The Raj At War – Yasmin Khan
History, they say, is written by the winners. In Blighty we have grown up with the idea that valiant Britain stood up against the Nazi tyranny alone. Without doubt Britain was the last place of significant resistance to the Germans in Western Europe in the dark days of 1940 but ultimate victory relied on significant contributions from the Russian, Americans and the Chinese. And a significant contribution to Britain’s fighting strength came from the Empire. India, for example, provided over two million volunteers to fight for the allies.
Maharajahs and the like saw the raising of volunteers from their territories as cementing their loyalty to the Raj. Many Indians saw life in the forces as a means of earning more and enjoying a more reliable source of food than staying at home. Very rarely was devotion to the empire the over-riding reason for joining up.
Yasmin Khan’s book examines the contribution of the sub-continent to the allied war effort. It is a bit of a mish-mash, part social history looking at personal experiences, albeit through secondary rather than from primary sources, and part a historical account. This leaves a feeling of compromise in order to keep the book down to a manageable size. But there is an interesting story there and the book is illuminating.
Of course, the significant consequence of the Second World War as far as the sub-continent is concerned was independence, the British withdrawal, partition and the bloodbath and forced migrations as the nascent Indian and Pakistani nations took form. There were many pointers to the demise of the Raj during the war. The collapse of British resistance in the Far East in face of the Japanese finally punctured the patina of invincibility and encouraged Indians to think of stepping up their resistance to their rulers. Some Indians saw the Japanese as potential saviours, after all they were of Asiatic origin rather than pasty-faced Europeans. This expectation was rather rudely punctured when the Japanese ill-treated the Indians caught up in Burma and Assam as, if not more, brutally than their European prisoners.
And then there was the Bengal famine of 1943. British indifference, if not callousness, resulted in very little additional aid finding its way to the local population. At the same time, however, life for the privileged few remain unchanged, food aplenty consumed in luxurious conditions. Khan tells how Indians on death’s door stared through the windows of hotels watching with despair their rulers filling their chops. But Khan, who argues convincingly that the dead from the famine should be added to the toll of those who died during the Second World war, also points out that there was stockpiling of food and racketeering which compounded the poor’s problems.
The book is at its best when Khan shines her light on to individual stories. One cook who had mastered the art of British cuisine felt he had been demoted when he was required to cook Indian fare. A tea planter says of the refugees from Burma on death’s door was the only thing to do with them was to burn them to save on firewood. The insouciance of the Raj is epitomised by a woman who says, “We have taken this war too bally casually here at Simla…do any of us women know who has been locked up and why”? It was a surprise to me that Jewish refugees, Poles and Iraqis found their way to India. There are surprises like this on every page.
A book that could have been better but a fascinating insight into a relatively little known facet of the global conflict.