Since the end of the Cold War, historians have finally been coming to grips with the scale of World War II. We now longer see it as a European war and a Pacific one but as a single Eurasian conflict. The savage fighting on the Eastern Front that claimed over 30 million lives is at the center of the narrative. The “rape of Nanking” now stands alongside the attack on Pearl Harbor in the narrative of the Asian war. More than ever, we are aware of the connections between theaters and fronts. As Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian nationalist leader, put it in October 1940, “the coils of war increasingly strangle the world. . . . What happens in Europe is of great consequence to America, to India, to China. What happens in India and China is of equal importance to America and Europe. War is indivisible now.”
But despite Nehru’s confident assertion of indivisibility, blind spots remain, and the largest of these is undoubtedly the war in India. As Yasmin Khan’s “India at War” and Srinath Raghavan’s “India’s War” make clear, this is not by accident. Whereas the war occupies a central place in the national narratives of modern China and Russia, incorporating India into the history of World War II and World War II into the history of India is no small matter. For the country celebrated today as the world’s largest democracy, the significance of what the West likes to think of as the “last good war” is less than obvious.
Though two million Indian troops won great victories fighting alongside American, British, Australian, South African and Canadian troops at Keren in East Africa, El Alamein in Egypt and the inferno of Monte Cassino, their exploits had no place in post-independence India. These battles are remembered, if at all, only in the regimental traditions of the Indian army. If World War II is celebrated in India today as a moment of national heroism, it is far more likely to be the Indian National Army that is remembered, a force of 43,000 nationalists and deserters hand-reared by the Japanese in Burma to fight against the British. Its leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, escaped house arrest in the Raj and made his way to Berlin, where he enjoyed the hospitality of the Third Reich before being transferred back to Asia by U-boat.
But in truth, the men fighting in both the Indian army and the INA were a tiny minority of a population—then including both modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh—that in 1939 numbered approximately 381 million. As far as the vast majority of Indians were concerned, their engagement on either side of the war was reluctant at best. At the moment of victory in 1945 the British authorities in Delhi laid on festivities, and the mess halls of the Indian army reverberated with one last hurrah, but few other Indians were in any mood to celebrate. Ms. Khan, a history professor at Oxford, gives the moment to an Indian lady who wrote to relatives in England: “You have won the war at last. Please let us know how you celebrated Victory day there. We couldn’t enjoy the victory celebrations fully here. It is all the same to us whether you win the war or not. We are in the same darkness we were in before.”
Was this dissociation foreordained? A narrowly nationalist view insisted that India and Indians never had any business taking sides in a war between foreign imperialists. From his ashram Gandhi inveighed against the inveterate violence of the West before coming out in opposition to the British war effort. For hundreds of millions of illiterate peasants the conflict beyond the “dark ocean” was unimaginably remote.
But to assume that India was a nation of rural parochialism and that the war was, therefore, irrelevant to it is to fall into the mind-set of the dimmest colonizers. In fact, as Ms. Khan and Mr. Raghavan demonstrate, many Indians were actively engaged in the international politics of the era. In the 1930s, some like Nehru cleaved to the side of anti-fascism. Not a few were drawn to the charisma of the new strongmen, Mussolini and Hitler. “Mein Kampf,” British officials noted with concern, was available everywhere in Indian bookstalls, often side by side with communist literature. Among the swelling movement of peasant activists in India’s countryside, the left was increasingly active.
If World War II became for India someone else’s war, this was largely due to the highhanded policy of the British government. Ms. Khan and Mr. Raghavan show how both the Chamberlain and Churchill governments treated India with a mixture of contempt and incompetence that staggered contemporaries, encouraged Britain’s enemies and infuriated its allies. In September 1939, London declared war on Germany on India’s behalf, without consulting the Indian National Congress party, which at the time ruled eight out of the 11 provinces of the Raj. The response by the Congress leadership was predictable: They resigned en masse. When Churchill and FDR met in August 1941 to issue the Atlantic Charter pledging a future of democracy, human rights and welfare for the postwar world, Churchill made a point of exempting India from that promise. This extraordinarily offensive policy seems to have been inspired by a belief that the momentum of Gandhi’s nationalist movement had been broken.
The shallowness of that illusion would soon be painfully exposed. By the summer of 1942, in the wake of the fall of Singapore and Hong Kong and a humiliating retreat from Burma, British rule seemed doomed. Fearing Japanese invasion and no longer confident in the British ability to defend them, the population of India’s eastern cities took flight. Preparing for the worst, the British administration in the front-line state of Bengal adopted a murderous policy of scorched earth, requisitioning rice paddies and impounding the thousands of small boats on which the riverine population of the Ganges delta depended for their livelihoods. Soon the only civilians licensed to ply the waters were tax collectors.
Chiang Kai-shek and FDR begged London for a bold and generous gesture to win the support of India. But Churchill was not to be moved. By the fall of 1942, as the war hung in the balance, the British faced the largest mass-protest movement against the Raj since the great rebellion of 1857. With railway and telegraph lines severed, entire districts were slipping out of control. Russia in 1917 had shown where a failed imperial war effort might lead; was India poised for revolution? Looking to the future, might India’s peasant insurgents have joined those of China and Vietnam in turning World War II not just into the end of empire but into the springboard for radical social transformation? The question haunted the Indian left all the way to the upsurge of the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in the 1960s.
