The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan – review
Britain too easily forgets that in fighting Germany it was heavily dependent on its empire, as this wonderfully detailed and original study shows
Thursday 23 July 2015
Yasmin Khan reminds us at the start of her book that “Britain did not fight the second world war, the British empire did”. Remembrance is a great British virtue. Whether it’s a Spitfire display, replica red poppies streaming out of the Tower of London or a commemoration of the battle of Waterloo, we know how to do it. Winston Churchill’s idea of a plucky island race standing firm against tyranny in two world wars continues to resonate. Troops from Africa, the West Indies, India and beyond are historically more awkward: they tend to be seen as an adjunct to the main event, although Britain’s success in both wars came from the logistics and manpower derived from its massive empire. At last year’s centenary of 1914, the government avoided the E-word and called such people “Commonwealth soldiers”, although the Commonwealth did not exist at the time. In South Asia, too, the 2.5 million volunteers who served in the second world war are forgotten, since they do not fit easily with the nationalist narrative of independence attained by non-violent resistance.
In The Raj at War, Khan sets herself a tough task: to recover the weft of India during the second world war and tell a story not only of servicemen but of nurses, bearers, political activists, road builders, seamen, interned central European Jews, schoolgirls, Bengali famine victims, enlightened officials, 22,000 African American GIs and even destitute Kazakhs, Iraqi beggars and orphaned Polish children who were escaping upheavals elsewhere. “At many stops on their way to Bombay, local people greeted the children at the stations, treating them with sweets, fruits, cold drinks and toys,” reported the wife of the Polish consul general.
Telling history from the bottom up is difficult, since those in extremis rarely record their experiences; it is easier to come in from the sides than from below, and use the diaries and letters of Europeans or members of India’s Anglophone elite. Within these confines, Khan achieves almost complete success: The Raj at War is a striking example of people’s history, packed with anecdotes, memories and information about a shared but largely unwritten global past. Like all conflicts, the war in India was a time of shifting hierarchies. Hoteliers and speculators made a fortune, and farmers had their land requisitioned to make aerodromes. A military cook from Lucknow who was able to prepare custards and gravies felt he was being demoted when an influx of Indian officers told him to make “chapattis and things like that”. 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.” Weakened by Japanese victories in the far east, the machinery of imperial propaganda emphasised that they were all 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 fraternised made this encampment in the desert a friendly and happy place.”
A large obstacle to this new vision of shared endeavour was Churchill. Khan says he “continued to demonise Indians, championing an unbending diehard imperialism and showing an irrational and offensive hatred of the country”. The policy in 1942 of destroying rice stocks and boats in coastal Bengal in advance of a possible invasion led to mass famine. Khan is right, in my view, 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”.
Large claims and top-down history are, though, not the purpose of The Raj at War. Its strength lies in the detail. Field Marshal Slim knew Gorkhali and Hindi; when the SS City of Benares was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the dead included 101 lascars; condoms were promoted to soldiers with the inspired slogan “Defeat the Axis, Use Prophylaxis”. We learn that “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 tea planter sees barefoot refugees escaping from Burma, on the verge of death: “The only thing was to burn them in heaps to save firewood.” We hear a military wife questioning the imprisonment of nationalist 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?” The leaders, such as Nehru and Patel, are pictured going to prison at Ahmednagar Fort on 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.”
On the international stage, Indians were everywhere – Monte Cassino, Tobruk, Imphal, Eritrea. The Congress politician Subhas Chandra Bose joined hands with the Japanese and formed a rebel army, the INA. “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 was over, a surge of popular and almost mystical support swelled behind the INA, and Indian politicians who had opposed it joined 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.”
The political settlement that brought independence to India and partition to Pakistan was formed out of the circumstances created by the second world war. The British in the wake of 1945 had no money to reassert imperial control, and the power that they transferred to the new governments in 1947 came hedged with a militarised colonial state that could be used to quickly and effectively suppress internal resistance. This was not the only legacy of the Raj at war. Servicemen who migrated to the UK found their wartime service secured status and sometimes employment. A Sikh veteran turned up at an engineering company in Feltham and was told, after his credentials had been checked by a manager, “We haven’t got a job but we will take you.” Many of today’s British Bangladeshis are descendants of lascars from Sylhet.
At a time when young men and indeed whole families are leaving the UK to join Islamic State, Khan’s book shows the great gulf in our knowledge that we have of a global past. During the postwar years there was still racist exclusion of non-white British citizens from some army regiments, and it is only in the wake of the wars of the last decade or so that serious attempts are being made at inclusive recruitment. Barriers remain. Although Queen Victoria had turbaned guards at Buckingham Palace in the 19th century, there was a media fuss in 2012 when a Sikh guardsman was given permission to wear a turban rather than a bearskin while parading. The Labour MP Shabana Mahmood said recently: “My maternal grandfather served with the British Indian army, as it then was, and was posted in Burma. That is an important part of my family’s history. It’s really heartening to see second and third generation British Pakistanis, British Kashmiris, learn this part of their family history.”