Book review: India's War, by Srinath Raghavan - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 29 April 2016

Book review: India's War, by Srinath Raghavan

Title       :   India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-1945
Author    :   Srinath Raghavan
Publisher :  Penguin 
Pages:    :   553
Price       :   Rs 699

“History will be kind to me”, famously declared Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister through much of World War II (hereafter WW II), “for I intend to write it myself.”

Churchill, it turns out, meant precisely what he said. An entire post-WW-II generation in the Anglophone world grew up with the wartime narrative of a heroic, embattled Britain thwarting a rapacious Germany, until a reluctant United States entered the conflict and delivered the coup de grace. This entirely fictional account was first revised by the realisation that Russia, not the western allies, suffered the heaviest casualties by far, fought the most horrific battles and won the most crucial victories. Without Stalin, historians realised, Hitler would have handily prevailed in Europe.

A more contemporary wave of revisionism has centred on India’s role. Last year Oxford University historian, Yasmin Khan, published her book, “The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War”, which highlighted how central India was to Britain’s war effort. India contributed 2.5 million soldiers, the largest volunteer army in world history. British taxes and levies, such as the eponymous “War Fund”, imposed a crushing burden on India’s poverty-stricken peasantry, essentially financing Britain’s war in Asia. Khan summed up: “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did.”

Also last year, journalist Raghu Karnad published another people-based account: “Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War”, which captivatingly recounts the personal dimensions of the war through the documented accounts of three close comrades who served in different theatres.

Now we have Srinath Raghavan’s riveting account of India’s WW II, in which he juxtaposes a detailed campaign history with the backdrop of India’s independence struggle that was running its penultimate lap through the war. Raghavan notes that earlier accounts have not recounted the military saga in sufficient detail. He writes: “Almost all [earlier accounts] treat the Second World War as little more than mood music in the drama of India’s advance towards independence and partition.”

Setting out to write a “single volume that presents a rounded narrative, bringing in the manifold dimensions of the war”, Raghavan has burnished his credentials as an accomplished historiographer. His impeccable research into the events of that period is enhanced by his years of military service, the experience adding texture and feel to his military narrative. He describes campaigns and key battles in enough detail to satisfy a military history enthusiast, but without going into a blow-by-blow account that is already available in “pure” military histories, such as Field Marshal Viscount Slim’s classic account of the Burma Campaign --- “Defeat into Victory.” In addition, Raghavan skilfully weaves together the unfolding political, military, economic and social developments during that tumultuous period to tell the holistic story that he set out to.

For example, 1942 was a low point in the war for Britain, with military reverses in North Africa and Burma, the Japanese advancing towards India, the abortive Cripps Mission, the launch of the Quit India movement, and Subhas Chandra Bose’s mission to Berlin, during which he proposed that Germany and Japan intercede as benefactors of India. Raghavan deploys figures to describe the disheartened public mood. Of Calcutta’s 2.1 million people, 700,000 to 800,000 fled after just five minor air raids on the city, in which Japanese bombers dropped 160 bombs. As foreboding spread across India, workers in Bombay, which “was not so much as grazed by a Japanese bomb”, began despatching women and children to their villages. The broadening pessimism between 1939 and 1943 was highlighted by withdrawals from Indian banks, which consistently exceeded deposits. The number of post office savings accounts fell from 4.2 million in 1938-39 to 2.8 million in 1943-44. It was almost inevitable that British resolve to hold onto India would diminish.

Adding pace, style and readability to the book are well-researched little cameos that seldom feature in military histories, like the description of the rigid segregation of white and coloured American soldiers, which was also mirrored in the Indian attitudes towards the “Negros”. Another section describes the training in Ramgarh, Bihar, of 10,000 Chinese Kuomintang troops, who had escaped the advancing Japanese by retreating through Burma into India. Overseeing this training was the famously acerbic American commander, General Joseph Stilwell, whose acid tongue earned him the sobriquet of “Vinegar Joe”. After the supercilious Kuomintang chief, Chiang Kai-Shek bestowed his approval on the already on-going training, Stilwell wrote in his diary: “Why shouldn’t he be [happy], the little jackass? We are doing our damndest to help him and he makes his approval look like a tremendous concession.”