But if India remained aside from the war, it also refused to join the Asian revolution. The Quit India resistance campaign launched by Gandhi to evict the British was spotty and largely confined to the north. The “liberated zones” were few and far between. The British army in India, beginning to recover from its defeats, did not hesitate to machine-gun and strafe its own subjects. The rebels lacked leadership. Under orders from Moscow, the Communist Party of India had thrown its weight behind the war. Meanwhile the elite of the Indian National Congress were languishing in jail, remote from the action and less than enthusiastic about unleashing a peasant war. The famine that struck eastern India over the winter of 1942-43 and claimed at least three million lives reduced the Bengali countryside to silent agony. As Ms. Khan notes in her moving description, the famine left a historical void that remains unfilled. None of the horrific images of the Holocaust that began to circulate world-wide in 1945 came as any shock in India. As far as Calcutta was concerned, it had seen it all before.
The British clung to power by means of an ever more cynical policy of divide and rule. For the Muslim League and Dalit (so-called “untouchable”) activists, rallying to the war effort seemed to be their best defense against the prospect of an oppressive new order dominated by upper-caste Hindus. Traditional recruiting grounds such as Punjab and Nepal continued to yield their annual crop of Sepoy and Gurkha troops. The business elite in cities like Bombay did well out of the war. And, crucially, from the summer of 1942 the British Empire began to fight back, turning the war in its favor. It did so thanks to the backing of potent allies.
First among these was the United States, which poured troops and resources into India as a logistics base both for the war in Burma and China. The arrival of 150,000 affluent and freewheeling Americans, including 22,000 African-Americans, was met by moral panic among conservative Hindus. As Ms. Khan describes, rumors of rape and fear of sexual miscegenation were rampant. But by 1944 the huge influx of resources allowed the Indian army and its allies to roll back the Japanese.
Belatedly, the Raj was beginning to reconfigure itself as a modern military-industrial machine. As Mr. Raghavan notes, when India gained independence in August 1947 the state machinery it took over from the British was not just a postcolonial but a postwar creation. The bureaucracy in Delhi had taken on far-reaching powers over resource allocation and price setting. The Nehruvian socialism that shaped Indian economic policy down to the 1980s, with its emphasis on state-led investment and planning, originated during the war.
Though in 1945 Britain was still in control in India, the legitimacy of the Raj was forever spent. The war ran out the clock on the British Empire. On this crushing judgment Ms. Khan and Mr. Raghavan concur. They tell the story in contrasting but complementary fashion. For Ms. Khan it was a human drama, experienced by hundreds of millions of people in variegated and unpredictable ways. Hers is an engrossing and fluently written social history that crosses lines of gender, region and class, public and private. She shows us India’s war through the eyes of peasant women waiting for soldiers on far-flung battlefields, heroic winners of the Victoria Cross, enragé young British civil servants, legendary political activists, nurses, refugees and impatient young socialites confined to the Hill Station of Simla. In reconstructing this mass of stories Ms. Khan greatly enriches our stock of testimony through which to understand this vast struggle.
But as Mr. Raghavan’s fascinating account of the geopolitics of the war makes clear, there is more at stake in the history of India in World War II than “rounding out” the story. Today, with “India rising,” as the slogan goes, and its leading political party, the BJP, articulating a forceful nationalist vision, the past is not just fascinating and moving but eminently political. How and in what direction should India widen its strategic horizons? How should it face the struggles of the present and the future? The answers to those question depend at least in part on why you think India’s horizons became narrow in the first place.
Often the story of India’s eclipse is told as if it begins and ends with the British Empire. But within the empire India actually served as the hub of London’s global strategy. As the 20th century began, the government of India and its substantial army were pursuing a wide-ranging “sub-imperial” strategy. In World War I and its aftermath British India claimed influence not only along its northern borders with imperial Russia and China but also in the Middle East, in East Africa and along the grand arc that ran from Calcutta to Burma, Malaya and Singapore, and from there up to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
When Nehru first envisioned a world role for an independent India in the 1930s, it was this sub-imperial system that he planned to inherit. As Mr. Raghavan shows, India did in fact play that sub-imperial role one last time, between 1939 and 1945. But the divisive way in which Britain used India to fight its war made it impossible for the newly independent state to assume a new role as a regional hegemon. This lost history of Indian power is what is signified for Mr. Raghavan by the forgetting of the battles won by the Indian Army from Italy to Eritrea. The road to India’s retreat from great-power politics began for Mr. Raghavan not in the Cold War or at independence but in 1939. London’s refusal to come to terms with Indian nationalism distanced the future leaders of the country from the larger issues at stake in the war. The war exacerbated communalist divisions, which soon spilled over into the horror of Partition.
But if India’s situation was difficult post-independence, so much more desperate was that of Pakistan. From a historian’s point of view one might wish that Mr. Raghavan’s book had been written with an eye to Pakistan as much as to India. It was from the territory that became Pakistan, after all, that the Raj preferred to recruit its “Indian” army. And it was in Pakistan that the army built during World War II would play a dominant political role after independence. But Mr. Raghavan’s book bears the title “India’s War” for a reason. His is by no means a nationalist history. But as a former army officer who now works in one of the most influential think tanks in Delhi, his preoccupations are those of the Indian political class today. The history he writes is inspired by the search for a wider horizon for India as a regional superpower beyond the confining frame bequeathed by World War II and the ragged end of British Empire in Asia. It is all the more important and urgent for that.
—Mr. Tooze, director of the European Institute at Columbia, is the author of “The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931.”