In­dia’s right­ful place at the heart of the Se­cond World War

The jewel of the Bri­tish em­pire was dragged into the Se­cond World War on a viceroy’s whim but emerged a new nation. Steve Donoghue savours Sri­nath Ragha­van’s ac­count of In­dia’s war

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In­dia’s War: World War II and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern South Asia

Sri­nath Ragha­van Ba­sic Books Dh110

The Se­cond World War pre­sented Win­ston Churchill’s Eng­land with an at­trac­tive stage-light of soli­tary, sto­ical hero­ism, a valiant lit­tle is­land stand­ing against the might of Hitler’s Fes­tung Europa. But that im­age of a be­lea­guered is­land fight­ing alone was only one of the many con­ve­nient fic­tions Churchill used in or­der to get his peo­ple through their or­deal; in re­al­ity, Eng­land fought shoul­der-to-shoul­der with its em­pire; man­power, ma­te­rial, ge­o­graph­i­cal bul­warks and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port came from all over the world, from Canada to Aus­tralia, and the lion’s share of it all came from the jewel in the crown of the em­pire: In­dia.

And yet de­spite a greater de­gree of au­ton­omy than any other client-state en­joyed and de­spite a deep-rooted and grow­ing na­tion­al­ist ag­i­ta­tion, In­dia’s par­tic­i­pa­tion wasn’t vol­un­tary. It went to war in Septem­ber of 1939 not out of a ma­jor­ity de­sire to de­feat Nazi Ger­many and its al­lies but be­cause its viceroy, Lord Lin­lith­gow, with­out con­sult­ing ei­ther his su­pe­ri­ors in Lon­don or the Congress of In­dia, sim­ply de­clared that the coun­try would ren­der all pos­si­ble aid to Eng­land. It was an act of im­pe­rial hubris that would seem quaint and a bit em­bar­rass­ing by the time the war was over.

That war is the sub­ject of the densely-packed and ut­terly ab­sorb­ing new book by Sri­nath Ragha­van. It’s a sprawl­ingly mul­ti­fac­eted sub­ject, and In­dia’s War: World War II and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern South Asia cap­tures it more fully and more au­thor­i­ta­tively than any other sin­gle vol­ume of pop­u­lar his­tory has yet man­aged (although it’s a shame Ragha­van cites Yas­min Khan’s The Raj at War mainly for its lim­i­ta­tions rather than its many strengths).

Ragha­van sets a broad goal for his book: com­pre­hen­sive­ness. He seeks to cover five as­pects of In­dia at war: the strate­gic tan­gle of In­dia’s sta­tus as both an im­pe­rial pos­ses­sion and a pow­er­ful mini-em­pire within an em­pire (as our au­thor re­minds us, In­dia’s sphere of in­flu­ence ran from Hong Kong to Sin­ga­pore to Ti­bet to Iraq to East Africa); In­dia’s piv­otal in­ter­na­tional po­si­tion poised in so many ways be­tween Europe and the Mid­dle East; In­dia’s fo­ment­ing do­mes­tic ten­sions (“The viceroy’s de­ci­sion to join the war with­out con­sult­ing the In­di­ans,” Ragha­van men­tions with char­ac­ter­is­tic cool, “would con­sid­er­ably com­pli­cate pol­i­tics dur­ing the war”); In­dia’s mas­sive wartime eco­nomic mo­bil­i­sa­tion; and the ac­tual mil­i­tary ac­tion in In­dia’s many the­atres of war.

It’s a brac­ingly am­bi­tious agenda. As Ragha­van points out, the num­bers alone are im­mense; even be­fore war was for­mally de­clared, “In­dia had despatched nearly 10,000 troops to Egypt, Aden, Sin­ga­pore, Kenya and Iraq.”

In the main event, the In­dian army fielded 2.5 mil­lion men – the largest vol­un­teer army in his­tory – of whom roughly 90,000 were killed or in­jured.

Th­ese men fought in every cor­ner of the war’s world (the book’s ex­cel­lent il­lus­tra­tions show In­dian sol­diers in set­tings rang­ing from Rome to Ran­goon), in all ca­pac­i­ties, and they left some­times vo­lu­mi­nous records of their en­deav­ours.

Be­yond that, mil­lions more civil­ian In­di­ans were pulled into what Ragha­van calls “the vor­tex”, as In­dia’s vast agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial ma­chiner­ies were grad­u­ally and un­evenly shifted to wartime foot­ing.

This mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the sub­con­ti­nent was ab­so­lutely vi­tal to Eng­land’s sur­vival and even­tual vic­tory, and yet Ragha­van is right to com­plain that the whole sub­ject of In­dia’s war is usu­ally re­duced to a “walk-on part” in larger nar­ra­tives of the Se­cond World War. He’s writ­ten a very wel­come an­ti­dote to that ne­glect.

All the larger sub-nar­ra­tives of In­dia’s Se­cond World War story are told here in very ef­fec­tive balance. Lord Lin­lith­gow plays a nec­es­sar­ily prom­i­nent part at the story’s be­gin­ning and he pro­vides Ragha­van with the first of many op­por­tu­ni­ties to show the dra­matic flair and grasp of char­ac­ter that makes In­dia’s War such a sur­pris­ingly en­ter­tain­ing read. Lin­lith­gow was “ex­ceed­ingly tall and well built, with a stern coun­te­nance caused by child­hood po­lio,” he tells us, and more point­edly he no­tices that the man was also “de­lib­er­ate, pon­der­ous and unimag­i­na­tive”.

