How the war affected the subcontinent

British accounts of the Second World War rarely, if ever, acknowledge the “Empire’s” contribution to its victory.

Oct 2, 2015

By Madeeha Maqbool

The Raj at War Author: Yasmin Khan Publisher: Bodley Head; Pgs: 432
Reading textbooks of Indian history in school and college, one sees the 1940s as the decade of the struggle for independence, from the Lahore Resolution of 1940 through the elections and the constant fights between Indian politicians and the Raj administration headed by Wavell. On the other hand, in the context of world history, one sees the same decade as the defining period for Allies against Fascism. Read separately, there would seem to be no connection between these two major events shaping 20th century history. It is as if the Second World War barely affected the Indian subcontinent except as the backdrop for eventual independence.
British accounts of the Second World War rarely, if ever, acknowledge the “Empire’s” contribution to its victory. There are detailed narratives about the American G Is, the Russians, and all of Europe — it has very much been construed as a western affair. Yasmin Khan sets out to change this state of affairs, highlighting the Indian side of things. The viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, mistakenly thought that the Indians would feel the same way about the war and the necessity of defeating the Fascists as the British did. However, all the decades of segregating the two races and protecting British interests without a thought for the indigenous populace had its consequences. Khan’s description of the ambivalence towards his achievement of the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross highlights this cognitive division between the fighters and those for whom they were fighting.
The Indian subjects were more concerned by the food shortages and how to make ends meet. One revealing line states: “The Raj had delivered on few promises for development.” Khan’s account, however, is not one-sided; there are also the “other Indians”, the ones sheltered by wealth from hunger and want. In contrast to the reluctant recruits, Sikandar Hayat Khan, the Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab, sent his sons into the army as a show of loyalty to the British and to encourage Indians to enlist. War served as an equaliser to some extent; at the frontline, some differences between Indian and British receded but change was slow. The war was almost at an end before Indians could sit on Britons’ courts martial and for new recruits the language barrier was a big hurdle to camaraderie. This camaraderie never dissolved identity completely, a reflection of the differences being maintained amongst the civilian population as well. Even as Bengal suffered its worst famine and people died in the streets, one of the Raj’s greatest concerns was to make Britain food secure, at the expense of the Empire.
Khan does not recount only the military history of the Second World War. Hers is an account of the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people contributing to the unfolding events. One of the most interesting accounts threading through the book is that of one Aruna Asif Ali, the wife of a Congress leader who politically came of age during the struggle for home rule running parallel to the war. Her husband was imprisoned along with most of the Congress leadership for his political activities but she was not considered a candidate for such treatment because the British did not consider her a threat to their power, a mistake they sorely regretted later. Despite rewards for her arrest, she managed to stay underground with the help of loyal contemporaries and whipped up support for the politics of Nehru as well as the military endeavour of Bose.
Official accounts do not include stories of people like Aruna or the victims of the famine, the Jews, the American G Is, their bearers or the nurses and the destitute women and children who had no access to food or livelihood. Putting together their stories in one coherent whole untinted by exaggeration is no mean feat but Yasmin Khan manages to do this in her book. It is a crowd sourcing of various narratives but told with the precision worthy of a historian who won the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize in 2007. What sets this book apart is not the fact that it attempts to tell a people’s history of the Second World War; rather it is the fact that it tells the stories of the common folk in the context of the “great” historical events. It does this without becoming maudlin or melodramatic and without losing the plot in the meantime.
The social reverberations of war also provide a fuller picture of the changes the Indian subcontinent went through. There was a rise in prostitution and venereal disease due to the large numbers of troops stationed here in anticipation of a Japanese attack. No amount of movies made to scare them of the consequences had any effect on the spread of this trade. Alongside this aspect of the war, there is the rise of a class of Indian businessmen who saw opportunities that set them on the path to riches beyond their dreams; some of the illustrious names under this head include the Oberoi hotel empire and the business built by Syed Babar Ali. The war served to create circumstances that ultimately lead to independence, largely because after the colossal cost of waging such a large-scale operation, the British could no longer afford to maintain their empire.
Another example of the war’s consequences is that besides sowing the seeds for partition between the Hindus and Muslims, it also contributed to the militarisation of both sides. From the beginning the British had divided the Indians racially according to “military traits”. There were handbooks on the various castes and geographical areas that were most fit for military service and such classifications have continued to this day — a subconscious legacy of the Raj mentality whereby Punjabis were best qualified for service and Pathans were untrustworthy, and only to be recruited reluctantly. This is still reflected in the imbalance amongst our provinces’ representation in the civil-military bureaucracy.
Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War is not a regular historical tome filled with dry and dusty details. It is very much a living breathing history of one of the oft-ignored and reluctantly explored aspects of British history with examples that almost everyone can relate to. Furthermore, it is written in prose that is readable and unassuming, making it a candidate for a lot of popularity amongst the common readers as well as the students of history.
(The reviewer is a freelance columnist)
The Daily Times, October 02, 2015

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