by Guest Contributor: Rubayya Tasneem
The view of the World Wars are often through the western lens. World War historiography mostly glosses over the involvement of colonial armies, and other foreign and transnational armies, who played significant and often influential roles in turning the tide of the battle. The colonial armies in India during World War 1 were often marked by acute ethnic division, and the Indian soldiers in the British army had to suffer through food shortages and rise in taxes along with intensive recruitment involving the use of force.
This army was different from the force that fought in the First World War on several grounds, as the British had included more Indians in the officer corps, as a response to the nationalist demands. This process was bitterly opposed by many British Indian army officers and led to racial tensions among them.
Most Indian officers faced discrimination at the hands of their fellow British officers and were often viewed as outcasts among the larger social club. They were also often paid less and had to endure harsher conditions than their British counterparts.
Although the Government of India Act of 1935 led to some power being held by the Indian Congress, by placing the provinces under elected departments, the British continued to retain control of all core bases of power. Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy of India stated that this was a move “best calculated to hold India to the Empire”. This was then followed by Linlithgow’s declaration of India’s entry into the war without consulting any of the elected leaders. So when the 2nd World War came around, the Congress was much more reluctant to support the war effort on these vague promises, but even despite this, the Indian army expanded to nearly a strength of 2 million by 1943. The Indian nationalists, at the time, including Gandhi, had nurtured the hope that these sacrifices on the part of the Indians would be compensated through an increased political status for India, a step that would eventually lead to a self-governing dominion. The undemocratic inclusion in World War II let to the launch of the 1942 Quit India Movement, which was characterized by mass agitations against 200 years of British rule. The Indian National Congress, which had denounced the Nazi ideology, demanded Independence before extending support for the fight against the Reich.
The British authorities responded to this by imprisoning the national and local leaders and imposed sanctions to suppress the reactions of their supporters. This sentiment was not shared by everyone in India, and several leaders, including Subhas Chandra Bose and Mohan Singh Deb, advocated a military alliance with Germany or Japan to secure independence from Britain. He believed that Britain’s stand against Nazism and Fascism amounted to hypocrisy as they were themselves responsible for blatant human rights violations in the colonies. The Indian Legion and the Indian National Army, formed from prisoners-of-war belonging to the imperial Indian Army and expatriate Indian communities, were persuaded to fight against the British to secure independence. Despite all this, the Indian participation in the Allied campaign was crucial to their victory as India’s strategic location prevented the onslaught of the Imperial Japanese soldiers.
The involvement of Indian soldiers in the world wars has largely been forgotten in the modern, and several instances of this can be inferred through the largely isolated monuments commemorating victories, such as the memorials at Imphal and Kohima which are seen as victories of the colonial masters, and glosses over the contribution made by the infantry divisions comprised entirely of Indians. Any books that deal with the Second World War, and even those focusing on the war in Asia neglect the vital role played by the Indian army. This is highlighted through dispatches, or records from that era such as the work of H. P Willmott, outlining the conquest of Burma during 1994 by the British Fourteenth Army, forgetting to mention that this army was composed of Indians.
Indians fought throughout the world, including in the European theatre against Germany, and the South Asian regions defending the territory against the onslaught of the Japanese in Burma. Furthermore, in the Middle East and African theatre, the pre-independence India provided the largest volunteer force of any nation during World War II. The Indian forces also played a role in liberating Italy from Nazi control and the Indian divisions led the advance, especially the decisive Battle of Monte Cassino.
The Indian participation in World War II was crucial to the victory of the allied forces, however, this era of Indian history has, for the most part, been remembered for its fight towards independence. While most of this can be attributed to the wider neglect of the historians towards analyzing India in the context of World War II, it also stems from the fact that the newly independent states of Pakistan and India were preoccupied with creating distinct national narratives at the expense of the former. The war provided an opportunity for groups at the margins of Indian society to find new avenues for mobility and also led to the emergence of India as a major Asian power. India was a separate signatory to the Treaty of Versailles as well as a founding member of the League of Nations, the only non-independent territory to be so.
This has not translated to an official remembrance day for World War II in India, which to this day is considered as a remnant of the colonial past. To start critically questioning and understanding the involvement of India in the World Wars is to generate awareness of India’s participation at the global level that has been so intrinsic to its growth and development.
About guest contributor: Rubayya Tasneem is a second-year law student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, India. Her interest in history, especially Indian history led her to pacificatrocities.org with its articles detailing World War 2, and all its ramifications in modern times. She currently resides in India.