by Syona Puliady
While the world was watching Indian independence unfold, waves of experiences found on the Indian front of World War II are often drowned in silence. However, Indian involvement in WWII spanned the scope of the world, and caused many negative impacts within the subcontinent as well.*
With over two and a half million Indian soldiers serving in WWII, the Indian army became the largest volunteer army in history. In addition to these soldiers, billions and billions of pounds were borrowed by the British from India to be used on war expenses. In many ways, it is apparent that without Indian involvement in WWII, the Allies would not have been strong enough to sustain their wins against their enemies. Unfortunately, this is a story that many have chosen to forget. The British did not recognize the Indian people who fought for them during this time, and in India too, these stories are quickly fading from the collective memory.
During the War, Indian politicians held contentious views against each other, further solidifying tensions that were already causing rifts among communities at the time. Even though many of the Indian soldiers volunteering fought alongside the British against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, many also supported and fought for Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s win. This was due to the contested notions of whether or not Indian Independence was more important than fighting in the war. These arguments were often based on the notion that the British was fighting this war for moral reasons. Under the assumption that the British’s moral war would be fighting the devastating violence the Axis powers had enacted on others, many Indians argued that they could therefore not side with the British, as the British Raj had committed just as much violence on Indian people under colonial rule. In fact, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan looked at the British colonial model in South Asia as inspiration for their own imperial and genocidal pursuits.
Regardless of the contrasting political arguments during this time, two and a half million Indians still voluntarily fought in WWII for the British.** Not only did Indians fight in various parts of South Asia, but they also were stationed in different parts of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. In many parts of Europe, Indians fought to protect the freedom, humanity, and lives of the British, even though they were denied these same rights as subjects of colonial rule. They were also not given the same amount of pay nor the same decent living conditions that the British soldiers received. But without the help of these Indians, the Allies would not have been powerful enough to stop the brutal forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Geographically speaking, India served the Allies as a blockade between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany; this kept the enemies severed from each other and unable to fight battles together in the Middle East. Maintaining this geographical separation was crucial for the Allies; if Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were to join forces closer to Europe and gain control of the oil in the British colonies of the Middle East, the Axis powers may have been unstoppable.
After the Fall of Dunkirk in June 1940, the British desperately needed a larger army to protect their national borders; the large manforce the British Indian army could provide served perfectly for this cause. The large number of Indians in the British army has been attributed to the victories of other important battles in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Almost two hundred and fifty thousand Indians were sent to fight in North Africa alone, and many of them were under equipped for the battles they faced in the desert.
There were also many battles fought closer to home in Burma, Malaya, and Singapore. When the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1941-1942, most of the British army protecting British rule in Singapore and Malaya were Indian. However, the British lied to the Indian soldiers by telling them the planes of the Japanese invasion belonged to their American allies. In doing this, Indians were trapped in enemy territory as they did not have time to retreat to safety. This betrayal of the British resulted in the deaths of many Indian soldiers by the Japanese. Not only were many Indian soldiers murdered during this time, but the Japanese also used captured Indian soldiers as live shooting targets to train their own military. If the Indian soldiers survived these firing squads, they were subjected to cruel and unusual punishments until their death. The Japanese also forced captured Indian soldiers to work ten to twelve hours a day with very little food as POWs. They were tortured if they did not work hard enough. Some Indians were even killed and eaten by the Japanese during food shortages. Almost 60,000 Indians were taken as Japanese prisoners.
