INDIA’S WAR: WORLD WAR II AND THE MAKING OF MODERN SOUTH ASIA
By Srinath Raghavan
Basic Books, $35, 560 pages
In September 1939, the British viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, made a stunning radio announcement: the British Empire, including India, was now at war with Germany — a decision made without consultation with any Indian leader. Thus commenced a two-front struggle — one against the Axis powers, the other with Indian nationalists who felt, as Srinath Raghavan writes, “If Britain was truly fighting for democracy, then it should logically forsake its own empire and introduce full democracy to India.”
Such was not to be until 1947. In the interim, the British attitude toward Indian independence was sardonically expressed by Winston Churchill in an “after-dinner joke” in the 1930s — that the often-jailed nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi “should be bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and trampled upon by a huge elephant ridden by the viceroy.”
Nationalists such as Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru bedeviled Britain throughout the war, even going to jail for opposing their countrymen fighting. Gandhi even claimed in 1942 that the United States should have stayed out of the war, that it was “a partner in Britain’s guilt.”
But the vast majority of Indians chose to join the British fight against Germany and Japan. By war’s end, India had trained and deployed some 2.5 million men, “the largest volunteer army in history,” Mr. Raghavan writes. Nearly 90,000 were killed or maimed. The populace clearly did not wish to exchange rule by the British to subjugation to the Japanese.
Indian troops played a major role in British campaigns in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, at a time when the British military was strained to the limit. And they performed heroically in Burma, in an action that helped prevent Japan from seizing control of China.
Mr. Ragahavan, an Indian army veteran, lectures in defense studies at King’s College London. He offers a highly readable account of one of the more complex — and ignored — phase of World War II, one that even briefly threatened the U.S.-British alliance.
One must feel a certain empathy for the Indian soldiers thrust into war, often thousands of miles from their homeland. Green officers led untrained and ill-supplied troops. Nor were British officers sympathetic. When the commander of a unit dispatched to Burma said his men needed training in jungle warfare, a British officer replied “Training — you can’t do any training because it is all bloody jungle!”
There were cultural problems. To wear newly-issued steel helmets, Sikh soldiers defending Hong Kong would have to cut their hair, something that would “violate their ritual vows.” In the end, they fought gallantly; one company suffered 65 percent casualties.
An Indian radical named Subhas Chandra Bose admired Germany’s military might and thought it could “be bent to the cause of Indian independence.” He escaped jail, fled to Berlin, and spoke with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop about organizing a “Free Indian” legion of POWs and deserters. Response was meager, and he moved on to Japan, where he also failed. Axis propaganda on his efforts drew scant attention in India.
By contrast, as Bose schemed against his own country, Indian troops in North Africa were credited by blunting a thrust by two Panzer divisions under Gen. Erwin Rommel. The troops ran out of ammunition. But “instead of calling it a day they threw stones at the Germans.” They took 20 German prisoners and “buried 200 of them.”
The underlying British fear was that the Japanese, by defeating India, the “Jewel in the Crown” of their empire, could create a “Pan-Asiatic” movement that would drive them off the continent. Hence London vigorously opposed any support by the United States of Indian independence.
Hence President Roosevelt was put in an uneasy position. The “Atlantic Charter” adopted early in the war — with Britain as a signatory — had broad language about freedom for all peoples. But the State Department argued that the United States was “not warranted” in pushing for a new status for India. FDR chose not to challenge Churchill on the issue. (One dissenting voice was The New York Times, which editorialized that countries such as India “were no longer supplicants at the white man’s door.”)
There was also some resentment that American lend-lease of military equipment would threaten British economic pre-eminence in Asia. And, indeed, by 1944-45 the United States became the world’s largest importer of goods from India. But the greatest concern in Washington was that a collapse of resistance in China and Burma would free 600,000 Japanese troops to fight Americans in the Pacific.
Now independent, India faces the manifold problems of other countries. But rule rests at home, not in London.
• Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books