After a dearth of books on India’s role in the Second World War, along come three. Published in 2015, Raghu Karnad’s The Farthest Field is a heart-rendingly personal take on the conflict, while Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War offers a sweeping and more civilian-inclusive survey (covered in these pages last July). Now comes India’s War, a minutely detailed study of the conduct of the conflict from the Indian perspective.
The book’s title is tendentious. As Srinath Raghavan ably demonstrates, it was because most Indians did not think of the conflict as ‘India’s war’ – and still don’t – that the subject has so long been taboo there. After all, the Allies’ defence of democratic freedoms in Europe blithely ignored India’s aspirations for the very same freedoms. Within hours of the Anglo-French declaration of war on 3 September 1939, Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy, announced that India too must consider itself at war with Germany. There was no prior consultation with India’s local leadership. Nor was there any attempt to win over Indian opinion by offering political concessions. Linlithgow declined to spell out his government’s war aims. Indeed, several weeks into the war he was still firmly opposed to having what he regarded as ‘an academic argument about the merits or de-merits of [Indian] democracy’.
Attitudes should have softened with Japan’s sudden eruption on the scene in 1941. Pearl Harbor, the rout of Allied forces in Malaya, the fall of Singapore and another rout in Burma brought the front line to India’s doorstep. Winning the support of all shades of Indian opinion was now essential.