Fighting Britain's War: India and World War II

Book Review of Yasmin Khan's Raj at War and Raghu Karnad's Farthest Field.  

The World War II has been taught based on the experiences of European countries on either side and the U.S.; the stories of China and India are usually absent from English bookshelves. In South Asia, nationalist agitations and Partition of 1947 dominated the stories of first half of twentieth century. Both Indian and European and people tend to forget the extent to which World War II influenced the Raj and the people under it. Millions of Indian soldiers were enlisted to fight for the allies in World War II and India also provided more than £2 billion worth of goods and services. Strategically, India was also situated between “both the Middle East and the China theatre” and supplied both troops and consumables. The impact in South Asia was also significant: The war increased social tensions and caused inflation. Indians also learned that the White Man was not inherently superior: Polish refugees at home, Japanese gaining upper hand over the British in the air, and Germans killed abroad by their fellow Indians all proved this point. The Raj could not protect its imperial subjects, and its credibility subsequently suffered. The Indian nationalist leaders also learned more about Britain’s political priorities, which were clearly not in favor of South Asian development. For leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, any wishes for the Raj to be a paternalistic leader of the Commonwealth vanished.
This year, two major books have replenished the scholarship on India and World War II. Historian Yasmin Khan’s book The Raj at War provides a lot of details and the statuses of people from all walks of life, from political leaders to businessmen, from new Tommy recruits, European nurses, and prisoners of war in India to Indian Lascars fighting for better wages. Her scope covers not only the war zone but also the factories and bedrooms. Journalist Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field also serves to fill the gap of Indians in World War II, partly based on the experiences of his Parsi ancestors. Both books address the issues of political loyalty, the scorched earth policy, memories, and demise of the British Empire’s prestige. Both books acknowledged how different sections of society benefited from the War: businessmen in particular seized the chance for profits through supplying military needs, such as food and accommodation. Yet Karnad provides a more scathing critique of the War and colonialism.
One of the main reason for World War II’s forgotten status in India was its conflict with the national narrative. The main subject of Karnad’s book, Bobby, was not a story told or mentioned to Karnad’s generation. The Indian Army men’s “subaltern service to the British Empire became a quixotic memory, its political valency vague and its heroism diluted.” Like many unpredictable twist-of-fate moments in South Asian history, Bobby’s section, the 2nd Field of the Bengal sappers, was reorganized as a Mussalman unit and became part of Pakistan’s army. An even more cruel twist was that many demobilized soldiers slaughtered Indians of other faiths systematically during Partition. The grand dream of post-colonial countries usually glides over the fact that British Indian Army fought on the Dutch imperial side, against the Indonesian anti-colonial republicans led by Suharto.
Without the hindsight of Partition and Independence, the World War II was a trying time for Indians to determine political loyalties. Like in the case of World War I, the 1939 and 1942 Defence of India Act centralized British control in India for war efforts: state institutions had “powers of preventive detention, internment without trial, restriction of writing, speech, and of movement” over the King’s subjects in India, and in practice, mostly targeted against Indians. Punishments would be meted for “any contraventions which included that of death or transportation for life if the intent was to assist any State at war with His Majesty or that of waging war against His Majesty.” As a result, police and military’s power increased; the state’s civil and military functions blended. Many Indian activists were quashed unlawfully; official British statistics recorded 1,060 protesters killed. Nationalist agitations had increased to a certain level at that time. At the same time, the British and zamindari long-term neglect for agriculture increased the difficulty for the average Indian family to avoid working for the Raj. Even regions like Punjab which had increasing levels of wages suffered from famine. Congress Party leaders were largely uncertain how to take advantage of the situation. While Gandhi launched the Quit India movement and detested foreign soldiers on Indian soil, he did not call for an entire sabotage or even a peaceful hartal against the war effort; rather, he called for the Indians involved to act on their own consciences according to their own situation. Khan argues that it solidified anti-war sentiment despite its less dramatic character. Ironically, due to the War, the previously banned Indian communists now emerged from the underground as allies with the Raj against fascism.
The Raj at War highlighted how this era was truly contradictory and confusing, with South Asia pulled at both sides--Independence through fighting for the Indian National Army and thus aligning with the Japanese? Loyalty to the Raj? For example, writer K. A. Abbas wrote about his anti-fascist inclinations, but also disillusionment with the Raj. Yet India did not lack activists who directly opposed the Raj: The younger generations approached the issue more radically. Quit India activist Aruna Asaf Ali disregarded her husband Asaf Ali’s more moderate approach. She was regarded by the people as the modern day Rani of Jhansi and successfully evaded police search through a game of cat-and-mouse up till 1946. Moreover, there was a huge gap between military and non-military people’s political opinions, and even when they argued with one another, usually none were convinced. Similar to the starving Indian, the Nepali soldiers also lacked agency in the choice, since slavery was just recently abolished and their king volunteered to support the war effort. Karnad also cited how Parsis were traditionally loyal British subjects, even as his own family tried to deter men from entering direct service. Rather than outright support of swaraj, both books showed that the politics of Indians were in flux in the 1940s.

