Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
9 July 2015

India’s Second World War: the history you don’t hear about

As the British lost their grip on India, Punjabi and Bengali soldiers were still sent to the front lines of a European war.

By simon winchester

An Indian civil defense poster, 1940s. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Farthest Field: an Indian Story of the Second World War
Raghu Karnad
William Collins, 300pp, £18.99

The Raj at War: a People’s History of India’s Second World War
Yasmin Khan
The Bodley Head, 416pp, £25

One of the best-known memorials to the fallen of the Second World War is also among the least visited. It is at Kohima, in Nagaland, a simple white cross on a grey headstone. The epitaph is a heart-breakingly spare quatrain:

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

But where is Home? Who is Them? Who is Us? To most who manage the journey into the cool, damp hills of eastern India, the answers are simple: Home is England, Them is the English, and Us – well, we were the English also: men, in this case, of the vanishing contingent of the 4th Battalion, the Royal West Kent Regiment. A scant few hundred of these gallants held back one full division of the Japanese army, three infantry and one artillery regiment, and fought with them on the assistant commissioner’s tennis court, bayonet to bayonet, for six merciless weeks until reinforcements arrived and drove the enemy back to the east.

Garrison Hill in Kohima was the farthest that Hideki Tojo’s men ever penetrated: their retreat was a turning point in the war, Britain’s Midway, England’s Stalingrad. The battle was recently voted to have been Britain’s greatest, a high-water mark of empire and valour and all that was right about Tommy Atkins and those muscular, pipe-smoking public school boys who led him and all other British fighting men to ultimate victory.

But as these two necessary books remind us, the British were a small minority in this battle and many others. At Kohima, it was soldiers of Britain’s Indian army who did most of the fighting and dying. It was brown-skinned villagers from the Punjab and the Frontier whose bodies were broken to settle arguments fomented long before and thousands of miles away, in London and Berlin, Tokyo and Moscow, Rome and Washington – and in which Hindus, Mussulmen and Parsis played no part. No skin in this game, they might well say: just blood, in unspeakable gallonage.

And they were so willing, so downright and damnably loyal to us, were they not? I remember from school a story, certainly apocryphal, of one example of unconsidered bravery of the martial races (as the English had called them since the Mutiny days). It was in the east of India, around the time of the Battle of Imphal in 1944, when orders had come from Lord Mountbatten’s HQ in Kandy to parachute an infantry battalion into the jungles of Manipur.

The senior British officer at the Dum Dum aerodrome in Calcutta gathered his native staff around and, without going into great detail, (“need-to-know basis, old boy”) explained to his ever-smiling subedar major that he should promptly assemble his men and tell them they were going in by air, and that the drop would be made from low altitude – 800 feet – at night. At first the Indian officer listened patiently, but then his expression altered, the smile remaining fixed but his eyes briefly clouding with just the faintest trace of anxiety.

The Englishman, bewildered at his soldier’s evident change of mood, continued giving his orders; until the penny finally dropped. He had forgotten one crucial word. “My dear chap, I had omitted to say: we will of course be providing parachutes.” At this, the subedar major relaxed and broke into a nervous giggle. “Oh, sahib, sir, I am so very pleased. Naturally my
men would have jumped from the planes – but I am thinking our efficiency on the ground might have been slightly affected by our landing so hard. Eight hundred feet is really quite high.”

These two books amply complement one another by telling the half-forgotten story of the subcontinent’s immense contribution to Britain’s imperial war effort, in two very different ways. Yasmin Khan, a young Oxford historian acclaimed for her recent studies of the Raj and Partition, tackles the subject on a grand scale, from the mustering of men in 1939 to the making of so many memorials to them a decade later.

Her top-down approach works wonderfully well, not least because she seeds the political and military history of the period with so many fascinating personal details that the book is almost impossible to put down. The pace of her narrative seldom falters: and because her principal thesis holds that the domestic travails of the war years led inexorably to India’s independence, she wisely begins her story with the one native-born group that helped change so much in that direction, and so quickly: the Indian National Army, and its charismatic Orissan founder, Subhas Chandra Bose.

Bose, a young Congress Party radical, had accepted Nazi money early on in the war to fund his fast-growing nationalist movement. At first he recruited prisoners of war, and then jawans (infantrymen), suborned from within the British Indian army, to form a home-grown military force that would fight alongside the Japanese in the hope of weakening Britain’s hold on India. This would be the Indian National Army.

Some Britons of my generation still wince at the initials INA. They exhibit a kind of pained wonder that any once-loyal jawan could ever desert, could switch his allegiance to the Japanese, could let down his colleagues and mess-mates and become a JIF – a “Japanese-Inspired Fifth Columnist” – a follower of so cowardly and traitorous a figure as Bose. Fans of The Raj Quartet might remember the moment when Teddie Bingham falls victim to an INA ambush in Manipur: he dies trying to persuade his soldiers to stay loyal, less for the principle of the thing than for fear of what the psychopathic policeman Ronald Merrick might do to exact revenge on any deserter.

Yasmin Khan, sober and even-handed, lays out a more sympathetic portrait of the INA and prompts us to consider the nature and impact of Bose more carefully. She recounts his first broadcast from Germany, made in 1942 after he escaped from house arrest in Delhi and made his way overland to Europe. Among those who heard his speech there was a sense of “the exhilarating thrill of a new world order which might challenge the hegemonic power of Europe over the east that had shaped life since the 18th century”. In essence, Bose’s message was quite simple: to assert that the Axis powers were a menace to India “is the blackest lie . . . From my intimate knowledge of these three nations, I can assert on the contrary that they have nothing but sympathy and goodwill for India and Indian independence.”

