'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Book Review: Chronicling the Birth of India after the Second World War
India’s War, The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-45 Srinath Raghavan Reviewed by SHRABANI BASU
If the concept of
nationhood for Australia was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915 in the
First World War, it was in the malaria-ridden jungles of North-East India and
Burma in the Second World War that the nation of India was born. Australian
soldiers landed in Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 and died in their thousands
under fire from the Turkish army. The day roused the collective consciousness
of the nation and is observed every year as Anzac Day. For Indians, the
important date was when Rangoon fell to the Allies in May 1945.
A nation united in
As the 26th Indian
Division entered Rangoon after five years of war against the Japanese, it was a
singular moment for the Indian Army. Confident in their strength, it was a new
face of India that was emerging from the carnage of war – recapturing a city
that the British Empire had lost. News of the Japanese surrender on August 14,
1945 was greeted with loud cheers in Rangoon. For the Indians, it meant their
time as a nation had come.
“As the tanks burst
away down the road to Rangoon…[they] took possession of the empire we had
built,” wrote the author John Masters, who was then a staff officer in the 19th Indian
Division. “Twenty races, a dozen religions, a score of languages passed in
those trucks and tanks. When my great-great grandfather first went to India
there had been as many nations: now there was one – India.”
It is the rise of
India as a nation during the Second World War that Srinath Raghavan chronicles
in his book India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia 1939-45. “Much
had changed on the battlefields of Burma,” he writes, referring to how, for the
Indians, the fall of Japan, also symbolised that the sun was setting on the
before the Empire, to opposing it
It was a different
scenario from the one in 1914 when India fought alongside the British in WWI,
her soldiers crossing the forbidden ‘Kala Pani’ or ‘Dark Waters’ for the first
time. At that time, the top
leadership of the Congress party had backed the war effort. Mohandas Karamchand
Gandhi reached Britain from South Africa on August 4, 1914 – the very day
Britain entered the war. He wrote personally to Lord Crewe, the secretary of
state for India, offering to mobilise Indians in Britain for the war effort.
His offer was politely refused and he was asked to help with the sick and
wounded instead. From Dadabhai Naoroji to Lala Lajpat Rai, the great and good
of Indian political life thought India’s place lay with backing King and
Empire. They expected that they might be given dominion status for their
loyalty. Over the course of the First World War, one and a half million Indians
were mobilised and fought on the western front, West Asia and in North
Africa. India was a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles, a nod to her
contribution to the war effort. But dominion status was not offered, and India
continued as a mere colony.
British did not find the same enthusiasm from the Congress in 1939. Raghavan’s
book captures vividly how Gandhi, Nehru and Bose opposed India’s participation
in the war. Even in 1940, as the German army swept through Eastern Europe and
reached the outskirts of Paris, Nehru stood steadfast, believing that the
British Empire had had its day. “It will go to pieces and not all the king’s
horses and all the king’s men will be able to put it together again,” he said.
Nehru had no love for Hitler, but he was convinced that Hitler, like Napoleon,
would fall. Gandhi, having been burnt before, backed active civil disobedience.
The Congress called for Indian independence as the price for their support of
the British during the war. As the British political establishment hesitated,
the Congress stood firm. Most of its leaders spent the war years in jail.
Despite this, 2.5 million Indians fought in the Second World War, the largest
volunteer army in the world. Of these, 90,000 died or were seriously wounded.
of the Indian soldier
The broad political
developments in India during the war are well known. The Quit-India movement in
1942, the flight of Bose to Germany and the formation of the Indian National
Army (INA), the hoisting of the Indian flag in Kohima, the INA trials and the 1946 Naval Mutiny went on to become the final nails in
the coffin of the British Raj. Raghavan goes deeper, looking at the effect of
the war on India in terms of men, material, industry, infrastructure and – most
importantly – morale.
A former infantry
officer in the Indian army, Raghavan sets out in detail the mobilisation of the
Indian army in the war, the increase in tanks, aircraft, munition factories
that took place over five years. While Indians in the First World War were
recruited mainly from the so-called ‘martial races’ (Sikhs, Gurkhas, Pathans,
Rajputs) the net was widened by the Second World War to include young men from
Madras, Bengal, Bihar and Bombay. In October 1939, the total size of the Indian
army was 194,753 troops. At the end of the war in 1945, it stood at just over
two million. The structure of the army also changed. In WWI, Indians were not
allowed to be officers, nor could they graduate from Sandhurst. The only officers
were VCOs (Viceroy Commissioned Officers), but the highest ranking VCO still
stood lower in rank than the lowest ranked English officer. The resentment this
caused was not lost on the British.
One of the post-WWI
recommendations included the setting up of a military academy in India to train
officers. Consequently, the Indian Military Academy was set up in Dehradun. The
Second World War thus saw Indian officers commanding British soldiers for
the first time. The handling of artillery had been denied to Indians after the
Indian uprising of 1857, but now Indians were given guns and trained in
munitions warfare. Discipline was strict in the ranks and the sense of loyalty
to the regiment was instilled in the cantonments. Even when the INA was at its
most powerful, the numbers willing to defect from the British Indian army were
limited. Raghavan points out that of the 15,000 Indian volunteers in Axis
captivity by early 1943, just over 2,000 volunteered for the legion. More
significantly, not a single Indian officer joined. The present-day Indian Army
owes its foundation and structure to the British Indian army forged in the
turbulent period of the Second World War.
The bloody legacy
of war, from famine to partition
In his 554-page book,
Raghavan touches on the human and environmental impact of the war: the influx
of refugees from Burma into Bengal, the destruction of forests to keep up with
the ever-increasing demand for wood for ammunition boxes and railway sleepers,
and even the hundreds of elephants who are brought over from Burma and put to
work on road construction sites. He does not dwell too long on the Bengal
famine which killed three million people, as it is already “the most studied”,
but points out how other regions in India too suffered from acute
food-shortages at the same time.
Above all, the impact
of the war was felt in what would be the bloodiest legacy of the British Raj:
the partition. In the violent days following independence in 1947, as the
largest mass migration of people took place across the divided country, it was
the highly-trained decommissioned soldiers who led their communities in
military-style formations across the border. “The Sikhs moved in blocks of
40,000 to 60,000 and covered about 20 miles a day,” wrote Ian Morrison in The
Times. “The organisation is mainly entrusted to ex-servicemen and soldiers
on leave who have been caught by the disturbances. Men on horseback, armed with
spears and swords, provide guards in front, behind and on the flanks. There is
a regular system of bugle calls.” Those who had fought together in two world
wars, now turned on one another with the violent tools of the war. Seventy
years later, the impact of those events are still being felt. With clinical
precision and a military historian’s eye, Raghavan tells this deeply necessary
story very well indeed.