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India's Second World War

Kanika Datta 

A People's History of India's
Second World War
Yasmin Khan

Random House
Rs 699, 416 pages

Anyone with a passing interest in World War II will be aware of the Raj's disproportionately high contribution in men, materiel and supplies in helping the Allied cause. Beyond that, the War is hazily remembered as a distant experience involving killing fields in alien lands intersecting occasionally with the Quit India movement, Subhas Bose and the Indian National Army and the fact that Japan's marauding early victories down south-east Asia precipitated the endgame of Empire.

Consciousness that India was the locus of a seminal battle of the war as also one of the world's worst humanitarian crises has only recently filtered into detailed histories. Often overlooked, however, is that after the British unilaterally committed the country to the Allied cause, India was geared for total war, involving the entire population in a giant coercive system for six years. Then too, thousands of foreigners were stationed around the country for the duration - Americans, Chinese, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Austrians and Germans who came as troops, generals, doctors, nurses, engineers, logistics experts, spies, refugees and POWs. All of this would have had its impact on Indian society and institutions, yet beyond the occasional study to fulfil broadly nationalistic agendas, this area has been something of a blank slate.

Two recent this year have sought to fill the gap. In Farthest Field, Raghu Karnad's moving and acclaimed account of three relatives who signed up - one in the infantry, another in the air force, the third as a doctor - provides one perspective. Yasmin Khan's The Raj At War is a rigorous study that provides a wide-ranging examination of what she calls "the nexus between wartime and society" and demonstrates how much the Indian sub-continent was reshaped by the war.

With the Congress leadership in jail for most of the duration and the draconian Defence of India Act in operation, India's colonial masters, Ms Khan says, went about "re-purposing … the Indian state into a garrison, barrack and training camp for a vast army," an exercise that shaped and impacted South Asian society in myriad and profound ways. The burden of this study, she explains, is to not just "ask some hard questions about the social costs of war and the coercion that accompanies such a massive military commitment" but also pay "proper attention to the people who have tended not to feature so prominently in military history".

This is, thus, a "people's history" in every sense of the word. There were the lascars, the underpaid ship hands who did the heavy lifting for a pittance, the peasants who fought, first voluntarily and then increasingly through pressure, in foreign fields as their families struggled with massive inflation back home, the prostitutes who saw business booming thanks to the influx of troops, the educated and working classes who enjoyed a bonanza in wages, the compradors who danced to jazz and watched burlesque shows imported to entertain the white troops, and women who found themselves enjoying unprecedented if short-lived freedoms.

And most of all there were the Indian industrialists, many of them stalwarts of the freedom struggle, who stretched their allegiance to the Raj to the maximum. We know that G D Birla and other entrepreneurs were critical of Gandhi's opposition to the war. Birla, Walchand Hirachand, Ramakrishna Dalmia, the Tatas and others were all pragmatically eager for "a fair share of the additional demand". Ms Khan sets out the sheer scale of this bounty: in 1941 alone government orders for manufactured goods weighed in at over £62 million (Tata Steel even demonstrated its loyalty by making a voluntary donation for two Spitfires during the Battle of Britain).

If the book suffers a weakness it is that there is no overarching Big Idea. But the granular history is no less fascinating and it provides fertile ground for further study, as Ms Khan herself suggests. Over 2 million men were mobilised and there were 89,000 casualties. Compared to the levies from Australia, New Zealand or Canada, this was a small percentage of the population. In many ways, it was the forgotten army, unfeted and unacknowledged. This is partly because their memories have been subsumed by the triumphalism of Independence and the tragedy of Partition mingled with the uncomfortable truth that Indians had, in effect, constituted the biggest mercenary army to fight and its entrepreneurs were collaborative beneficiaries.

Midnight's Children, eagerly thrusting towards a free India, also ignored the war as a legacy of the colonial world: "archaic, illegitimate and even irrelevant," Ms Khan writes. Equally, "sepoy or prince, magistrate or mother, rebel or British soldier: the 1940s left a deep imprint on millions of lives". As the first truly global war, the war undeniably left a legacy for modern India too, whether it is the institutional levers of control, the medical and military infrastructure, alternate ideas of society or the rampant corruption that flourishes today. For that alone, the subject deserves further investigation.

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First Published: Tue, September 01 2015. 21:25 IST