Book- India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945
Author: Srinath Raghavan
Publication: Allen Lane
Price: Rs 699
The Second World War and the events surrounding it have been covered in our school history books in a rather reductive manner. For most people, there is Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, colonial India’s military contribution to the Allied war effort in Africa and Burma, and Gandhi’s call to the British to quit India leading to India’s independence. The military histories of the war — and there have been a few books in the recent years featuring Indian soldiers — focus on the minutiae of the operations, shorn of the political and geo-political context in which those decisions were taken. The political histories of the period do not take cognizance of the war, and its tremendous impact on the politics of the period.
Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945 fills that void by highlighting two interlinked aspects — how India affected the war and how the war affected India. In doing so, he transforms the way we look at the war.
India lay at the centre of the war, both geographically and militarily. India was the dividing line between the two theatres of war — in the west, versus Germany, and in the east versus Japan – and the Allies feared that losing India would be an irrecoverable loss for them. Militarily, besides Burma, Indian soldiers fought in North Africa and Iraq, contributing to Allied victories in campaigns for which they got little credit. In a meticulously researched book, Raghavan discovers hitherto undiscovered campaigns such as the one in Italian Northeast Africa, where Indian soldiers shone through. The detailed descriptions of the campaigns, however, may not appeal to a reader who is not a military buff.
But the book’s most fascinating portions are about the geopolitics of the time, when American pressure on the British was forcing Churchill to pretend to make a few political concessions to the Indian National Congress. Unlike most history books, which focus on the negotiations of the Cripps Mission, Raghavan reveals that the real reason for sending Sir Stafford Cripps was to influence American public opinion, which was in favour of an independent India. Even when Cripps was on his way home after the failure of his mission, President FD Roosevelt warned Churchill in a private message that “the feeling is almost universally held here” that Britain was unwilling to go the distance despite concessions by the Congress party.
Cripps, aided in no small measure by Churchill, unleashed an elaborate public relations campaign, involving pamphlets, news reports, editorials and articles — before, during and after the mission — to show that the Congress was neither willing to defend India against the Axis powers nor willing to take the responsibility of maintaining law and order in the country. Gandhi’s subsequent calls for Britain to leave India were spun by the British embassy in Washington as indicative of his alleged sympathy for Japan.
India’s allies in this battle for the American public opinion were two American journalists: Louis Fischer of The National, and Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star over China and a war correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. The two wrote important articles in the US press, punching holes in British propaganda and put forth a sympathetic account of the Congress predicament. Roosevelt, in fact, asked Snow to tell Nehru to write to him. However by late 1942, Congress had announced the civil disobedience movement and Roosevelt was no longer keen to press Churchill for India’s freedom.
Within India, the war destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the British empire. Indians serving across the world under the Union Jack saw, perhaps for the first time, the British coming up second best against the Germans and the Japanese. The myths surrounding the Germans during the Africa campaign were surpassed by those about the Japanese as they neared eastern India. The most outlandish was the one about a Japanese soldier, who had landed by a parachute in an eastern Indian village, spoken to its residents in their local dialect, and then taken off in the same parachute!
The behaviour and response of the British officials, when Indian cities were deemed to be threatened by the Japanese, further dented the image of an invincible empire which cared for its subjects. Fearing a Japanese air attack on Madras, all British officials left the city, leaving the Indians behind. Even though the air strikes never came and the British officials returned, the damage was done. Similar scenes of fear, panic and depleting confidence in the British government were witnessed in Vizag, Calcutta and Bombay in 1942. Things were so bad, Raghavan writes, that even peasants in eastern UP were singing ditties that went: Hol-land khatam, Po-land khatam, / Eng-land ki baari aayil na? (Holland’s gone, Poland’s gone, / Isn’t it England’s turn anon?).
In the 19th and the 20th century, the British Empire, from its eastern frontiers to the outposts in the west, was propped up by the Indian soldiers. In the Second World War, Indian soldiers fought and won those battles for the British one final time, but they did it in a way – and under such circumstances – that it marked the end of the empire. Raghavan, arguably India’s best young historian, has produced an authoritative account of those years which is unlikely to be surpassed soon.
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