Though the story is overshadowed today by the cataclysmic aftereffects of independence and partition, India during World War II raised the largest volunteer fighting force in history, ineluctably altering the nation’s social structure and political makeup.
Raghavan (Defense Studies/King’s Coll. London; 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, 2013, etc.), a military historian and former Indian infantry officer, unearths a period of India’s history customarily consigned to the dustbin as the last gasp of an antiquated colonial system. Even amid mounting opposition to the crown, the Indian political classes widely recognized that the British Empire should be supported in its struggle with Hitler, and “New Delhi and London knew that the Raj would be called upon to make a major contribution to the defense of countries that traditionally fell under its sphere of influence.” Between 1939 and 1945, the size of the Indian army increased tenfold, and Raghavan examines the rapidly shifting political alliances within and among the Congress Party, the Muslim League, and the princely states, the performance of the new soldiers on battlefields from North Africa to Malaya, and the massive domestic disruptions caused by recruiting and shipping out well over 2 million young men. While certain chapters belabor the minutiae of troop movements and formations, the author is more compelling when addressing the constraints and paradoxes faced by Indians battling fascism on behalf of an empire that still deemed them unworthy of exercising self-governance and relied on an Orientalist conception of “martial races” to plan recruiting efforts. The strategic needs of British divisions always came first, and Indian troops were moved around with little regard for their preparation or aptitude. In the hapless Southeast Asian campaigns, writes the author, “[t]he brigade [in Burma] had done little training for jungle warfare either in India or Burma,” and the officers “showed little interest in organized training.”
World War II was a crucible that forged the modern identities of South Asian nations in ways rarely acknowledged since. While overlong, this book illuminates that period.