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 victory
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 British Empire.
From supplicating 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.
Unsurprisingly, the 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.
The transformation 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.
Shrabani Basu is the author of For King and Another Country, Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18 (Bloomsbury).