Aruna Asaf Ali

Aruna Asaf Ali
The Japanese were not the ideal allies for the Indian freedom fighters, since they also harbored imperial ambitions. Subhas Chandra Bose ceremonially celebrated the Andaman islands as territory under his government Azad Hind, even though in reality the Japanese authorities did not cede sovereignty. Under the influence of the Axis propaganda as well as material concerns, many Indian soldiers in South East Asia changed sides: Leaflets urged them to join INA and pursue self-determination against the Raj. Still, the INA was a dwarf in comparison to the giant British Indian Army.
Pilots of Azad Hind Sena, part of INA
Arguably, Indian soldiers for the first time fought for their own sovereignty from the Japanese, even though it was under a foreign master’s command. The Andaman and Nicobar islands were occupied in 1942 and many Indian cities were bombed by the Japanese Army. There were also intertwined destinies between Burma and India as the Raj’s subjects: the Japanese invasion caused many refugees of Indian origins flee from Burma. Many of the poor died on the way due to malaria or starvation.
Still, the War at large a British concern. The subjects who were usually loyal to British interests, such as rulers of princely states and North East tea plantation owners, donated many resources for the war effort. Others involved usually had no political stake, such as the Imphal jail convicts used for carrying loads or the Naga porters who facilitated refugees evacuation, or the tea plantation laborers who participated in building the India-China Ledo road and aerodromes. Even those Indians who did not support the War also could not outright deny the need for it, such as Nehru, who abhorred fascists but also wanted independence. In reality, this meant that the Raj got what it needed.
The war effort diverted most of the resources away from the Indian people. Viceroy Lord Linlithgow to a large extent disregarded the issue and spent no efforts lobbying on behalf of the situation. The viceroy who succeeded Linlithgow also tried to lobby the British parliament to send more grains for relief, but only achieved the promise for a quarter of what he asked. Khan equivocated and pointed to different reasons of the Bengal Famine, such as Bengal’s over reliance on rice, even while she cited evidence of the British being primarily culpable. Many famine victims saw the war as the cause of their plight. The Raj’s premature scorch earth policy destroyed and requisitioned a lot of boats of the fishermen. In comparison to Khan, historian Madhusree Mukerjee argues for a more direct causal link between the Bengal famine and the war effort. She wrote, that Raj’s readiness “to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan” was the primary reason for the famine. But given theories put forth by Amartya Sen (hoarders were the most responsible for famine), it is difficult to assess due to the varying statistics regarding how much grain was available after grain was given to war efforts.
Why did the British also forget the loyal subjects, especially the troops? This was mostly due to the idea of racial superiority as well as indifference to the native population during as well after the War. For example, when the Indian troops serving outside of India received better equipment than the natives defending the motherland. Winston Churchill, who was notorious for his racism and disdain, had said “by putting modern weapons in the hands of sepoys,” commanders were creating a Frankenstein. The former Commander in Chief Claude Auchinleck proposed the British government to establish a memorial for the men who serviced “Britain and the Empire” for the past two hundred years as well as in the “Old World” territories. But the proposal was delayed due to disagreement over the memorial site, then no funds were acquired and the plan for the memorial was discarded in 1949.
The major difference between the two books, aside from the sources, is that Karnad provides a more existential assessment of World War II: The White Man battled in sites that upheld Western civilization. The “Black men sent running and shooting in the jungle” such as Bobby’s army, would in comparison be seen as “ants disputing anthills.” The purpose of protecting democracy is elusive to most of the colonies; in “North and East Africa, in the Middle East and India’s North-West frontier,” both World Wars had the “climate of imperial control and contestation.” Karnad points out that behind supposed ideological differences between Axis and Allied powers, Germany and Japan “had mainly copied and outstripped Britain’s own example” of empire. He argued that the imperial war continues in different forms, such as 2008 drones over the village Datta Khel, where the Air Force also flew and battled. In contrast, Khan is much more measured in her assessments and hesitant to draw these solely regressive connections. She acknowledges the irony that Commonwealth soldiers helped in liberating Ethiopia from Italy’s colonialism, but the effects on Indian soldiers’ politics are hard to document. She also writes about black G.I.s and Indian soldiers sharing of notions of equality and visions of a new world order. She also addresses how some people viewed the Army as a modernizing force, and cites the increasing level of literacy among soldiers. Through both books’ new narratives, the nature of the War and the impacts on British colonies has become much clearer, but not necessarily clear enough. Further work needs to be done on the relationship between colonialism and the World Wars, with a focus on post-colonial countries and their positions during the Wars as well as the Wars' effects on subsequent nationalism and decolonization.

Edited from a paper for a JNU history course. Please contact me if readers need a footnoted version.