Forgotten Troops: The Indian Army 1939-1945

CHENNAI, Nov 2: The Second World War witnessed the Indian army’s expansion from 200,000 in 1939 to 2.5 Million in 1945, said Srinath Raghavan, recipient of the 2015 Infosys Prize in Social Sciences, at the Madras Institute for Development studies, yesterday.

Elaborating on the topic, “India’s long rise as an Asian power: The Second World War and after”, Raghavan said, India was drawn into war because Britain was at war. No consensus was taken from the Indians. Immediate steps were taken to expand the Indian army. The Indian navy and the air force that were nascent until then also saw an increase in recruitment.


Sikh soldiers tying their turbans in an army camp. Credits: Google

“The idea that only select communities like Rajputs, Sikhs and Gurkhas can fight in war was thrown out of the window. The army’s expansion led to its diversification, both socially as well as regionally.”said Raghavan. This led to recruitment of Dalits, backward castes and people from South India, who were previously ignored.

Raghavan’s point is also reiterated in Yasmin Khan’s book, ‘The Raj at War.’ She writes, “As the Indian army grew and the demands for the recruits surged, so the recruiting methods changed and became less selective.” British officers would go as far as picking men from Melas or country fairs. Even untouchable leather workers or Bengali urbanites became temporary soldiers.

The reasons why the men joined the army also varied. “A major attraction was the machines. They were told that they will be taught to ride trucks and tanks, so when they go back they will be able to ride tractors.” said Raghavan.


Indian soldiers atop a tank. Credits: Google

According to Khan’s book, for others, it was a way of evading family feuds, strained relationships with family, unwanted marriage arrangements or domestic violence. However, one of the main reasons behind the ‘voluntary’ enrolment was the wide-spread poverty and deprivation. Unemployment and famines left people with no other option.“A place in the Indian army meant a job and a full belly. Above all the army promised a way to extend support to other family members.” notes Khan.

This also meant that men who joined the army were physically unfit to fight a war. Therefore, efforts were made to increase their food intake. “The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research conducted nutritional testing to figure out the average amount of calories the soldiers were supposed to consume.” said Raghavan.  Hence, the soldiers went from having two meals to having four meals a day. But most of these men came from poverty-stricken families and found it difficult to cope with the sudden changes. “The idea of having tea is normal for us, but it wasn’t easy for the Indian soldiers.” he added.

The British had also employed Indians for other services in the army. Khan highlights the importance of these non-combatants in her book, “The washermen, tailors and boot-makers who maintained, repaired and replaced uniforms, the barbers and cooks who looked after the needs of the men, the nursing orderlies and the sweepers, who mopped up the camp and the latrines.”

In a BBC article titled, ‘Has India’s contribution to WW2 been ignored’, Khan also writes about the thousands of women who mined coal for wartime in Bihar and central India, working right up until childbirth, or the gangs of plantation labourers from southern India who travelled up into the mountains of the northeast to hack out roads towards Myanmar and China.

In the book, The Indian Army, 1939–47: Experience and Development, author Patrick Rose writes, “India provided by far the largest number of service personnel in the British empire.” According to BBC reports, the British army strength stood at 1.65 million men during June 1940, and increased to over 3.5 million men in 1946. Rose in his book, states, that in December 1941 alone, the Indian army had 300,000 men in oversees theatres. In fact, Indian oversees forces at this time was larger than those of any other country.

This is further emphasised in Kaushik Roy’s book, The Army in British India: From Colonial Warfare to Total War 1857 – 1947. The expansion of the Indian army led to forced Indianization and by early 1945, there were about 7000 Indian officers (below the rank of brigadier). “When Japan surrendered, the Indian army with an indianized ‘brain’ (i.e. Indian office corps) had become an instrument capable of waging Total war.” he writes.

Raghavan also made a similar point in his speech, when he said, “After India finally got independence, we had an army class that was ready to take over from the British.”



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