Th­ese at­ti­tudes were shared in am­ple amounts by vir­tu­ally all of Lin­lith­gow’s gov­ern­men­tal col­leagues in the pre-war years. They were lost in dreams of the Raj, whether those dreams were syrupy, as in the case of sec­re­tary of state for In­dia, Leo Amery, who’s quoted en­thus­ing, “The em­pire is not ex­ter­nal to any of the Bri­tish nation. It is some­thing like the king­dom of heaven within our­selves,” – or phleg­matic, as in the case of Lin­lith­gow, who re­flex­ively op­posed every ges­ture In­dian of­fi­cials made to­ward lever­ag­ing the coun­try’s war ef­fort into some kind of progress to­wards in­de­pen­dence.

The dreams could also be hos­tile. About the first lord of the Ad­mi­ralty, Ragha­van writes: “Churchill’s views on In­dia and the benef­i­cence of Bri­tish rule were formed dur­ing his ten­month stint in the coun­try as a sub­al­tern in 1896,” and icily adds, “and they re­mained un­changed for the rest of his life.”

It was Churchill who was fond of drunk­enly call­ing at din­ner par­ties for Gandhi to be bound hand and foot and tram­pled by an ele­phant rid­den by the viceroy. From such piti­less hands, free­dom would have to be wrung like blood from a rag.

An equally re­mark­able cast of char­ac­ters ranged on the op­po­site side of that ques­tion, and it’s in the por­traits of In­dian lead­er­ship dur­ing and af­ter the war that Ragha­van’s book re­ally ex­cels. We meet and come to know such tow­er­ing fig­ures as Sub­has Chan­dra Bose, “the forty-twoyear-old Bengali [who] had lately meta­mor­phosed from be­ing the en­fant ter­ri­ble of the Congress to a charis­matic leader ca­pa­ble of stir­ring the masses with his doughty op­po­si­tion to the Raj and his ring­ing or­a­tory”. We watch Jawa­har­lal Nehru pre­sciently sneer that in the wake of the war the Bri­tish em­pire “will go to pieces, and not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will be able to put it to­gether again”.

We trace the fate­ful po­lit­i­cal tra­jec­tory of Mohammed Ali Jin­nah, the au­to­cratic leader of In­dia’s Mus­lim leagues. And of course there’s Mo­han­das Gandhi him­self, the iconic and in­creas­ingly fa­nat­i­cal na­tion­al­ist leader who plain­tively asked at the start of the war, “Will Great Bri­tain have an un­will­ing In­dia dragged into the war, or a will­ing ally co-op­er­at­ing with her in the pros­e­cu­tion of a de­fence of true democ­racy?”

Gandhi’s ques­tion was nat­u­rally the key po­lit­i­cal one for In­dia dur­ing the war. The cri­sis of In­dia’s war was also the cri­sis of the Bri­tish Em­pire, as all the par­tic­i­pants on all sides un­der­stood im­me­di­ately.

Furtive ges­tures were made to avert that cri­sis and the book chron­i­cles them all. Most fa­mous of th­ese was un­doubt­edly the di­plo­matic mis­sion of Stafford Cripps in 1942, in which the Bri­tish en­voy whom Ge­orge Or­well de­scribed as “gifted, trust­wor­thy, and self-sac­ri­fic­ing” put a plan be­fore the In­dian lead­er­ship wherein In­dia would be granted semi-au­ton­o­mous do­min­ion sta­tus af­ter it suc­cess­fully helped Eng­land to win the war.

Although some In­dian lead­ers looked on the Cripps Mis­sion favourably, Gandhi was adamantly op­posed to it, telling Cripps “If this is your en­tire pro­posal to In­dia, I would ad­vise you to take the next plane home.”

The whole time th­ese di­plo­matic ma­noeu­vres were tak­ing place in palaces and board­rooms, In­dian sol­diers were slog­ging through jun­gles and swel­ter­ing their way across desert cha­parral, cul­mi­nat­ing in many ways in the long and com­pli­cated Burma cam­paign, in which thou­sands of In­dian troops par­tic­i­pated first in the re­pulse of the Ja­panese in­va­sion of In­dia and then ul­ti­mately in the Al­lied re­oc­cu­pa­tion of Burma in 194445. Ragha­van writes of th­ese hard-fought and of­ten des­per­ate cam­paigns with an un­der­stated re­serve that en­hances their dra­matic im­pact.

Even this re­serve be­gins to break down as the end of the war ap­proaches and shad­ows of the com­ing Par­ti­tion be­gin to darken. The bleak hor­rors un­leashed on the sub­con­ti­nent in 1947 lie out­side the scope of In­dia’s War, but they can’t help but colour the fi­nal pages of Ragha­van’s su­perb ac­count of a nation’s trau­matic war-borne birth.

This is a panoramic and richly re­searched his­tory of the first or­der, not to be missed by any stu­dent of In­dia’s his­tory – es­pe­cially as it in­forms In­dia’s present, when the coun­try is once again a lynch­pin of world af­fairs.

Steve Donoghue is man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Open Let­ters Monthly and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

Bettmann / Cor­bis / Getty Im­ages

In­dian troops with a Nazi flag in the rub­ble of Western Desert trenches, Libya, in May 1942 af­ter the cap­ture of Omar Al Mukhtar, the re­sis­tance leader against the Ital­ian oc­cu­pa­tion. Up to 2.5 mil­lion In­di­ans fought for Bri­tain dur­ing the Se­cond World...

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