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Britain didn’t fight the second world war — the British empire did

Yasmin Khan’s superlative The Raj at War finally does justice to the crucial contribution of the Indian army to Hitler’s defeat, says William Dalrymple

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War Yasmin Khan

The Bodley Head, pp.416, £25

In 1929, when Edwin Lutyens handed over the newly completed building site of New Delhi to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, many believed he had created a capital for a British empire in India that would last if not 1,000, then at least 100 years. It was, as Lord Stamfordham wrote, ‘a symbol of the might and permanence of the British empire’ that had been commissioned specifically so that ‘the Indian will see for the first time the power of western civilisation’.

The plan of New Delhi was deliberately intended to express the limitless power of the Viceroy. In the words of Sir Herbert Baker: ‘Hurrah for despotism!’ Every detail of New Delhi was meant to echo this thought — from the stone bells on the capitals, which could never ring to announce the end of British rule, to the sheer imperial monumentality of the scheme, which even Lutyens’s greatest champion, Robert Byron, described as ‘an offence against democracy’.

Yet just 18 years later, in 1947, Lord Mountbatten lowered the Union Jack and moved out of Viceroy’s House, and the first president of democratic, independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, moved in. At the same time, imperial India was partitioned, creating two independent nation-states, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. After 300 years in India, the British divided and quit.

Lutyens and his contemporaries were hardly alone in failing to see that they stood at the very end of both British colonial rule and of a united India. In 1929, independence had seemed very far away, and the idea of a breakaway Muslim state of Pakistan had barely even been mooted. How did such radical changes take place so quickly? As Yasmin Khan brilliantly demonstrates in her path-breaking study, The Raj at War, what changed everything was the second world war.

The British always liked to believe they stood alone in 1940, a plucky little island defying the massed ranks of fascists and Nazis. What we tend to forget, as Khan reminds us, is that ‘Britain did not fight the second world war, the British empire did.’ Nearly 20 years ago, Antony Beevor reminded us that for most of the war the majority of German troops were facing not westwards over the channel, towards Britain and the US, but eastwards towards Stalin’s Russia. Now Khan performs a similar service when she points out that no less than five million citizens of the British empire joined the military services between 1939 and 1945, and that almost two million of these, ‘the largest volunteer army in history’, were from South Asia. At many of Britain’s greatest victories and at several of the war’s most crucial turning points — El Alamein, Monte Cassino, Kohima — a great proportion of ‘British’ troops were not British at all, but Indian.


Yet India’s war was badly mishandled from the beginning. The Viceroy, the tactless and unimaginative Lord Linlithgow, declared war on behalf of India without even consulting India’s increasingly assertive nationalist politicians. As a result left-wing congressmen, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who might willingly have supported the global fight against fascism, found themselves pushed into opposing a war they would otherwise have endorsed. Instead, they fell in line when, in 1942, Gandhi launched his ‘Quit India’ campaign even as the Japanese advanced towards India from Burma. Nehru, who memorably described Linlithgow as ‘heavy of body and slow of mind, solid as a rock and with almost a rock’s lack of awareness’, spent the rest of the war in prison in Ahmendnagar, writing his Discovery of India. By the time he and the other Congress leaders were released in 1945, the world had changed irrevocably, and nowhere more so than India.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had been a relatively minor politician in 1939, had supported the war effort, and while his Congress rivals were locked up, he used the time to turn himself into the self-declared ‘sole spokesman’ for India’s Muslims. In 1940 he set out for the first time the goal of a separate Indian Muslim state called Pakistan. By 1945 Hindu-Muslim violence had spiralled out of even Jinnah’s ability to control it, and partition seemed the only alternative to outright civil war.

At the same time, war transformed the face of India. Indian factory owners and industrialists made huge fortunes providing military supplies, even as two million Bengali peasants died of starvation, partly as a result of war measures aimed at keeping the Japanese at bay. Khan writes:

Cities such as Karachi and Bangalore boomed, the infrastructure of airlines, companies and road networks were laid by wartime projects, and consumer imports from tinned food to fridges came onto the market. The Americans became more economically and socially influential than before. Middle-class women found new freedoms in work and activism. Nehru’s planned economy and the welfare-orientated developmental state that he tried to craft after 1947 had its roots in the Raj’s transformation of the 1940s.

By 1945, Britain was exhausted and bankrupt, and lacked either the will or the resources to maintain its empire. Realising that we had lost any remaining vestiges of control, on the afternoon of 20 February 1947 the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, announced before Parliament that British rule would end ‘no later than June 1948’. As Khan notes:

The war flattened out the pretensions of empire, making ceremonial and ritual excesses look archaic, challenging old compacts between king-emperor and the landed elites…. It heightened nationalism, both in Britain and India, so that older forms of transnational solidarity became dated and obsolete. The Raj was left in debt, morally redundant and staffed by exhausted administrators whose sense of purpose could not be sustained…. Ultimately, the war delivered decolonisation and the partition of 1947 — neither of which was inevitable or even foreseen in 1939.

The second world war is one of the most written-about episodes in all world history: every month sees a dozen new titles published. Yet, astonishingly, The Raj at War breaks new ground on almost every page. Based on years of intensive archive research in India and Britain, and written in beautifully polished and often moving prose, Khan’s book is the first detailed study both of the extent to which India — and two million Indian troops — changed the course of the war, and of how the war irrevocably changed India’s future. It succeeds brilliantly in illuminating both processes.

What is perhaps most remarkable is the way Khan has found of bringing into confluence two different kinds of historical writing. Her work has the detailed research, economic rigour and theoretical superstructure of heavyweight academic history; yet it also has the narrative momentum, prose style and humanistic and biographical insights of a more literary work.

With its wide-angled vision and breadth of interests, ranging from recruitment to land requisition to battles and brothels, The Raj at War acts as the perfect foil to another equally extraordinary book, coincidentally published in the same month. This is Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War by one of India’s most brilliant and talented young writers, Raghu Karnad (recently reviewed in these pages by David Crane). Farthest Field tells a similar story to Khan’s book, but through the lens of one family who lost three sons in different theatres of the war.

‘People have two deaths,’ writes Karnad; ‘the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives, when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.’ These two complementary books, superbly written acts of remembrance, recreate a world previously largely passed over by literature, and together they remind us how much we owe the forgotten Indians who died for our freedom during the second world war, even as we were only grudgingly moving towards granting them their own.

This review has been amended to correct the misattribution to Lutyens of quotes by Lord Stamfordham and Sir Herbert Baker. We regret the error.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. William Dalrymple has lived part-time in India since 1989. His books include Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India and The Age of Kali.

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