Review of Yasmin Khan, The Raj At War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War (Gurgaon, Haryana: Random House India, 2015). Published as “When the War Came Home”, The Indian Express (29 August 2015), p. 25, with slight modifications. .
World War II has never much been on India’s horizon, excepting of course the role thought to have been played by the Indian National Army and Subhas Chandra Bose, who remains a legendary figure, and not only in his native Bengal, in moving India closer to liberation from colonial rule. Most Indians have long believed that this was not their war, and there is a case to be made for the view, notwithstanding the mobilization of over two million Indian soldiers who served in Europe, Africa, and Asia, that the Second World War is best understood as part of a long history of bitter struggle for supremacy in Europe. In the nationalist narrative, it is the Quit India movement that hogs the limelight.
Yasmin Khan, an Oxford-based historian whose previous book on the making of India and Pakistan, The Great Partition, was well received, notes in her introduction that while researching the Partition of India she came to the awareness that the war years were critical in helping shape the political conditions that would lead to negotiations for independence. She subscribes to the argument that has been advanced by many scholars and commentators that the Congress, owing to its declared position of neutrality and its consequent banishment into political wilderness, found itself confronting political realities at the end of the war that it could not comprehend (308). Jinnah openly declared that the war “proved to be a blessing in disguise” (135): the Muslim League found itself ascendant and took every opportunity to reiterate the threat of a Hindu Raj. At Aligarh Muslim University, the entire atmosphere had changed within a few years such that by 1942 the idea of Pakistan commanded wide allegiance among Muslims (136). But Khan avers much more than that, making bold to state that in the aftermath of the war there was a “new belief in the power of violence to release India from colonial control” (x), and she conveys the centrality of the war as an Indian experience with the argument that “the war delivered decolonization and the Partition of 1947—neither of which were inevitable or foreseen in 1939” (xvi).
Independence, as we know, did not occur overnight, and Khan is quick to recognize “the considerable achievement of the nationalists over the long duration” (xvi). The strengths of this volume, however, lie elsewhere, in the mass of material that Khan has assiduously gathered from numerous archives and hundreds of sources and in the extraordinary stories, often juxtaposed with startling effect, which lend credence to her view that “Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did” (xiii). Her book is unprecedented in scope, peopled by a motley group of characters, and rich both in detail and in its unique insights into the socio-cultural and military history of the war years. Her endeavor, in the first instance, is to underscore the signal part played by India in the war, to make visible to those who remember, for example, only the Blitz the contributions of the “Asian merchant sailors who kept the British ports going” (319), not to mention the back-breaking labour of those who built the 500-mile Ledo Road through the mountains of northern Burma to link India to China (259-63).
Secondly, she strives to show the untold number of ways in which the war impacted ordinary people throughout the country: recruitment officers often made their way to the remotest villages, the “War Fund” imposed burdens on people already living at the brink of poverty, paddy fields were requisitioned—usually with inadequate compensation—to build over 200 aerodromes, and wardens patrolled the streets of major cities to ensure that blackouts were being observed. Khan’s India in the war years had room enough for 10,000 Poles escaping ethnic cleansing by the Soviets and Nazis (123), a camp in Ramgarh, Jharkhand, where over 50,000 Chinese soldiers received training (271), and 22,000 American black servicemen who, already intimately familiar with racism, encountered a Calcutta where at the only service swimming pool there were “white days and black days” (268). Many histories have sought to convey the impression that the war barely touched India, once we leave aside Subhas Bose’s theatrics; but the effect of Khan’s narrative is to suggest the near total immersion of a society into a war in which, wrote Orwell, India had become, “it is hardly an exaggeration to say, the centre of the world” (93).
What lends Khan’s history poignancy is her ability to draw the reader into the lives of common people and her ear for nuance and irony. One of the most sensitive subjects for Indians was the recruitment drives, and Khan notes the moral pressure that women, in a patriarchal society, were successfully able to apply “in determining whether their sons left home for the war or not” (227). In Rajinder Dhatt’s family two brothers who fought for the empire returned home safely but the third, whom the mother kept close to her bosom, died of typhoid (312).
The Bengal Famine, with the numbing accounts of bodies littered on the streets, the proliferation of beggars who had been reduced to skeletons, the acute shortages of food and clothing, and the requisitioning and destruction of boats that eviscerated a people and their lifestyle, appears and reappears throughout Khan’s book.
The Bengal Famine Inquiry Report, Khan says, was published the same week that VE Day was announced. Even as Khan indicts the British for their cynicism and callousness, she hints at the enormity of the tragedy in quoting a British woman in Calcutta who, when shown pictures of starved concentration camp inmates from Buchenwald, commented thus: “The German atrocities apparently do not compare with the Bengal famine so the pictures don’t shock the folks out here” (299).
While there are theoretical and historiographic questions to be asked about what exactly are the contours a “people’s history”, Khan’s history has paved the way for a more complex understanding of the Second World War as India’s war too.