India at War; The Subcontinent and the Second World War

India at War; The Subcontinent and the Second World War by Yasmin Khan . Oxford University Press, 2015.

The South Asia’s contribution to World War II has tended to drop out of post-war histories of that long, global conflict. India’s gaining its independence two years later, in 1947, overshadows the war years. Yasmin Khan’s India at War; The Subcontinent and the Second World War is not about the battles that the Indian army fought in North Africa, the Middle East, Malaya, and Burma. Rather describes the impact of that war on a largely agricultural country fielding an army to fight in mechanized warfare.


The story that Khan tells of the Indian home front during the war is similar to stories of other countries in or near the war zones. But there are differences. The Indian military was all-volunteer. Numbering 2.5 million when World War II ended, it was recruited from the ‘warlike Indian races’: the Jats, Rajputs, Pathans, Sikhs, and Gurkhas (Nepal) and particularly from the province of the Punjab. Service in the Indian army during the British period had always been considered an admirable life; enlistment went well.


The domestic food supply, on the other hand, was always dubious and made worse by the war-time situation. In the absence of rationing, distribution was left to the usual channels. Rising prices produced disparities, which gave the appearance of a country not pulling itself together to fight a threat to its future. Government of India revenues, in war or peace, were dependent on the level of prosperity in the agricultural economy.


Things did not go well on the food front. There was a famine in Bengal in 1943 and from 1.5 to 4.0 million of the peasantry starved to death. Weather was the primary cause. But to prevent the Japanese from utilizing the fleet of Bengali boats should they invade Bengal, the British had thousands of boats destroyed in what Khan refers to as a “scorched-earth strategy.” Boats were the principle means of conveying the rice crop in this watery environment. So there was no means of shipping rice into the province This was an instance, Khan contends, where the Government of India failed, undermining public confidence in the British administration.


This food problem was particularly true of the war years because, in addition to the Indian army, there were sizeable numbers of British and American troops stationed in India to protect the subcontinent from a possible Japanese invasion. India had to feed these soldiers, and also the Chinese troops that were trained in India and prisoners of war from the European front – particularly Italians captured in North Africa. Plus the refugees that arrived from Burma and Southeast Asia.


The Government of India was staffed by well-trained British career civil servants. In the inner-war period the British, responding to nationalists’ demands, had agreed to Indianize the civil services, Always intended to be gradual steps toward self-government, few Indians felt that admitting Indians into the Indian Civil Service came close enough to their notions of national independence.


Indian nationalists had competent, fervent leadership, the two most prominent being Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi (the Mahatma). Nehru saw the opportunity presented by the war to wring promises of independence after the war. Gandhi, on the other hand, found supporting the military anathema to his ‘satyagraha,’ or passive resistance. He was prepared to confront Japanese invaders with his non-cooperation. The launching of his ‘Quit India’ agitation was ill-timed, in the midst of the Japanese occupation of Malaya and the fall of Singapore. The British looked upon this blindness to the character of Japanese warfare with disbelief and anger.


The arrest and imprisonment of the Congress leadership in August 1942 for the duration of the war seemed like yet another failure on the part of the ICS, this time to convince the nationalists that they shared a common vision of India’s future.


Trouble enough, but there were also divisions within the Indian nationalists’ ranks. Muhamad Ali Jinnah and the Moslem League saw the opportunity to champion their demands for the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan after the war.


There were more than 70,000 Indian prisoners of war held by the Japanese as a result of warfare in Malaya and Southeast Asia. They were fed by the Japanese and not ill-treated.  The Bengali nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose (Netaji) was allowed to persuade them to join his Indian National Army.


Bose had visited Berlin in early 1942 and offered to align his movement with Europe’s fascist regimes. The Germans were, however, ambivalent about Bose’s call for immediate independence. Visiting Tokyo, he found the Japanese skeptical of the rag-tag army that he had formed from the ranks of the Indian P.O.Ws. His appeals to Berlin and Tokyo were cut short by his death in an airplane crash.


The Government of India had no plan for the demobilization of India’s vast army and their return to civilian life. Had they fought the war and died (89,000) for a crumbling Raj and a country that didn’t work? These Indian soldier had experienced the world outside India; they returned to an India that now seemed like another world.

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