Book review: The forgotten army in India’s War

The jewel of the British empire was dragged into the Second World War on a viceroy’s whim but emerged a new nation. Srinath Raghavan’s comprehensive history of India’s War is an account to savour, shining a light on the war effort by 2.5 million troops deployed around the world.

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 ten-month 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-two-year-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 1944-45. 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.