Following this betrayal, many Indians joined the side of the Indian National Army (INA) in order to free India from British rule. The INA was led by Mohan Singh, who desired Indian independence from the British. In order to do this, he and his followers believed they should fight with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan against the British. About twenty thousand men and women joined the INA. However, when Singh and the Japanese began having disagreements, Singh was removed and replaced by Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose was a passionate nationalist leader who was able to convince many Indians to join the INA. However, his alliance with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan has been highly criticized by many. He eventually died while fleeing to Tokyo a few months before the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
Partnered with the Japanese, the INA troops began advancing into Burma in 1944 in order to attack India. In the Battle of Arakan, Indian soldiers fought each other, both in hopes that their home country would eventually be freed from colonial rule. The battles between the two sides were extremely brutal; ultimately Japan was able to advance through a decimated Burma to attack India. While the Japanese and INA were mostly unsuccessful in this pursuit, it was apparent to the British that they would need more defense for the Indian front. The Japanese and INA would not survive much longer in this war from here on out, but many of the INA leaders are still considered to be heroes in India today.
Countless people from various parts of South Asia critically suffered from the horrific realities of war at home. Once Imperial Japan was able to invade the Andaman Islands, Burma, Malaya, and Singapore they were able to begin their attacks on India as well. Many of the major cities like Delhi and Madras (now Chennai) were bombed by the Japanese. Thousands of people forcefully displaced from their homes, causing unnatural migrations to occur within the subcontinent that are still the root cause of tension and violence in India today. Moreover, many children had to be pulled out of school for safety precautions, which caused the illiteracy rate to rise dramatically. Many of the people who fought on the side of the British were not given sufficient pensions after the war, which only continued cycles of poverty in the region.
The atrocities committed by members of all sides of the war also plagued the Bay of Bengal with massive violence while the British Raj was also implementing its own cruel punishments to their colonial subjects in South Asia. One example of this is the famine they institutionalized in the Bengal region during 1943. Due to various economic strategies surrounding WWII, the British were able to create inflation in Bengal at such a high rate that no one could afford food. Rather than assist with food security in this region, Churchill thought it was best to experiment with how much the British could profit by testing how much starvation people could endure. Because of this famine, almost three million people died from starvation and disease.
At this time, activists, experts, and scholars are attempting to bring these stories of WWII in India to the attention of the public in order to bring awareness to those involved in the war. This is not only important because it portrays a more nuanced, accurate form of history, but it’s also important because it brings to light many of the hypocrisies surrounding the war and the lack of effort put into bringing justice to those who have suffered and continue to suffer.
In interviews and conversations of South Asians who fought for the British, one will almost always hear South Asians discuss how upsetting it was to have sacrificed their lives to protect a group of people who would only insult or mock them in return. Churchill himself would publicly announce his hatred of Indians and their religion and offered no respect towards their desires or achievements. Not only did the Indian participants of WWII have to bear these negative responses from the British, but they have also had to experience it from the Indian government as well. Because the Indian government does not want to acknowledge a time in which so many people supported their colonial master, many of the narratives of WWII are ignored or only come up in hushed tones. However, this erasure does not benefit any party; rather, it paints a distorted image of India that has led to further complications and injustice.
It is clear that violence of unprecedented levels was taking place in India at the time of WWII; however, this era of Indian history is primarily remembered by the nonviolent movements toward Indian Independence. While neither event is more important than the other, we must begin questioning why certain sides of histories are left to be forgotten as others are emphasized. Both Indian Independence and Indian involvement in WWII are intrinsically tied to one another; in studying these events together--juxtaposed by their different ideas about freedom, justice, and morality--helps us see the violences caused by war and colonialism that are often ignored and purposely forgotten by contemporary political powers.
* In this piece, ‘India’ describes what is now the nation states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of Burma. Prior to British colonization, these areas were not categorized as countries or nations; under the British Raj, this whole region was known as British India (or just India for short).
** It is important to remember that while statistics show that Indians voluntarily joined the army, this may have been a coerced agreement. Many people joined out of poverty and need to sustain themselves and their families--not because they wanted to fight for the British. For the last century, the British had been depleting the resources of South Asia as part of their colonial project. Extreme poverty of this level did not exist in precolonial South Asia--the effects of colonial rule can therefore still be seen today as poverty reduction continues to be a pressing issue in contemporary India.
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