Also described is the inevitable friction between British troops stationed in India and the lavishly paid Americans. Earlier histories recount British animosity for US soldiers in England during the war, who were disliked because: “they are overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here.” Similar complaints, phrased only slightly less pithily, were prevalent in India.

One of the strongest features of the book is its emphasis on the cost of the war and its effects on India’s economy. Who would pay for the war was an important question, given that a colony was going to war on behalf of an imperial power, and the scale of India’s manpower mobilisation and diversion of its economy towards the war effort. It was decided in 1940 that India would bear only a fixed amount, representing the military’s peacetime cost, as well as a one-off payment of Rs 10 million (a substantial sum in those days) for maintaining troops abroad. Britain was to shoulder the cost of additional forces raised for the war, and of military stores supplied by India. But the collapse of Allied resistance in Europe and Japan’s entry into the war saw India taking up the burden. By 1942-43, India was paying more than Britain towards the war, transforming its relationship with Britain from a debtor to a creditor --- with Britain owing it a mind-boggling 1.3 billion pounds by the end of the war. As the author notes, “The economic rationale of the Indian empire, if ever there was one, evaporated in the white heat of war.”

The author points out in a short, but useful, epilogue to the book that WW-2 reinforced amongst leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru the realisation that India was a pivot of Asian security. Arguing in 1946 for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Nehru noted, “It is India that counts in the defence and security of these regions far more than any other country.” Yet the experience of WW-2 was not entirely positive, resulting in the militarisation of millions of men. In the bloody partition of India that unfolded after the war, these military skills were evident in the slaughter of up to a million innocents.


  1. I am so happy with India's new generation. Finally Srinath has said what is obvious to those familiar with WW2

    Indeed, India would have provided 5-million men had it been asked. This was not for the love of the British. Somehow people dont know India has always been a nation of warriors, fighting is in our blood.

    Not being a historian, I've never been able to prove a suspicion that UK did not want an even bigger Indian Army because the independence thing was roiling the nature. The revelations about the financial side, I had no clue about. I did know India had a big surplus with UK; INR was initially freely convertible. Nehru decided to use the surplus for investment and rupee convertibility could not be sustained.

    BTW, I'd always believed two Indian divisions were part of the array for the invasion of Japan, 4th for sure and possibly 8th. MacArthur, however, did not want "colored" troops. One assumes this was because he didnt want American colored troops to get ideas.

  2. Sigh. Let's not get too carried away here. Of course the British Empire fought the war and not 'plucky, little Britain alone.' Of course the arch-racist Churchill downplayed the 'non-white' contribution to the war effort; he also dissed the Australians, the New Zealanders and the Canadians as well.

    All this being said, the UK had something like 384,000 war deaths (all causes), Canada 42,000, Australia 40,000, New Zealand 12,000. And the Indian Army? At 2.3 million, the world's largest volunteer force? 87,000. In terms of its population, 87,000 is barely a bump in the road that you can't even really feel as you drive over it. If you count the Great Bengal Famine, the death toll gets up into the millions but that is not exactly contributing to the defeat of the Japanese.

    In terms of its total population, New Zealand had a military death rate of 0.718%. If India had had similar casualties, its military deaths would have been 2.7 million. Larger than the entire Indian Army.

    But this is a clearly unrealistic figure. No one was more loyal to the Empire than New Zealand. And they proved their loyalty in a way that is unfalsifiable: they died for the Empire.

    If you use the same military death rate as the UK (0.8034%), India should have had.... Oops, even more military deaths.

    Clearly without India Britain could not have fought the Japanese but this was a sideshow. Defeating Japan was an American venture.


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