Mark Collins – India: The Raj at War 1939-45 and After

Further to this post,

India’s Forgotten Good War

a review article at The Economist:

India and the second world war
For king, then country
In India, as elsewhere, the second world war changed everything

India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War. By Yasmin Khan. Oxford University Press; 416 pages; $29.95. Published in Britain as The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Bodley Head; £25.

India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia. By Srinath Raghavan. Basic; 554 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30.

AT THE close of 1945 the British Raj could congratulate itself. Despite growing impatience for independence, the empire had still managed to muster a 2.5m-man Indian army, the largest all-volunteer force in history. Indian troops had served loyally at home to crush an incipient insurrection in 1942. They proved crucial to British victories in Ethiopia, north Africa and the Middle East; in Burma they eventually inflicted the biggest land defeat ever suffered by the Japanese imperial army. India also contributed materiel and money: by the war’s end Britain owed its prized but impoverished colony £1.3 billion, an eighth of British GDP.

Yet the war was also catastrophic, both for the Raj and for India. The relatively small scale of India’s direct war casualties—some 90,000 soldiers killed in six years of fighting on three continents, 6,000 sailors lost and 1,400 civilians killed by Japanese bombs—belied far wider suffering. The Bengal famine of 1943, the prime cause of which may have been inflation fuelled by the printing of rupees to cover wartime deficits, left as many as 3m dead [see “The British Raj and The 1943 Bengal Famine: A Crime Against Humanity?“]. Ignominious defeats in Malaya, Singapore and Burma undermined British prestige. Of the half a million Indian civilians who joined a chaotic exodus from Burma in 1942, perhaps one in ten also perished.

Far from securing the jewel in the British empire’s crown, the war rendered India’s independence inevitable…

Yasmin Khan, a historian at Oxford, offers a richly researched social history of wartime India that is peppered with fascinating detail. Her sources range from official accounts and court records to the diaries and letters of Indian and British soldiers and officers, upper-class colonial women and rebellious Indian housewives. All this she weaves into a flowing narrative that touches on such forgotten aspects as India’s acceptance of stranded European refugees as well as of Japanese civilians transported from Singapore, whose squalid internment influenced Japan’s own ugly treatment of captured civilians. Describing the slow erosion of discrimination between British and Indian officers in the army of the Raj, she notes that it was only mid-way through the war that Indians were allowed to sit on courts-martial for British soldiers, and that after the capture from Italy of the Eritrean city of Asmara, separate brothels were maintained for British and Indian soldiers…

Srinath Raghavan, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi think-tank, usefully supplies the facts, in charts, figures, maps and details of military operations, which Ms Khan elides. He also gives thorough, fascinating and revealing accounts of the economic transformations generated by the war, and of the debates and decision-making in wartime politics.

No one comes out of this looking very good. Mr Raghavan lets the cynicism and occasional outright racism of British officials speak for themselves. Winston Churchill, for instance, told his cabinet in 1940 that troubles between Hindus and Muslims were “a bulwark of British rule”, and later dismissed famine in Bengal as less important than famine in Greece.

But the author also offers a corrective to later Indian accounts that have exaggerated the strength of pro-independence feeling and glorified the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army, made up of Indian POWs and defectors. No more than 9,000 of these soldiers actually fought against the Raj in Japan’s ill-fated invasion of India in 1944, Mr Raghavan notes. More remarkable in retrospect was the loyalty shown by many Indian soldiers: a British censor’s log from Tunisia records a soldier’s letter to his family declaring proudly, “Our beloved king (God save him) has conquered this country.”

Both books argue persuasively that the war not only consolidated India’s sense of self, but generated many of the institutions and attitudes that framed independent India. Mr Raghavan quotes a British staff officer of the 19th Indian division describing its drive to capture the Burmese capital, Rangoon: “Twenty races, a dozen religions, a score of languages passed in those trucks and tanks. When my great-great-grandfather first went to India there had been as many nations: now there was one—India.” Sadly, this would not be so true by 1947, and the Raj cracked into two parts [a post of mine: “How Pakistanis Remember Partition of India and Events Leading Thereto“].

As for the “After”:

Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) After WW II: The Indian Army and the Raj

Raghu Karnad’s The Farthest Field: A Story Of India’s Second World War…is a realistic, impressionist and most moral book very much worth the read (the family involved were Parsis):


[Identify the aircraft.]

Here then from that book is an example of how the British employed their Indian Army immediately after the war was won and before independence in 1947 (pp. 227-228)…

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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