India & the Second World War

In September 1939 Lord Linlithgow announced that India was at war because Britain was at war, said Srinath Raghavan, scholar and historian. Thus, India was thrust into the war by Britain, without wider consultation. It was a cataclysmic event in which India was caught up, contributed significantly, and experienced a great impact.
Raghavan, who is a trained War Historian at King’s College, London told the story of India in the 1940s in a recent event at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
The British Administration of India had declared war on behalf of the subject population. Nationalist leaders were concerned with what India would get in return for fighting a war in the name of freedom. India was plunged into the war in 1939 by way of propaganda by a government spokesman in Simla. despite Indian National Congress’ reluctance. Then, why indeed did India fight a war on behalf of the British despite the latter’s refusal to guarantee Independence once the war ended.


Viceroy Linlithgow pinning a medal onto an Indian soldier’s uniform.

The Congress ministry resigned when Lord Linlithgow announced support of India to British Raj in war efforts. Mahatma Gandhi actually did not want to use the weak position of British Raj for launching a movement. Communist party of India declared support to the Soviet Union (USSR) and hence to allied powers. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, founder of the Indian National Army (INA), organized the INA and fought alongside Japanese forces. Bose used the Second World War for achieving complete independence and hence sided with Germany. Such incidences marked the deep divisions in the Nationalist struggle regarding war efforts.
The War brought with it a myriad of changes for India. It transformed India’s military power. There was a tremendous expansion of the Indian armed forces. The Muslim League and the Communist Party of India (CPI) extended their support to the war effort and soldiers from different parts of India participated because they saw it as a means to come out of their abject poverty.
Raghavan said India had a pre-assigned role of providing security to the entire arc that surrounded it. North-India was predominantly involved in the war. He said the summer of 1942 was when India’s war really began that is after the Japanese onslaught. Indians in Malaya had escaped from Burma.
Around 2.3 million soldiers served in British Army against axis power. Battle of Imphal being declared as greatest battle of Britain can add to significance of India’s contribution. The people who made up the war effort soon had their lives shaped again by the Partition of 1947 and the carving up of new countries.
‘Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did’, Yasmin Khan wrote in her ‘The Raj at War; A People’s History of India’s Second World War. The War was about 330 million people fighting for their own Independence while feeding and nurturing their 2.5 million soldiers to fight Fascism, Nazism and Japanese imperialism. The War was about a nation in the throes of freedom that used its vast military as a bargaining chip on the dialogue table with the English. It raises questions about the coercion that accompanies such a massive military commitment.
Along with the massive transformation, the war also brought immense devastation for India, said Raghavan. India’s needs were neglected, notably with the Bengal Famine of 1943. Not only this, Britain’s rulers refused to divert shipping from the war effort to famine relief, even though it was pretty clear by then the war was won.
Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s planned economy and the welfare-oriented, developmental state that he tried to craft after 1947 had roots in the Raj’s transformation of the 1940s. The explicit trust placed in the ability of the government to provide better healthcare or education was an offshoot of the wartime changes.
Ultimately, the wartime transformation delivered the exit velocity of the British, the crisis that accompanied Independence in 1947 and the Partition which resulted in the making of two new nations of India and Pakistan. All this is not to undermine the achievement of the nationalists over the long duration, their sustained resistance to the Raj was also essential in knocking down its foundations and creating the possibility of a new order.
Critisizing the fascist tendencies made India’s commitment to democracy far deeper. This had impetus on de-colonisation after World War Two. After the victory of the Allies, India was the only non-independent country to be present at the creation of the International Monetary Fund. All this was catalyzed by its role in the Second World War.
Lastly, Raghavan talked about the deep and lasting legacy that the war had left for India. The creation of a large professional military being one. India developed a military infrastructure of the kind that didn’t exist before. India witnessed the government-led expansion of the industrial base. The aftermath of the war marked India’s international presence especially in the United Nations and Bretton Woods. In toto, the war brought about India’s long transformation which in turn led to the emergence of India as a rising Asian power.


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