India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War

India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War

India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War

India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War


World War II was a global catastrophe. Far broader than just the critical struggle between Allies and Axis, its ramifications were felt throughout the world. It was a time of social relocation, reorienting ideas of patriotism and geographical attachment, and forcing the movement of people across oceans and continents. In India at War, Yasmin Khan offers an account of India's role in the conflict, one that takes into consideration the social, economic, and cultural changes that occurred in South Asia between 1939 and 1945-and reveals how vital the Commonwealth's contribution was to the war effort.

Khan's sweeping work centers on the lives of ordinary Indian people, exploring the ways they were affected by a cataclysmic war with origins far beyond Indian shores. In manpower alone, India's contribution was staggering; it produced the largest volunteer army in world history, with 2.5 million men. Indians were engaged in making the raw materials and food stuffs needed by the Allies, and became involved in the construction of airstrips, barracks, hospitals, internee camps, roads and railways. Their lives were also profoundly affected by the presence of the large Allied army in the region, including not only British but American, African, and Chinese troops. Madras was bombed by the Japanese and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were occupied, while the Bengal famine of 1943-in which perhaps three million Bengalis died-was a man-made disaster precipitated by the effects of the war.

This authoritative account offers a critically important look at the contributions of colonial manpower and resources essential to sustaining the war, and emphasizes the significant ways in which the conflict shaped modern India.


‘Everyone is buying or if they can hiring radio sets’, Sydney Ralli recorded in her diary in Karachi in September 1939. A broadcaster and journalist, Ralli was married to an imperial tycoon, Charles, heir to a cotton textile and shipping fortune. News from Europe arrived by radio, newspaper and through family letters. Elites in India had a sharper appreciation of the threat of war in 1939 than many others because they were more likely to have access to a radio. ‘Every single person walks around with a gas mask … all the shops are practically empty, most of them closed at 5 o’clock. Everyone is doing some sort of national service. Sandbags everywhere. Everything is pitch-black at night and one is advised not to be out after dark as it is dangerous’, Ralli wrote home, determined to share in the grittiness of war’s outbreak and to play her own part in the international drama unfolding.

The Government of India was busily announcing preparations for the defence of the Raj, air raid wardens had begun drilling and officials ordered the mobilisation of machinery and weaponry and began seeking contributions to the War Fund. The war also resonated through a network of family and friends back in Britain who sent detailed letters, riddled with mounting tension and apprehensions. Ralli even heard the details of other people’s letters, leaked by a friend stationed in the censor’s office in Karachi. But this initial sense of drama was short-lived and soon melted away. Ralli herself could not keep up the sense of suspense, when everyday life soon slipped back to normality. Within weeks, the atmosphere had returned very much to business as usual, with the war soon taking on a dream-like, fantastical quality.

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