The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War is an engrossing and heart rendering anthology of real life stories of Indians during World War II. Award winning historian Yasmin Khan writes at the very beginning, reminding us, that “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did”. After giving us a moving account of India’s partition in The Great Partition, Yasmin has took her latest piece of work to the next level.
Yasmin’s book brings together different aspects and characters (both the known and the unsung millions) of the period. The economic impact of the war was experienced through inflation, rise of a nascent manufacturing base; the emergence of hospitality as a business, the horrors of the Bengal famine in the 1940s and many more. Her analysis of the changes in the social sphere marked by the influx of foreigners and other foreign soldiers, the letters of loneliness and homesickness, absence of grooms in many villages, rise of prostitution and to a certain extent women emancipation thanks to the Quit India movement made for some fascinating reading.
In The Raj at War, Yasmin takes up a difficult task of recovering the weft of India during World War II and telling a tale of not only the men in service, but of doctors, nurses, bearers, road builders, seamen, political activists, interned central European Jews, schoolgirls, victims of the Great Bengal Famine, enlightened British officials, penniless Kazakhs, over 22,000 African American GIs, Iraqi beggars and orphaned Polish kids who were trying to escape upheavals everywhere.
It is always difficult to narrate history from the bottom up, since the people in extremis very rarely record their experiences; it is easier to approach sideways, and research from diaries or letters of Europeans or the Indian Anglophone elite. Yasmin, in this respect, achieves great success. The Raj at War is a brilliant example of chronicling people’s history. It is packed with memories, anecdotes, and intriguing information of a shared but largely unrecorded past.
Outsized claims and top-down history are not the premise on which this book is written. The strength of The Raj at War lies in the detail. Field Marshal Slim knew Gorkhali and Hindi; at the time the passenger ship SS City of Benares was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the fatalities included total 101 lascars; condoms were aggressively promoted to soldiers with an inspired tagline “Defeat the Axis, Use Prophylaxis”. You come across curious mentions like “glossy prints of American army pin-up girls, in bathing suits and tight outfits were popular with Indian troops, but deemed too ‘lively’ for the Middle East”. A military wife questions the imprisonment of nationalist political leaders: “You know Geoff, we have taken this jolly old war too bally casually here at Simla, picnics, dances and poodle-faking and now comes this Indian trouble … Do any of us women know who has been locked up or why?” Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel are pictured on their way to jail at Ahmednagar Fort via a special train: “Each ordered what he desired, some had eggs, poached, fried or boiled; some had toast with coffee or tea, but the majority had only fruits and milk.”
It is always difficult to narrate history from the bottom up, since the people in extremis very rarely record their experiences; it is easier to approach sideways, and research from diaries or letters of Europeans or the Indian Anglophone elite.
Yasmin’s book observes that the political settlement which claimed that it brought independence to India was shaped out of the unique circumstances created because of the Second World War. The British at the back of 1945 did not have money to reassert imperial control, and the authority that they reassigned to the new dispensation in 1947 came hedged with a militarized colonial state which could be employed to swiftly and effectively suppress resistance coming from within. The legacy was not limited to this. Ex-servicemen who had migrated to the UK now found their wartime service tenable position and occasionally employment. A Sikh war veteran who turned up for a job at an engineering company in Feltham was told “We haven’t got a job but we will take you.”
“At the global stage, Indians were to be found everywhere. They were at Monte Cassino, Tobruk, Imphal, Eritrea… everywhere”. Great leaders of the freedom struggle like the Congress politician Subhas Chandra Bose joined hands with the Japanese forces and formed the Indian National Army. “Occupied South-East Asia was a strange twilight world for Indians caught between two imperial masters, and a world in which political allies could be fickle and the borderline between the Indian Army, the INA and civilian life was sometimes surprisingly porous,” Khan writes. “Sepoys went undercover as waiters, porters and merchants.” Once the war finished, a surge of supporters swelled behind Bose and his INA, and Indian policitical leaders who had stood in opposition before united with the chorus. “Now that the real threat of Japanese invasion had been averted, it was safe to shout from the rooftops about the bravery and heroism of Bose’s men.”
Just as it is in all conflicts, the war in India was of a period of shifting hierarchies. Hoteliers and speculators made a fortune, and poor farmers had their lands acquired to make airstrips and aerodromes. A military chef from Lucknow who could prepare custards and gravies felt like he was downgraded when an influx of Indian army officers told him to “make chapattis and things like that”. Allied forces questioned why they had been posted in India. “The British Tommy hates the east,” a War Office report deduced from censored letters.
Allied troops wondered what they were doing in India. “The British Tommy hates the east,” a War Office report deduced from censored letters. “To him it appears foolish to fight for a country that does not want to be helped and from which we are clearing out after the war.” The machinery of imperial propaganda, weakened by major Japanese victories in the far east, emphasized that they were in it together: “The British troops were so tanned by the blazing sun from which there was no shade that they became as dark as the Indians, while the way in which all fraternized made this encampment in the desert a friendly and happy place.”
A major hurdle to this vision of a shared endeavour was Winston Churchill. Khan writes that “He continued to demonize Indians, championing an unbending diehard imperialism and showing an irrational and offensive hatred of the country”. The course of action in 1942 of destroying large stocks of rice and boats in coastal areas of Bengal ahead of a possible offensive resulted in mass famine that killed millions of Indians. Khan is well in a position to argue that there “is a strong case for integrating the dead of the Bengal famine into calculations of the global war dead, much as the casualties of Stalingrad and Hiroshima have become part of global war histories”.
Remembrance is a great British virtue. No matter if it’s a Spitfire showcase, facsimile red poppies plunging from the Tower of London or a memorial of the battle of Waterloo; Britons know how to do it. Winston Churchill’s scheme of a gutsy isle pursuit that stood resolute against despotism in two world wars continues to resonate bitterly in the minds of both the British and the Indians. Churchill himself was guilty of orchestrating one of the most appalling acts of his generation — The Great Bengal Famine. Nevertheless, the narrated events suggest armies from India, Africa, and The Caribbean and beyond were historically more gauche: they were taken as an appendage to the main event. Although, the success of Britain in both the World Wars came from the massive logistics and manpower it derived from its huge empire. At the commemoration of the centenary of 1914, British leaders shied away from mentioning the E-word and termed such people “Commonwealth soldiers”, even though it did not exist at the time. In South Asia, too, the 2.5 million people who served in the British armed forces in the Second World War are forgotten by most, since they did not suit the nationalist plot of independence attained by means of non-violent resistance.
For most of the world, World War II is mostly about Hitler, Churchill, the Munich Pact, Pearl Harbour, D Day, the Battle of Midway, Stalingrad, the Holocaust and of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yasmin’s book shows the great gulf in our knowledge that we have of a global past.