The British Empire Library

The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War

by Yasmin Khan

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Over the years much has been written about India's contribution to the Second World War, but the majority of work has focussed on the role of the Indian Armed Forces on the battlefield. Far less has been written about the impact of the war on the civilian population of India, and of those whose service, either in uniform or in support of the Armed Forces, kept them in India to support the war effort. As the author points out, however 'the war could not be based in India without infringing drastically on the everyday world of its inhabitants'. This elegantly written, well researched and beautifiilly crafted book throws a clear spotlight on many aspects of life in India during tho e eventful years. Be prepared. however for some very uncomfortable reading; the clarity of the spotlight is at times, both disturbing and embarrassing. Running through it all is the political thread of independence, of the defining impact of the war on nationalist politics, and of the exposure of imperialist failings and of a consequent loss of faith in the Ra - Lord Linlithgow's failure to consult Indian leaders at the start of the war probably set the tone for much that was to follow. Never was this loss of faith more apparent than in the perceived injustice meted out to many of the refugee fleeing the conflict in Burma. The fall of Singapore and raids on Ceylon caused questions to be asked about the supposed invincibility of the British Empire, but stories of a two-tier refugee ystem coming out of Burma damaged the reputation of the Raj almost beyond repair.

Divisions within Congress are explored - Nehru's sympathy for the Allied cause in fighting fascism in Europe set against the animosity caused by the failed Cripps mission of 1942, which many within Congress regarded as a mark of British insincerity from the outset. The later arrest and confinement for three years of Congress leaders at Ahmednagar Fort left the field open for underground activities to exploit the feelings of anger urging in the country. Churchill's animosity towards India and Indians, which the author describcs as 'showing an irrational and offensive hatred of the country' could lead to the government side-lining any resolution of the political question as an irrelevance while prioritising victory at all costs.

But these costs were extremely high . A scorched earth policy initiated in Bengal in 1943, designed to deny an invading Japanese army access to resources, as they had been able to do in Singapore, had the effect of denying the means of earning a living for many of the poorest; the destruction of boats used for fishing and as essential transport of people and goods; the eviction of farmers and draining of paddy fields close to the many new airfields being built across the country to prevent the spread of mosquitos and flies; the slaughter of cattle in Bihar and Orissa to provide meat for British and American servicemen; or the requisoition and overnight evacuation of villages and hamlets to make way for storage space, factories and housing for foreign service personnel. Not everyone suffered and for some the war was a boon: the ruling Princes played their cards well, though ultimately, their support failed to prop up the existing political order. Some less than scrupulous local entrepreneurs profitted from food contracts, even as Bengal descended into famine.

Others founded post-war hotel chains based on an enfrepreneurial ability to provide accommodation for war-time visiting servicemen. For the majority it was far from a positive experience and some British personnel, especially those new to India, felt the pain of the locals and were uncertain about being used in aid of the civil power to put down internal unrest. Visiting American service personnel also expressed disquiet at the poverty. On the other hand, a visiting American diplomat, in reporting on war preparedness in the country, censured Britain's failure to extract the most from its colony - in effect issuing a command to squeeze India's people and resources much harder. The impact of the war on India's finance is also explored; what looked like a fair deal for India turned out to be payment deferred, and the money needed for the day had to be raised in India, with the government turning to tax, borrowing, and an increased amount of money in circulation to meet the demand.

The author set out to understand the impact of the war on the home front in India, and how the Indian sub-continent itself was re-shaped by the war. As she notes in her concluding chapter, the war forced some terrible decisions and produced strange juxtapositions and unforeseen circumstances. The author acknowledges that there is still much more to be understood about the demands of war on many different kinds of people, but this book has gone a long way to unlocking that understanding and informing the debate. Highly recommended.

British Empire Book
Yasmin Khan
First Published
Bodley Head
Review Originally Published
Spring 2016 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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