'India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945', by Srinath Raghavan - Review

By Hensher, Philip | The Spectator, March 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

'India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945', by Srinath Raghavan - Review


Hensher, Philip, The Spectator


The sacrifices made by India on the Allies' behalf in the second world war would profoundly affect the country's future for better or worse, says Philip Hensher

The other day, some anti-imperialist students were questioning the presence in their institutions of statues of Cecil Rhodes, a West African cockerel and, very strangely in view of her conspicuously anti-racist convictions, Queen Victoria. In response, a Guardian columnist, who has probably made less effort to learn Hindi than Queen Victoria did, amusingly said that it was time to 'start a debate' about the British empire. I would have thought that we have spent much of the last century energetically examining the subject from topknot to shoesole. Nevertheless, there remain some large areas which haven't been properly considered, and among them is the complex story of India's role in the second world war.

Srinath Raghavan is the author of an excellent study of the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. It's worth thinking for a moment about the connections between the subjects of these two books. In some very peculiar ways, the extraordinary and savage war of 1971 was the consequence of British imperial attitudes and decisions -- of Curzon's 1905 decision to split Bengal into two and of the disastrous decision in 1947 to yield to Jinnah's plan for a country separated in two, united only by religion.

Most of all, the course of the war was shaped by the lingering belief -- not all of it springing from the British -- that some of the races of India were 'martial' and some were not. In 1971 it was widely taken for granted that the 'martial' Pakistani Punjabis would defeat the 'non-martial' Bengalis. Having explored, with memorable results, the last outing of this bizarre belief, Raghavan has returned to India's experience of the second world war. As he shows, it was the war that, in large part, created modern India. It may be that the extreme experiences of wartime tested and hardened some political positions which had previously been largely theoretical, for good or ill.

By the time war broke out in 1939, nobody seriously doubted that India would be governed increasingly less by the British. It was already a regional power, as well as a colonial entity, and, as Raghavan says, in some ways it exercised greater freedom in its external relations than the imperial dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa. Congress -- the body of Indian politicians -- had a range of opinions about its duty or indeed its capacity to contribute to the war. The viceroy, the Marquess of Linlithgow, and his staff could not be sure what support they could count on from Indian politicians or the people. The princes, who still ruled over their own territories up to a point, and who had no great desire to hasten an independence which might very well deprive them of their lands, put on quite a show of loyalty: they were to give cash grants of £13.5 million, war materials worth £5 million and 300,000 men in the course of the war. As the war unfolded, loyalties and duties played out in unpredictable and far-reaching ways.

Although it was made clear from the outbreak of war that any question of independence must be put on hold, there was no immediate outbreak of rebellion. A pressing problem arose when the viceroy tried to explain to Gandhi that non-violent civil disobedience might be equated with conscientious objection in Britain -- meaning that it could be practised but not preached. Meanwhile, other Indian politicians found that their distaste for fascism, even if inspired by orthodox Marxism, required them to advocate fighting with the imperialist overlord. One such, M.N. Roy, was stripped of his membership of Congress for arguing such a thing. Others, as Raghavan relates, saw an excellent opportunity or two.

The arguments went on, but India was mobilised. The military forces were hugely increased: the army from under 200,000 to over two million; the air force from 285 to nearly 30,000; the navy from under 2,000 to over 30,000. …

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