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Call of duty: The war that made a country

Published : Apr 20, 2016, 2:43 am IST
Updated : Apr 20, 2016, 2:43 am IST

India’s fight against the axis and the days before, and after, the great second war.

India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939 to 1945 by Srinath Raghavan Penguin Random House pp: 550, Rs 699.
 India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939 to 1945 by Srinath Raghavan Penguin Random House pp: 550, Rs 699.

India’s fight against the axis and the days before, and after, the great second war.

“We don’t want to fight; but, by Jingo, if we do

We won’t go to the front ourselves, but we’ll send the mild Hindoo.”

Most of what we see around us today, is the result of war. Our history is filled with numerous battles and victors kept the spoils while losers vanished. But the mayhem the world descended into, from 1939 to 1945, dwarfs every other prior human conflict. World War II killed between 50 to 70 million people. Eighty per cent of that number came from just four countries — Russia, China, Germany, and Poland. In Soviet Russia, a land that was saved by the cold, eighty per cent of males born in 1923 didn’t survive the war. There’s another figure most of us here forget. India, which decided to defends cruel masters, had summoned up the the “largest volunteer army in history”. By 1945, the Indian army had deployed some 2.5 million men across Hong Kong, Singapore, Iran, Iraq, Syria, East Africa and Italy. When the dust settled nearly 90,000 of these men were dead or injured.

India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939 to 1945 tells us the stories of these individuals and of a jigsaw puzzle of a region that went to war in the hope of eventual freedom. Author Srinath Raghavan, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and a Ph.D in War Studies from King’s College London, dives deep.

“I have been working on the book for almost five years. The most difficult part was to capture the voices and feelings of Indian soldiers. So few letters have survived. I first became aware of the Indian army's role in World War 2 during my own tenure as an officer in the Rajputana Rifles. Historians here have for long neglected the Indian army. To be sure, there are some fine books on the subject, but it remains woefully under-researched. The neglect of WW2 is part of this larger problem,” he says.

Raghavan's book starts off with an incredibly detailed analysis of how India's politicians approached the War decision. “At the outbreak of the war, the Congress was the dominant force in politics. But by late 1942, while the Congress leadership was in jail, the political situation became more fluid. Jinnah, Ambedkar, Savarkar all found opportunities to advance agendas by supporting to varying degrees the war. Bose, too, seized the opportunity to forge alliances with Germany and Japan. The British viewed his activities with some disquiet."

But nothing comes close to the machinations deployed by the Nizam of Hyderabad — Mir Osman Ali Khan. Wary of an imminent ‘Federal Rule’ and in hopes of winning hearts within the Raj, the Nizam unleashed the one resource he had in plenty — cash. As early as the October of 1939, Hyderabad had contributed £100,000 and promised to bear maintenance costs of battalions. By the time the war ended, Raghavan notes, India’s conservative royals had furnished the War Purpose Fund with £13.5 million. The grand city of Hyderabad alone had paid for three squadrons of military aircraft.

“The Nizam along with the Maharaja of Kashmir contributed substantially. As in the First World War, Hyderabad State played a significant role in supporting the British government,” adds Raghavan. But genuine paranoia soon took over the rest of India when France fell under Panzer tracks in less than a month. Despite an agenda centred around non-violent protests, India's leadership decided it was time to take up arms. “A majority of Indians viewed the Nazis as aggressors who had begun the war and as a force that needed to be defeated. Even Bose, who sought their support, had his qualms about Hitler’s racist view of Indians,” says Raghavan.

It was definitely combat then, for soldiers who had never even seen a tank before. And it wasn’t just in some far flung African desert. India’s army fought some of the bloodiest battles with the Japanese. Raghavan's book details skirmishes in the North-East.

“The idea that the Indian army would actually fight the Japanese was deemed inconceivable before late 1941. After a string of defeats, the Indian army practically recast itself by 1944. Burma was the only theatre in WW2 where the Japanese eventually faced a land defeat.” No doubt, the war changed South Asia. India did emerge a victor but soon experienced her own troubles — famine, poverty, partition.

“By 1946, the British were convinced they could no longer hold India. But their wartime policies also directly contributed to the creation of Pakistan. The Indian economy saw some important advances in manufacturing but there was also widespread deprivation, hunger. The war also boosted militarised communities in ways that contributed to the horrific violence during Partition,” Raghavan adds.

And finally, as a book that connects important dots, India’s War does a stellar job — much like the men in uniform it talks about.