The Raj at War

The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War
Yasmin Khan
The Bodley Head  414pp  £25

More than two million Indian troops, the largest volunteer army in world history, fought on the Allied side from North Africa and the Middle East to Malaya and Singapore. But their role was quickly forgotten, because it did not fit easily with the post-war narratives of either British or Indian political elites. Even the idea of a South Bank memorial to India’s war dead was buried in British bureaucracy.

This book is written from a subaltern studies perspective, from the bottom up, rather than focusing on political leaders. However Khan makes no attempt to impose a politically correct, anti-colonial straitjacket on her remarkably diverse cast of characters, ranging from the sepoys themselves to their families, prostitutes, nurses and cooks and then radiating out to include the farmers, coolies, shopkeepers, businessmen and bureaucrats who made up the civilian fabric of the Raj at war.

We hear about pervasive racism, but also about how the war broke down past barriers, producing remarkable camaraderie under fire between Indian sepoys and British tommies, between officers and other ranks. In India, as in Britain, Khan convincingly argues that the war was a great equaliser and moderniser, making independence inevitable and laying the foundations of the new Indian state. It brought major opportunities for Indian manufacturing industry, churning out military and other hardware for the war effort and huge war profits for India’s business classes. Indian cities grew rapidly and so did jobs and prosperity for the urban middle and working classes. In the countryside, too, a job in the army meant a full belly after a decade of economic depression.

In a surprising parallel with 1940s Britain, the war brought major expansion and modernisation of public health services. The sepoys, says Khan, received military healthcare ‘they would otherwise be unable to dream of back home’, including inoculations, malaria control and a healthy diet supplemented with multivitamins. But military service also brought soaring rates of venereal disease, with wartime Calcutta recording the highest rate anywhere in the world. Faced with endemic prostitution and illegal brothels, the Raj responded with increased supplies of condoms and slogans like ‘Defeat the Axis, Use Prophylaxis’.

On a more sombre note, Khan tackles the impact of wartime profiteering and bungling on the terrible Bengal famine of 1943, but she is careful not to apportion blame and points out that the famine happened on the watch of an elected provincial government. She is equally judicious about the failure of power-sharing negotiations between the Raj and India’s rival Congress and Muslim League politicians.  

Khan’s research has been extensive and she combines it with a gift for storytelling. She is at her best and most original in bringing us the revealing perspectives of witnesses other historians might ignore: black American GIs denied entry to a racially segregated swimming pool in Calcutta, sick and orphaned Polish child refugees sheltered by a kindly Gujarati Maharaja, or starving Chinese troops sent to India to be fattened up and trained.           

Zareer Masani's most recent book is Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (The Bodley Head, 2013). His previous books include a widely acclaimed biography of Indira Gandhi.


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