Migration Post WWII: Where doth home lie?

Chennai, Nov 4:  The much forgotten role of the pre-war Indian Army was remembered here, when Srinath Raghavan, the 2015 Infosys Prize Laureate, gave a lecture titled ‘India’s Long Rise as an Asian Power: The Second World War and after’ at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS).


His research on the pre-war Indian army and the aftermath of the war on the lives of both the indigenous population and the army resonated with Indian diaspora as a consequence.  The pre-war army mostly comprised northwestern part of undivided India. Also known as the ‘martial race’ by the British Army, Raghavan says “..were Punjabi Jatt Sikhs or the Punjabi Musalman (Muslims); these were the two main communities which were the backbone of the Indian army. On top of this you had groups like Rajputs from Western India, Jatts again from Northwestern India, Gorkhas from Nepal. Predominantly, these were the bulk 200,000 men in the Indian army.”

He further added that in order to sustain an army of a million soldiers it became necessary to make new recruitments which now came from the south of India.  The army also took those from the backward classes, tribes, and Dalits, since they wanted to portray a diverse form of an army, as the upper caste of the Northern India were staunch supporters of the Indian National Congress.

Meanwhile the Second World War, which was funded from the Indian treasury, was kept in London. It’s prime source were the taxes gathered from the people in various forms. The burden of war on colonies like India was the reason for bulk recruitment in the army as they paid more than the army which was stationed in India. This resonated with an instance in Yasmin Khan’s ‘The Raj at War’ where young boys would join the army without informing home, and provide money for home.

The post-war situation, however, both for India and England was difficult. Inundated loss of lives led to decrease in manpower and labor force. At that point the United Kingdom’s Commonwealth policy allowed free entry to citizens from commonwealth countries. People from colonies flocked to England; these also included Indians who were twice migrated into colonies. In the first decade post-war, there was an influx of people skilled and unskilled laborers and professionals.

Also, included within it were professionals from India, who were especially required during the declining national healthcare in Britain. Lascars and soldiers who were brought to Britain had, by then, began working to meet the demands made by the post-war industry. They worked for the Heathrow airport in West London and the newly built National Health Service hospital, amongst others. In a few years, some lascars had even invested in entrepreneurial ventures, where restaurants, shops had opened. The post-war diasporia allowed former army soldiers, who were given first preference, to work in factories.

First Indian settlers in Liverpool.

First Indian settlers in Liverpool.

Raghavan further elaborated the post war consequences on diaspora, “The diaspora is very large, during the world war, there were diaspora which had a very traumatic experience, particularly in Burma and of course they were many people from this part of India who were affected; forced to leave Burma; some 300,000 to 400,000 might have had outward migration from Burma and when they went back which was post independence, they were not allowed to hold onto their assets.” Even in Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Glass Palace’, the outward migration of Indians from Rangoon which had a majority Indian population who formed the working class of Burma.

A young boy running along with his father during 1942 exodus from Burma Source: Life, 1942 edition

A young boy running along with his father during 1942 exodus from Burma
Source: Life, 1942 edition

Raghavan further mentioned the inadequacy of the new government of India- the Jawahar Lal Nehru government which he believes took a different position of what its relation with the Indian diaspora should be. It was different from what the British army had because under the British government it was under an imperial structure. Only recently governments have started reactivating their links with diaspora.

With a packed audience of scholars and academics, Raghavan dealt with the role of the Indian Army in the Second World War and the legacy it left post-war.


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