sibling, Shahnawaz, junior to him by four years.

 

Sensing that the wayward, and obstinate nature of the older Bhutto was getting him into trouble with his high school officials and law enforcement, Zulfiqar had insisted, that Murtaza abandon his tent, and his Leftist reactionary literature, to concentrate on his school syllabus, so that the straight and the narrow could produce results for the latter. As soon as it became possible, and after consulting his wife Nusrat Bhutto, the President had packed off his enfant terrible to study in the United States, and then to England, where he hoped, that a new environment would change him. It was here, that Murtaza shone. A thorough academic, he researched upon and produced a dissertation, concerning the consequences of India’s nuclear program, on Pakistan. He developed the reputation of being a cad, and somewhat of a lady’s man as well, during his student years in London, where he was a regular sighting at nightclubs, with one or the other pretty girl, on his arm.

 

His father, had made the issue of the ‘Muslim Bomb’ an international one, arguing, that since the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Marxist political spheres had their own, ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it was only fair that the Islamic world follow suit. Israel though not openly belligerent with the bomb, was suspected of being in possession of the technology to construct one, in 1966 itself. Moreover, it had refused to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Pakistan, under his leadership, he had sworn, would ‘gift’ the Muslim world with its first nuclear weapon. The president’s (and later, Prime Minister’s) son, would broach the topic on an academic level, and make its knowledge, widespread.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh.

Murtaza was yet abroad, when his father, by the time, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country, was toppled in mid-1977, in a military coup, headed by General Zia ul Haq, who until the event, had been Zulfiqar’s handpicked Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces; and a man, that the confident, and arrogant premier, termed his ‘monkey general’. In a letter, handwritten to her brother, Benazir had advised him to travel to the United States, to meet with American leadership, that were friendly with the Pakistan Peoples Party, to plead for assistance in toppling the dictatorship of Zia. Interestingly, she had told him to steer clear of a top Bhutto aide, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. This is testified by Lt. General Khalid Mahmud Arif in his book Working With Zia. Khar, an uncle of PPP ex-Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2008 – 2013), had been a confidante of Prime Minister Bhutto, who he faithfully plied to the home of Bhutto’s first, secret mistress, and then, legally married third wife, Husna Sheikh, on a daily basis.

 

From the United States, Mir Murtaza had decided that it was not judicious to return to a strife-ridden homeland, which was experiencing its umpteenth military rule. Instead, he had flown to Syria and then Libya, to garner support from Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. The Assads and Gaddafi were supportive of the Bhuttos. Zia to them, was an American puppet that had been installed as a means to an end, that too, through an undemocratic and unpopular regime change. It was in Syria occupied Lebanon, that Murtaza had begun building up a guerrilla outfit, which he named, the PLA (Pakistan Liberation Army). Members from the PPP back in Pakistan, were herded off to the Middle East, for rigorous guerrilla training, that was imparted by the Leftist PFLP (Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine). When Mir Murtaza deemed that the time was ripe for ambushing Zia’s men in positions of power; the trained militia of PLA flew to Afghanistan, where they continued further arms training, awaiting an opportune moment, to cross into their homeland, using the mountainous, and lawless tribal routes of northern Pakistan, which flanked the Durand Line.

 

While in Kabul, Murtaza Bhutto decided to rename his outfit Al-Zulfiqar Organization, or AZO. Shahnawaz, the younger son of the jailed premier, joined his older brother and was imparted training in guerrilla warfare, and violent Marxist insurrection. When not wielding guns in army fatigues, the young volunteers and the Bhutto brothers, would watch Bollywood flicks to kill time.

 

Initially, all Shahnawaz wished to do, was to open a tourist agency in Pakistan, and live quietly with the Afghan object of his affections. But the restless circumstances that engulfed the young man, forced him to join Al-Zulfiqar, all the more so, as it had his older brother at its helm; a man he had much admired from the days of his youth.

 

One of the first acts of the AZO, was to try to blow up Zia-ul-Haq’s plane with a missile, from an Islamabad rooftop. It did not produce the desired result. Next, was the hijack of a PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) flight. It was flown to Kabul, where the hijackers stated that the plane and its passengers would only be released if ninety-one political prisoners from the PPP, were set free from incarceration in Pakistan. Zia’s response initially, was a “No”. But once it became eminent, that there were no international mediators to take on the case on behalf of Pakistan; especially once Assad and Gaddafi explained the dilemma to General Zia, the latter was forced to rethink his stand. By then, AZO had reduced the demand from ninety-one prisoners, to some fifty-four of them. The Pakistan general was forced to comply with Murtaza’s bargain, as it released the PPP detainees from various gaols in the country, who were then swapped for the PIA plane and its passengers.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir.

The mastermind of the hijack, was a seamlessly trained Salamullah Tipu, who was seen waving his gun in the air triumphantly from the door of the airplane, after throwing down the bloodied and dead corpse, of one Major Tariq Rahim on the tarmac. Rahim was a close aide of the Zia administration. While Tipu took the blame upon himself, and the PPP back in Karachi, led by Benazir and her mother Nusrat, denied any knowledge or existence of the AZO, Mir Murtaza Bhutto continued to avoid Pakistani authorities, was never caught on camera during the hijack episode, and was declared a wanted criminal by the Pak judiciary, in absentia.

 

In his biography of the older Bhutto scion, The Terrorist Prince: Life And Death Of Murtaza Bhutto, author, student activist, and political henchman Raja Anwar, notes, that a paranoid Murtaza had ordered for the assassination of anyone who he feared would challenge his methods as head of AZO. A sizeable number of its members were apprehended from their homes, murdered, and dumped in shallow ditches. The same author states, how he himself, Shahnawaz, Mir Murtaza, and some other workers of Al-Zulfiqar, had received lodging, food, money, and military training, in New Delhi. The government of Indira Gandhi, a Centre-Left political organization in India that is recognized as the Indian National Congress, had housed and funded the Bhutto revolutionaries and their fighters, with an eye on ending the rule of the hated Zia. In the late 1980s, when Murtaza had made a stopover at Delhi, during one of his journeys abroad, he had personally met Rajiv, son of Indira, and her successor as the next premier of India, with a large, and impressive bouquet of flowers.

The AZO leaders and members resided in the outskirts of India’s capital, and led well-oiled, luxurious lives, while simultaneously receiving training to destabilize the regime of Zia ul Haq. In this duration, the Bhutto brothers had come close to the Nehru-Gandhi clan of India, and according to a number of verified reports, may have worked as R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing, India’s topmost espionage and intelligence agency) informants for a period of time. A common agenda; that of toppling the American-installed, Islamist, and regressive regime of Zia, being the binding force.

Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi
Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi

Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. The ensuing elections found the PPP, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s political outfit, sweep the polls in Pakistan. Benazir went on to become the Islamic world’s very first woman head of state. Eventually she and Murtaza would have a falling out, with the latter going on to form his own faction of the PPP; the PPP(SB), where SB stood for ‘Shaheed Bhutto’. Unlike his sister’s rule, which can be described as opportunistic and inept, Mir Murtaza Bhutto remained