The Raj at War, by Yasmin Khan - book review: Frequently illuminating but covers too much too quickly

India answers the call to arms

Peter Carty
Friday 17 July 2015 15:55
Comments
Indian tanks during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971
Indian tanks during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

Experiences of the Second World War varied dramatically across the Indian sub-continent. My own family is a classic example. My mother, an Anglo-Indian growing up in Rajasthan, enjoyed the dances and dinners that followed the arrival of large numbers of allied troops. Over in Burma my Uncle Ted was fighting in General Slim’s British army against the Japanese. When I asked him what jungle warfare was like he replied: “Grown men were crying for their mothers”, and left it at that. Khan’s aim is to examine the conflict from the perspective of ordinary Indians and colonialists; her book is sub-titled “A People’s History of India’s Second World War”. It is a story of surprises, some paradoxical, others disturbing.

India raised the largest volunteer army ever to fight for the allies: more than two million piled in. And that is the first paradox (which goes unremarked by Khan) – India’s population was a mighty 380 million, which made the volunteer army relatively tiny.

Nevertheless, the call to arms aroused strong responses. Seventeen year-old Mohammed Khan, for example, joined up despite not speaking English and having encountered just two British families in his life. But it was events on the home front that were to have the greatest impact. Most Indians lived in dire poverty and their plight was worsened by administrative bungling in wartime. When their country looked set to fall to the Japanese, many Indians concluded that British protection – the supposed upside of colonial dominion – was illusory.

To make invasion more difficult a “denial” policy was implemented in eastern India. Land was confiscated in coastal areas and boats of all sizes taken away. Debate continues about the causes of the terrible famine that followed in Bengal, but “denial” depredations were an obvious factor.

Khan is frequently illuminating, but she should have spent more time tracking down survivors for first-hand accounts, rather than relying heavily on archives and libraries. When it comes to recounting the history itself, she covers too much too quickly.

The obvious post-script to India’s war is independence, and the country’s eventual emergence as a superpower.

There is another coda, however, which is perhaps the biggest surprise from all of this: the magnanimity of the Indian people. It is astonishing how little resentment they harbour for our appalling mismanagement at the close of empire. So often – and we do not deserve this at all – we are remembered fondly, receiving the most maternal of welcomes from Mother India when we venture back as her guests.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in