Philip Hensher

‘Help the British anyhow’

Srinath Raghavan shows how fighting with the Allies in the second world war would profoundly affect India’s future, for better or worse

‘Help the British anyhow’
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India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939–1945

Srinath Raghavan

Allen Lane, pp. 608, £

The other day, some anti-imperialist students were questioning the presence in their institutions of statues of Cecil Rhodes, a West African cockerel and, very strangely in view of her conspicuously anti-racist convictions, Queen Victoria. In response, a Guardian columnist, who has probably made less effort to learn Hindi than Queen Victoria did, amusingly said that it was time to ‘start a debate’ about the British empire. I would have thought that we have spent much of the last century energetically examining the subject from topknot to shoesole. Nevertheless, there remain some large areas which haven’t been properly considered, and among them is the complex story of India’s role in the second world war.

Srinath Raghavan is the author of an excellent study of the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. It’s worth thinking for a moment about the connections between the subjects of these two books. In some very peculiar ways, the extraordinary and savage war of 1971 was the consequence of British imperial attitudes and decisions — of Curzon’s 1905 decision to split Bengal into two and of the disastrous decision in 1947 to yield to Jinnah’s plan for a country separated in two, united only by religion.

Most of all, the course of the war was shaped by the lingering belief — not all of it springing from the British — that some of the races of India were ‘martial’ and some were not. In 1971 it was widely taken for granted that the ‘martial’ Pakistani Punjabis would defeat the ‘non-martial’ Bengalis. Having explored, with memorable results, the last outing of this bizarre belief, Raghavan has returned to India’s experience of the second world war. As he shows, it was the war that, in large part, created modern India. It may be that the extreme experiences of wartime tested and hardened some political positions which had previously been largely theoretical, for good or ill.

By the time war broke out in 1939, nobody seriously doubted that India would be governed increasingly less by the British. It was already a regional power, as well as a colonial entity, and, as Raghavan says, in some ways it exercised greater freedom in its external relations than the imperial dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa. Congress — the body of Indian politicians — had a range of opinions about its duty or indeed its capacity to contribute to the war. The viceroy, the Marquess of Linlithgow, and his staff could not be sure what support they could count on from Indian politicians or the people. The princes, who still ruled over their own territories up to a point, and who had no great desire to hasten an independence which might very well deprive them of their lands, put on quite a show of loyalty: they were to give cash grants of £13.5 million, war materials worth £5 million and 300,000 men in the course of the war. As the war unfolded, loyalties and duties played out in unpredictable and far-reaching ways.

Although it was made clear from the outbreak of war that any question of independence must be put on hold, there was no immediate outbreak of rebellion. A pressing problem arose when the viceroy tried to explain to Gandhi that non-violent civil disobedience might be equated with conscientious objection in Britain — meaning that it could be practised but not preached. Meanwhile, other Indian politicians found that their distaste for fascism, even if inspired by orthodox Marxism, required them to advocate fighting with the imperialist overlord. One such, M.N. Roy, was stripped of his membership of Congress for arguing such a thing. Others, as Raghavan relates, saw an excellent opportunity or two.

The arguments went on, but India was mobilised. The military forces were hugely increased: the army from under 200,000 to over two million; the air force from 285 to nearly 30,000; the navy from under 2,000 to over 30,000. Inevitably, the forces were, at first, chronically undertrained and underequipped. They were paid much less than British troops — there was an amusing irony later on when British soldiers in India started to complain loudly at being paid so much less than their American allies. Racial theories played a strong role in recruitment — from the 1880s onwards, most Indian soldiers were recruited from the north-west.

Larger strategic thinking, on examination, clearly treated the Indian forces as cannon-fodder, to be moved about at will — the 4th Indian Division arrived in Egypt ‘seriously underprepared for desert warfare… neither the officers nor the men had ever handled an anti-tank rifle or a mortar’. Despite that, their fighting capacities could be very effective; Raghavan, who was an officer in the Indian army, narrates the battles with clarity. There was, too, the constant background muttering of Indian politicians. The result was that most Indians who signed up ‘saw it simply as an avenue of employment’ — there are only a very few officers who can be identified as saying that they ‘wanted to do their bit to fight the Nazis’.

Nevertheless, loyalty to Britain held, more or less. There were other pressures. The Pan-Asiatic movement that inspired Tagore to visit Japan had ambiguous powers of influence; did it connect India with Axis Japan, which had invested substantially in India in the previous decade, or with America’s ally Chiang Kai-Shek, who cheerfully confessed that he knew nothing whatso-ever about Indian politics? The Americans did not see their role as shoring up British imperial interests. Much of Indian political opinion accorded with Gandhi’s private views: ‘Help the British anyhow. They are better than the others and will improve further hereafter.’ It was quickly established, with the arrival of Sir Stafford Cripps, that India held the upper hand; any offer falling short of what Congress required could, quite rightly, be dismissed as a ‘post-dated cheque’.

It is surprising, all in all, that so few Indians committed what the British would have regarded as treason. The Bengali leader Subhas Chandra Bose was unusual in flying to Berlin to offer his support to the Nazis, but his plan to foment revolt among the Indian troops came to nothing. Only after the fall of Singapore did Indian soldiers desert to join the Japanese, to form an Indian National Army — those who refused were treated by the Japanese with abominable cruelty. At the end of the war, attempts by the British to prosecute the INA for treason hit a wall of public opposition. Bose, curiously, is still a great national hero in Bengal.

India suffered, colossally. The best-known and best-studied episode of the Indian war is the Bengal famine of 1942–3, in which three million died. For their failure to relieve it, Churchill personally, and British policies generally, bear a heavy responsibility. As Raghavan shows, this was only one of many avoidable famines throughout India at the time. (It is a mystery to me why anti-imperialist rhetoricians focus on the Amritsar massacre — which London deplored and whose perpetrators it took action against — rather than these catastrophic 1940s famines, to which it showed a shameful indifference.)

But the war also transformed India into an industrial power. Manufacturing output expanded by 61.6 percent; 1.1 million were added to the industrial workforce; local firms supplied up to 60 per cent of India’s machine-tool requirements. Without the accelerated development of wartime, India would have been much less ready for independence. On the other hand, you can argue that it was imperialist subjection in the first place that had left India with such a small airforce in 1939.

What was the effect of the imperialists’ last war on the greatest imperial possession? It isn’t easy to answer. In a virtuoso few pages, Raghavan sets out a range of rumours which obsessed the Indian population at one stage of the war. In a way, we are now in the same position regarding our imperial history as were the children of oppressors or subjects: passing on in self-satisfaction or alarm what we believe to be the case without having any substantial means of exploring the truth.

I feel close to this subject, since my husband’s family experienced the war under British rule; have tales of Bose (a small bust of whom sits by the telly); and are only one generation away from the Bengal famine. My husband’s uncle, the young son of a Calcutta lawyer, was killed during the Japanese bombing of the city. Nevertheless, I finished this absorbing and important book with the (surely correct) sense that I know rather less than I thought about the effects of imperialism, the intentions of leaders and the merging and dissolution of cultures. In a real — rather than emptily pious — sense, this rational and detailed book should start a debate.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £25.00. Tel: 08430 600033. Philip Hensher’s novels include The Mulberry Empire, about Afghanistan in the 1830s.