What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?
— Mahatma Gandhi
The Indian subcontinent was under the colonial rule of Great Britain during the two World Wars. Indians participated as combatants and non-combatants in both wars, which was not theirs but of the British Empire.
Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Kellogg College,has brought out a lucid account of the contribution of the two and half million Indians who fought in World War II in her book The Raj at War.
What made Yasmin Khan choose this subject? She says, “I was born in London but my family is from all over the world; on one side my grandfather was Anglo-Argentinian, and my grandmother was from Ireland. My grandfather from Buenos Aires, Godfrey, had actually been in India in the 1940s and served in the Indian Army as a young officer. He volunteered and was sent out to India on a troopship. He was like so many imperial citizens, joining up. On the other side, my grandparents were refugees from Uttar Pradesh (India) to Pakistan after 1947.
I loved hearing these stories as a child. So I had to understand modern Indian history to understand my own family history, and how I had ended up being born in 1970s London. I’ve spent a lot of time in India.”
The book portrays the life of people in India during the war — the rich and the poor, the elite and the ordinary, the soldiers and the civilians. With the Indian freedom struggle in the background, the author describes how the war tore lives apartand led to the loss of young lives, dislocation of people, the strange presence of the new Allied armies, the rise in prostitution etc. The breakdown of the British Raj is the central theme of the book.
Khan says, “It is a story that belongs to all the countries in the region — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Historians wrote nationalist histories everywhere at first but there’s more awareness now of the empire and war. On the African side, there has been some amazing work by historians about the role of Africans in World War II.”
Some Indians joined the Army because their family had been part of it, some joined because of the adventure it offered while many enlisted as it provided them steady wages. It is noteworthy that non-combatants played a pivotal role and made the Army function: tailors, washermen, barbers, boot-makers, cooks, and orderlies. Even religious teachers, mule-handlers and vets accompanied the troops.
During the war, the British and the Indians fraternised, especially when fighting abroad in North Africa or Middle East, yet Indians felt the racial discrimination. It reflected the real paradox in the British Raj. The author believes that it was because of this fact that the system itself had its foundations in inequality. Indians footed the war bill through taxes as well as voluntary subscriptions. This impacted the middle class and the peasants, which contributed to people’s disenchantment.
The Raj in India was weakened by the war, and the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 coupled with the invasion of Burma acted as the final nail in the coffin. As per estimates, 600,000 Indians fled Burma, of which 80,000 did not make it through. The government believed India would be attacked next. At the same time, the freedom struggle was at its peak. “If there had been no World War II, it might have taken several more years for India’s independence. It might also have been more peaceful when it arrived,” says Khan.
Indian industries surged due to the war but it was accompanied by inflation. Industrialists such as the Tatas, Birlas, Walchand Hirachand, and Mohan Singh Oberoi rose during this time.
The most devastating incident in India during the war was the famine in Bengal province in 1943, which resulted in the death of millions. Satyen Basu, who returned to India after participating in the war in North Africa where he was captured and held as prisoner of war, provided terrible testimony to the famine: “Witness a baby barely two years old lying in the lap of his brother of about six, both so devitalised that they are not able even to move from the street corner and are biding their time to be shifted by somebody, sometime, alive or dead.” The British government, however, chose to focus on the war.
The Raj At War is an essential read for those interested in the history of pre-independence India and the British rule.
(Published in The Hindu)