Policy Engagements and Blogs

India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945

April 28, 2016


Srinath Raghavan’s new book India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945 will be launched on 29 April, 2016. In the run-up, read the interview (below) with Raghavan about his book, which has been replicated from The Hindu:

The book is called India’s war. Yet, not one Indian was consulted before Viceroy Linlithgow’s decision to enlist the Indian Army.
Even if India was an unwilling participant in the conflict, the conflict had huge implications for India. So, even if we were dragged into it kicking and screaming, those years turned out to be foundational for India in the Independence movement.

But still not India’s war. The Army was treated like bonded labourers, bundled off to fight without any say…
That’s not entirely the case. The Congress certainly opposed India’s participation because it wasn’t consulted, but others saw it as an opportunity. You had people like Ambedkar, who realised that for the Dalits, this was an opportunity for social mobility, to have their voices out. You also had Savarkar who said that this was a great opportunity for the Hindu community to get into the Army, which was dominated by the Sikhs and the Muslims.

Are you saying it was the war that gave these leaders and their ideologies their original prominence?
I think many of the ideological fault lines that we associate with 1947, in some sense, came to the fore during the war years, and that’s why we need to study them more closely. Because of what happens in the period 1935-1939 — you have the first elections under the Government of India Act, and Congress ministries are formed. It seemed as if the Congress was the most dominant force, and only Congress versus the British Raj played out. But then you had the war; the Congress was sidelined, and that cracked open the scenario for others who wanted their voices heard. So you had Jinnah coming into prominence with his demand, you had Ambedkar, you had Savarkar, and a number of others.

If you look at the books about India’s participation in World War II, especially Northeast India and the Malacca frontlines, they are titled the ‘forgotten war’ or the ‘forgotten Army’. Why is it important that they are not forgotten?
If you look at much of the way our history is taught, and the way the public imagines the 1940s, it is basically about the Congress party resigning, the Cripps Mission failing, and then you talk about post-war developments leading up to Independence. So the 1940s are remembered for this march to Independence and Partition that came as a cost of it. The war never really comes into focus. What I wanted to do was say, if you put the war in the front and at the centre and study its impact, then much of the 1940s becomes much clearer and explains why we ended up with what happened on August 15, 1947. Without the war, it is unlikely that the Muslim League would have gained prominence vis-a-vis the Congress in order to push through their demand for a separate country.

You don’t often refer to yourself in your books, but here you speak of your own regiment and how it fought. Do you think there is a bigger need to acknowledge this part of World War II as India’s war, for the Army’s sake?
To begin with, it is important from a military history point of view. This period marked the biggest expansion the Indian Army saw. For a generation of people, now forgotten, the war was foundational for their lives. They travelled abroad for the first time, served in very difficult conditions. I don’t think I would have even got into the subject but for my own military background; I may not have written it but for the fact that I served in the Rajputana Rifles regiment that features prominently in the book. When you have two and a half million Indians in uniform and many more millions recruited for war-related activity, how can we just forget that story? The Indian Army has got caught in the middle of this. If you are a ‘nationalist’, you will see the Army as an instrument of British control; a force of collaborators. But most of the Army was deeply nationalist. Others want to portray the anti-British movement as a subaltern revolution led by the peasantry, yet what was the Indian Army if not made up of the peasants and poorer classes? So, why ignore this side? Finally, let’s remember that along with Partition, the Indian Army was partitioned as well. Companies that fought together in those wars were subsequently made to fight each other, beginning with the first Kashmir war. As a result, World War II dropped out of the picture. Because now both the Indian and Pakistani armies wanted to play up the stories of their valour against each other, to suit their independent national interests, and not some war that was a collaborative effort. One of the things I mention in the book is that there is a 25-volume official history of the war, and it had to be compiled by a combined inter-services effort from both India and Pakistan, right? But acknowledging this joint history has become very difficult, and very inconvenient, to both countries.

In his memoirs, President Pranab Mukherjee writes that he was against attending commemorations for World War II because it was an insult to the Independence movement, and particularly to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army fought against British forces.
I very strongly disagree with that view. Netaji and the INA’s effort were quite important, no doubt. I do bring out in the book that the INA’s importance was not really about military contribution, but political impact. It had about 25,000 soldiers, prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, who went over to form Netaji’s Army. The Indian Army was about a hundred times larger, 2.5 million Indians. So why should we only valorise 25,000 people and try to say that recognising the others is somehow a denigration of national history? That’s the lens I am trying to move beyond. Just because some people were in the Army doesn’t mean they wanted British rule. Many fought simply because it was a job; others needed access to food.

There’s an interesting point in the book when Chiang Kai-shek comes to meet the Indian leadership and asks them to support the war because the soldiers won’t be able to fight if they feel they do not have the country’s backing. Why was that significant?
One of the other forgotten parts of our history is that one of the biggest alliances was that of the Indian and Chinese armies during the war. Once the Japanese captured Burma, the land routes were cut off, much of the Indian Army’s mandate was to enable the nationalist Chinese Army to be supplied to fight. Much of the aerodrome-building across Northeast India was to supply the nationalist Chinese. Given the turn we took later, we must realise there is a pre-history too. India and China both emerged from the crucible of World War II. The idea that Asian nations which have come out of colonialism will have a shared future goes back to then. Of course, things didn’t work out that way, and we tend to forget this.

Most wars end the empire of the defeated side. Would you say that World War II was unique because it ended the empire of the winning side, the British?
I think it was clear even at the time that World War II would change the world forever… I think the key point is that the British lost the empire not just because they were weakened by the war, but because they lost the Indian Army’s support by the end of it, which was their instrument of control. That’s what the impact of the INA mutiny was, to show that the British could raise this massive Army, but that it could turn on them too. People like Churchill had even questioned the expansion of the Indian Army and said: “Someday it is going to shoot us in the back”.

You are now seen as a master of the archives through each of your books. What was the biggest challenge during your research for India’s war?
To be honest, I began this book thinking I could do most of my research in India itself. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I found that the National Archives don’t even have a clear record of the war period. They don’t even have a catalogue for the military department during the war, so a lot of the military details came from the British Library and other archives. But what I feel most satisfied about was my effort to discover the voice of the Indian soldier.


Read book reviews, which have appeared thus far:
The Washington Times
The Diplomat
The Spectator
Open Magazine
Financial Times

The Asian Age
The Wire

The Economist
Open Magazine
Live Mint
Mail Today
The New Indian Express
Wall Street Journal

Additionally, read book excerpts in Scroll and Outlook

Outlook also profiled him.