Dramatizing a cataclysm that transformed the subcontinent and led to its independence, The Raj at War undeniably inserts South Asia back into WWII history and confirms that the Empire – and all its subjects – formed both the heart and limbs of Britain’s war efforts and eventual victory.
The Raj At War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 416; Price: Rs 699
It is rare to come across a book drawing attention to the two-and-a-half million Indians who volunteered in the Second World War. Their stories had been lost and buried till award winning British writer and historian Yasmin Khan resurrects India’s role in WWII. It is based on interviews, newspaper reports and archival material.
The lives of soldiers, sailors and non-combatants — prostitutes, nurses, cooks peasants — were upended by a war far, far away. It dwells among others on a small Muslim boy arrested for singing anti-recruitment songs to cooks on army boats, to a family listening to illicit German radio broadcasts and a love letter from the first Indian soldier awarded the coveted Victoria Cross.
Yasmin makes one feel and hear the lost voice of the people in a war that wasn’t of their choosing. The Raj at War undeniably inserts West Asia back into the history of WWII and gives an account of how the Empire and all its subjects formed both the heart and limbs of Britain’s massive war effort and eventual victory. In some theatres of WWII the raw courage displayed by the Indians against the odds became the head and limbs of Britain’s massive war effort and eventual victory.
In January 1946 the release of Prem Kumar Sahgal, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan quietly emerged from the imprisonment in Old Delhi’s Red Fort. The trio had been convicted for waging war against the King-Emperor and sentenced to transportation of life. They were leading officers of the Indian National Army (INA) and had been in the vanguard of Subhash Chandra Bose’s renegade force. They had fought for the Axis in Burma and South-East Asia. Now they were free and found themselves national heroes. People interpreted their release as a decisive victory against the British Raj.
At the start of the war nobody would have anticipated in Mahatma Gandhi’s India that it would be military men who would soon be in the vanguard of nationalism. Six years of war had changed the political language. In August 1939 as the world waited for the news of the outbreak of war, a government spokesman declared “We only have to press a button and the whole organisation prepared to meet a war emergency will slide smoothly into action.”
This was propaganda but also suggests the easy complacency with which India was plunged into WWII. Oral history projects and television documentaries have continually probed and elucidated the role of imperial and Commonwealth servicemen revealing how crucial they often were to the action, the sacrifices that they made in the face of terrible odds and also to divulge individual stories of great bravery and intrepid action. From the life histories of Sikh pilots in the Royal Air Force it is now known than ever before about the global mobilisation and deployment of men from across the empire. British victories belonged to an extraordinary diverse and international cast of men from Asia, Australasia, Africa and North America.
These kind of memorialisation have had an echo in India with regimental museums and military historians speaking more vocally about Indians who won the Victoria Cross and South Asian participation in battles. Premindra Singh Bhagat was the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross in the Second World War. Working in intense conditions from dawn to dusk, Bhagat’s carrier had been blown up twice leaving his fellow soldiers bleeding and dismembered around him and on a third occasion he had been ambushed but carried on with his task under close enemy fire. “I have been congratulated for getting blow up twice by the red hats. Personally it does not make sense to me. After all there were some people killed and I was the lucky one to escape.”
Britain did not fight the WWII, the British Empire did. In the First World War, 1,302,304 Indian soldiers had left the subcontinent to fight in France and Belgium, in Gallipoli, Salonika and Palestine, in Egypt and Sudan, in Mesopotamia, at Aden and in the Red Sea, East Africa and Persia. In 1939 some of the WWI veterans could still be seen sitting on charpoys in the villages in Punjab. They still wore items of uniform, a faded jacket or hat. If you asked them they would fetch their medals from old tin boxes or wrapped in cotton bundles. They told tales not only of horror but also of heroism, adventure, travel and exotic women.
WWI had brought price rises, revenue hikes of over 15 per cent, and political dislocation to India, alongside some 74,000 deaths. The book sheds light on how the Indian subcontinent itself was reshaped by the war. How did war impact on India’s home front? How did gearing up for total war and the rapid re-purposing of the Indian state into a garrison, barrack and training camp for the vast army, affect and shape South Asian society. How was the war experienced in small villages abutting aerodromes or by young nurses in Indian general hospitals. It ranges across the subcontinent, from the commanding heights of New Delhi to the scrublands and jungles inhabited by adivasis and the villages of low castes and dalits.
Ultimately the timing of decolonisation relied heavily on the damage done to the structures of the state by the war, and by the empire’s complete lack of legitimacy when the conflict finally ended. For the majority of Indians the start of the war was more disquieting and confusing.
Abdul Kalam Azad who would soon become President of the Congress party was a close confidant of many key leaders, remembered the uneasy feeling after war declared. Everybody seemed to be waiting for something to happen but their formless fears were vague and undefined. In India also there was a sense of expectancy and fear. Fascism and communism had left deep impressions on Indian minds and South Asian political organisations in the 1930s. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh celebrated a future vision of an exclusively Hindu India.
The cross currents of international fervour had distinct echoes in India. As Jawaharlal Nehru saw it the old world order was dead and the war would inevitably bring seismic change and a new world in its wake. Even as politicians struggled to articulate a response, Some Dalit leaders thought of their own community’s share of military jobs. Some sikhs wanted to protect their historic advantages in the army. Muhammad Ali Jinnah began articulating a powerful new brand of religious nationalism. Jailed communists protested by hunger striking. Kisans protested everywhere for more land and more rights against the predations of landlords.
In the first ten years after independence, thousands of South Asians migrated to Britain in the shadow of war often building on networks established during wartime. By 1946 there were around 20 Indian restaurants in London, mainly Sylheti owned, many serving a double function as a meeting place and exchange for news on work and accommodation. In South Asia 1947 became a byword for the pain of partition but also for the joy of independence.
The war was certainly the catalyst for the unshackling of South Asians from Imperial rule and made the granting of immediate independence unavoidable. Nationalist historians in India and Pakistan recast the events of the 1940s as stepping stones, leading towards liberation. The war grievously lacked legitimacy with colonial subjects in South Asia. But this did not foreclose the option of greater historical inquiry or the writing of new books on the subject.