TO us in South Asia, civilian misery in WWII conjures up images mostly of Europe — cities in rubble, standing hulks of buildings air-bombed, military vehicles honking their way through hordes of refugees as shrieking Stukas dive. There is little or no awareness of the tragedy that engulfed millions of people in the Far East and south-east Asia as Japan marched from one triumph to another till it reached the borders of British India. One reason for this historical distortion is obvious: more books have been written on the war in Europe than on the Asian and Pacific theatre of war, Hollywood’s contribution to this anomaly being no less great.
From this point of view, Yasmin Khan’s book The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War breaks new ground and brings to light unknown and horrifying facts about the mass misery that resulted from the colonial government’s ruthlessness to prepare India for what looked like an imminent and irreversible Japanese invasion. The chapter ‘An Empire Exposed’ gives details of the defeatism that characterised the panicky colonial administration as the Japanese pursued a retreating British army for 900 miles across Burma’s jungles to reach Assam. About 600,000 Indians fled Burma through slush, torrential rains and malarial forests; 80,000 would never reach home.
The Bengal famine of 1943, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, was just one part of the ‘sacrifices’ the administration demanded of the people. Food must first go to the soldiers: that was the order from London. But lack of food was just one of the causes; a major one was the government’s decision to confiscate or destroy all boats. By an estimate 20,000 boats were destroyed or sunk to deny transport to the would-be invader.
As the author points out, Bengalis have no concept of life without boats: they need boats for getting rice from across the river; they need boats for fishing, and they need boats as toilets. Bodies entangled in hyacinth flowed in rivers, while Europeans and affluent natives had 17-course dinners in Calcutta’s elite restaurants. There is a strong case, she says, for integrating the dead of the Bengal famine into calculations of the global war dead like the dead of Stalingrad and Hiroshima. A foreign occupation, she says, could not be “more destructive than the defensive actions” taken by the British government. In full swing now was the ‘scorched earth’ policy. All factories, oil refineries, power houses, railway stations, telegraph stations, bridges and harbours were to be dynamited, and railway and rolling stock moved. While this policy remained confined to guidelines in Assam and Bengal pending the actual invasion, elements of this policy were implemented along the east coast as Japanese planes and warships bombed the shores of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Madras had been bombed, but what caused panic was the false report of the sighting of a Japanese invasion fleet. There was mass flight as people rushed inland, while the authorities ordered that all animals in the zoo be shot because in case of an air attack, the animals would be out in the streets.
As the Congress launched the Quit India Movement, governmental repression worsened: 17 English newspapers and 67 in other languages were banned, while the number of arrests stood between 60,000 and 90,000. Churchill admitted that 500 had been killed, though the British-owned The Statesman put it at 2,500. Protesters were stripped naked, often whipped with dog lashes, the police razed or burnt houses, and fields and sometimes entire villages were demolished because hundreds of airfields had to be built.
Most heartrending was the drama surrounding the building of the Ledo road through a mountainous terrain to keep Chiang Kai-shek’s forces supplied. With no modern earth-moving machinery available, the government mobilised Assam’s tribes for the job, with men and women paid eight annas a day for using pickaxes to build the road through granite, forests and torrential rains. Using buckets to throw away debris and mud, the Raj’s 20th-century slaves died by the thousands — “unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung” — as poor diet and malaria took their toll. What mattered was victory, human cost being of no consequence. As irony would have it, when Japan surrendered following the A-bombing, it was realised the road had served no purpose.
India helped the war effort in many ways. Besides supplying huge quantities of food, raw material and metals for the war industry, South Asia also saw on its soil the establishment, in embryonic form, of an arms industry, which would later serve Pakistan and India. Above all, India supplied the cannon fodder. With widespread unemployment and pervasive poverty, young men had no choice but to join the army after a “cursory” medical check-up. In Nepal, masses of young men were recruited from the hills, and in Punjab even boys offered themselves for recruitment and were accepted despite being underage. By the end of the war the strength of the Indian army was two million, and it suffered 89,000 casualties. They were given a poor diet — damaged vegetables and “dirty grains mixed with stones” — and less pay than the whites, though there were laughable aspects of propaganda, with the press reporting that the strong Egyptian sun had so tanned the British skins that there was little difference between them and Indians. Victoria Cross winners were paraded, their pictures were there on menu cards, and the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution of thanks to Gen Wavell when the British army captured an Italian post in Eritrea after a battle described as “epic”. No one ever heard of it again.
There were positive sides to the war drama after it was over. Cinema houses, restaurants and bars did roaring business as soldiers from many nations of the world looked for recreation. Factories producing arms and ammunition switched over to civilian production; the vast and ubiquitous dumps of arms, vehicles and military stuff were discarded in haste or were sold on the black market; soldiers ‘lost’ uniforms and kits (actually sold), and the wide scale of lucrative peacetime contracts across the country helped the economy recover from wartime recession. Muslim business communities — Memon, Khoja, Bohra and business families like the Habibs, Ispahanis and Adamjees — started consolidating banking and shipping assets in lands that would one day be Pakistan, and small planes bought from the US Foreign Liquidation Commission laid the foundation of PIA and Air India.
The book brings to light many unknown aspects of the war as it affected pre-Partition India in ways that were painful and humiliating. But nothing served to deter the people’s urge for freedom. The book’s focus is obviously on the war, but it does mention the Hindu-Muslim tension, the Muslim League-Congress rivalry, the events that followed the return of the sepoys and finally the emergence of Pakistan. The book has been well-edited, though it is a shocking error that in a book written by an author of South Asian origin, one finds Abdul Kalam Azad mentioned rather than Abul Kalam Azad throughout.
The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor.
The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War
By Yasmin Khan
Random House, India