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Book Review: India at War

By (September 15, 2015) No Comment

India at War:india at war

The Subcontinent and the Second World War

by Yasmin Khan

Oxford University Press, 2015

As Oxford history professor Yasmin Khan points out in her new book, India at War, “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did” – a commonplace, but a valuable one for serving as a springboard to jump into this larger account, which forms a kind of pendant with Khan’s excellent 2007 book The Great Partition. In India at War, we get a solidly-researched and personality-rich narrative of the role India played in supporting the British war effort. That support was a fraught issue, however; as Khan makes clear, the foundations of the entire Indian world had shifted dramatically in the years since the last time Britain called for aid:

At the start of the war, Europe’s troubles had seemed far-distant and removed from India. Living in the cantonments and bungalows of the imperial state, the older guard of army officers and officials believed (or deluded themselves) that India could be insulated and protected from the swirl of ideologies taking place in Europe. The war would be framed in terms of loyalty and disloyalty to the Crown and would be a repeat performance of India’s role in the First World War: the landed and the wealthy would take the lead and Indian subjects would fall in step behind them. India would come to the aid of the motherland, and the state would draw on manpower and resources as it saw fit.

That manpower and those resources were needed much closer to home when the threat of a possible Japanese invasion loomed, although Khan does a wonderfully concise job of dramatizing the average Indian foot soldier’s experience fighting in such far-flung places as North Africa and Burma. But as the summer of 1942 began and the threat of Japanese invasion receded, “India at war” increasingly became “Indians at war with each other,” and Khan’s focus shifts accordingly – to the struggles of such charismatic figures as Subhas Chanda Bose and Mohandas Gandhi against not only the distant ideology of the Nazis but also the much nearer ideology of British imperial rule. Organized resistance such as the Indian National Congress’s Quit India movement gathered groundswell popular support even while its own ranks were fracturing, as Khan describes with some lean and vivid storytelling:

Internally, the Congress was in factional disarray, trying to decide whether to launch street action and civil disobedience against the Raj. On 14 July the Congress Committee at Wardha passed a resolution calling for complete independence, with Gandhi moving towards a more confrontational stance than he had ever taken. All summer, as the heat rose and the monsoon broke, the tension and speculation over the future of Gandhi and his movement reached boiling point. The government dithered about pre-emptive arrests and weighed up whether to send the Congress’s senior leadership out of the country altogether … The Governor of Madras wrote to the Viceroy in July in typical vein about Gandhi, ‘the villain of the piece’: ‘If the movement comes to anything, I would suggest arresting him at once and deporting him to Mauritius or Kenya, and prohibit any reference to him in the press. If he fasts let it not be known; and if he dies announce it six months later.’

The war, as many key figures in the fight for India’s liberation from Great Britain pointed out, led inevitably to independence. And as Khan has chronicled in her earlier book, independence soon gave rise to the horrors of Partition. Taken together, her two books tell with considerable skill the story of modern India’s traumatic coming of age and emergence into the postwar world.