To prefigure this message, Khan begins the prologue to The Raj at War with a stirring account of the postwar release from British custody at the Red Fort in Delhi in January 1946 of three INA leaders – a Sikh, a Muslim and a Hindu. Thousands, maybe millions of delighted Indians, “gone mad with the joy of our release”, as one of the freed men put it, poured on to the streets of Delhi and Lahore to mob and to garland the men, and to rejoice in the humiliating signal that their enforced deliverance sent out: that the British were losing their grip and, by extension, their wish to remain in India.

Within little more than 12 months all evaporated, like monsoon rain on a Bombay sidewalk. The viceroy of India, Sir Archibald Wavell, was sent home and Mountbatten went out to replace him; Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi stole back into the limelight; the country’s armies, trains, libraries and provinces were painstakingly divided, the lines of separation pitilessly sketched on to ordnance maps of the Punjab and Bengal. Just a year and a half later, on the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, “when the world sleeps”, India experienced what Nehru called her “tryst with destiny” and became free at last. Partition was complete; the Dominion of Pakistan was born. Bose was dead, horribly burned in a Japanese plane crash in 1945; but his battle cry – Give me blood, and I will give you freedom! – would, in the view of many, long survive him.

The war that spawned Subhas Chandra Bose was not India’s war: it was a war for Britain’s empire. It was a war that lacked legitimacy in India; and the spectres unleashed by it were no more or less legitimate (or treacherous) than were those who demanded in the first place that Indians be coerced into fighting for white men’s causes.

Raghu Karnad has told a similar but more nuanced story, on a more intimate scale, through the reconstructed battle experiences of his three long-dead and unmet relatives, a grandfather and two great-uncles. These men were three stick figures on an immense, blood-splashed landscape that spanned the warring world from the Atlantic to the Irrawaddy. They were minor cast members – by name Ganny, Manek and Bobby – who performed ably and nobly in the Indian army’s troop of more than two million, all of whom at the war’s end found (as Karnad writes here and as Khan would agree) “that they had spent the last six years on the wrong side of history”. Of Indian history, that is. For Indians themselves, the bitter and ironic truth held that the white soldiers fighting beside them were always on the right side of history.

The three friends died far away from each other: Ganny of bronchitis in the freezing air of the Himalayan foothills in 1942, Manek when his plane crashed near Imphal in 1943, Bobby in 1944, deep in the jungles of Burma after an accident – or was it a game of Russian roulette? – involving his Webley .455. One realisation to be gleaned from these shortened lives is terribly poignant: that, for all their blancoed gaiters and well-shined Sam Brownes, their epaulettes and Lee-Enfield .303s, the men had no real purpose, no real value. Their lives could have gained so much greater worth if they had been permitted to stay in India and left in peace by their restless and rapacious colonial masters.

However, and happily, a greater truth survives them. Their barely acknowledged deaths and one young man’s urgent need to notice them have unveiled a gift to the present. I have not lately read a finer book than this – on any subject at all. Raghu Karnad, described unshowily as a journalist working between Delhi and Bangalore and for whom this is a first book, has a quite astonishing talent. He is a master of the sublime, writing poetically about a chain of battlefields he has never seen.

I found myself wanting to reread almost every paragraph in a book so carefully arranged that at times the purity of its prose very nearly obscures the importance of the tragedy it is recounting. The precision is offered in equal measure to matters simple and profound. Of the loading of cargo planes in Assam, for instance:

The steel jaw fell open, banged hard on the tarmac, and the mouth of the plane lay agape, waiting for men to enter. It looked to Bobby like a great sacrifice, the feeding of the whole 5th Division to the bird gods, the Dakota and Commando transports. They never stopped coming – materialising in the heavens and descending to the airstrip, where they moaned until they were fed.

Their mouths dropped open, and hundreds of loaves of bread, stacked like bricks into long parapets, snaked in. Jeeps drove up the long tongues to be swallowed . . . deep into their bellies.

There have been a dozen fine books on Kohima, one as recently as five years ago, given that the battle is fertile country for revisitation. But no other Kohima story is so good as the thirty pages devoted to it here; not one has sentences about close combat as quietly powerful as this:

Death had no ceremony there, as one officer learned when he slipped into a dugout at the tennis court and landed among several jawans, crouched over their rifles to face the enemy: all of them unresponsive to his commands, he found, because all of them were dead.

Both of these books are important because they manage to puncture the inflated myth of older generations: that stiff-spined Sikhs and Pathans, Gurkhas and Rajputs – those martial millions whom the English respected for their bravery but in fact despised for what we considered their bullock-like stupidity – went to war for us because they loved us, and would drop into battle without parachutes, if necessary, so proud were they of being British-ruled.

The facts are quite otherwise. The final flowering seeds of India’s freedom were sown in a wrong-headed war by those clever, non-martial Indians who remained behind, and who roused the rousable masses to throw us out of their homeland, even at the high price of splitting their country asunder. For reminding the forgetful British of today that the Raj was a force ultimately spent by a war that was monumentally ill suited to the needs of India, both authors are to be wholly commended. And one of them, Raghu Karnad, is to be applauded in addition for creating a book that will long survive, I suspect, as a masterpiece.