Debates have been raging recently about the role of South Asian soldiers in the Second World War. The lack of Asian soldiers in the film Dunkirk was pointed out by a writer named Manimugdha S Sharma in the Times of India and debate quickly snowballed.
The role of the British Raj in the Second World War is certainly not a completely forgotten story. There have been many advances in recent years in historical research on the Imperial and Commonwealth role in the war, in works by Chris Bayly and Tim Harper, Ashley Jackson, Tarak Barkawi, Srinath Raghavan and others.
And in fiction, too, the presence of the sepoy has been lingering for many years. Think of Kip in The English Patient. Vikram Seth has a semi-fictional character in Two Lives who has his arm blown off at Monte Cassino.
Amitav Ghosh’s Glass Palace recreates the invasion of Burma and Raghu Karnad, more recently, in Farthest Field, delivered a striking and imaginative reconstruction of a Parsi family’s experience of the Second World War.
There is no doubt that Britain deployed these imperial soldiers globally – as they did in the 19th century – to protect and further British interests. The soldiers of the 6th Rajputana Rifles, just to take one example, could be found from the Mediterranean to East Asia as early as September 1940.
The 1st and 4th battalions were readying to fight the Italians in North Africa, the 2nd and 3rd were battling resistance in the North-West Frontier Province, the 5th battalion was doing garrison duty in Hong Kong and the 6th was still being formed in northern India, and was soon destined for Bengal.
But how vital were South Asian soldiers to the battles the world over in the 1940s? Do those speaking up for the oft-mentioned ‘2.5 million men’ – the world’s largest volunteer army – overestimate their centrality to the war? Did the Indian Army swing the war towards victory at any point?
Although we should be cautious about making wild claims about their centrality to battles, at certain times and places, they were absolutely critical and did make the difference between victory and defeat.
In fact, ironically, Dunkirk was a place where Indian soldiers had a relatively minor, although still notable, role. They numbered hundreds rather than thousands and were mainly involved in transport companies, helping transport goods by thousands of mules, shipped over from Bombay.
The first place that South Asian soldiers really came to prominence was in the reconquest of North and East Africa. At the battle of Keren (in Eritrea), in the East African campaign of 1941, it was the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions which were repeatedly locked in combat with the Italians, until they finally claimed the rocky terrain.
Churchill wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, in effusive terms, ‘The whole Empire has been stirred by the achievement of the Indian forces in Eritrea.’ A close look at Keren suggests Indian troops were used like cannon fodder, in battles more reminiscent of the First World War, sent in to deadly and mountainous regions, poorly equipped and with no air cover.
Similarly, at El Alamein in Egypt and the other battles in the recapture of East and North Africa, a whole range of South Asians from the Baluch Regiment, from the Rajputana Rifles, various Punjab Regiments and Princely States forces were right on the frontline.
In Italy too, in 1944, the Indian contribution is impossible to overlook. Half of the men sent there from the 4th Indian Army were wounded. Over 5,000 South Asians perished in Italy, including Gurkhas from Nepal.
Compared to European countries, Indian military losses were not comparable. However, if we consider those affected by starvation as wartime casualties, then the numbers tell a darker story.
In the battles of Monte Casino, as the Allies tried to break past the German defences in appalling conditions, the fate of Europe hinged for a time on these battles. Ordinary Italians have still not forgotten to this day, and are still quick to recognise the role of the Indian Army in their liberation. If a feature film is ever made about Indian troops in the Second World War, this is probably where it should be located.
Of course, it is possible to overstate the claims for Imperial and Commonwealth roles; it was the Russians who pushed back the Germans, American air power which won the East, the dollar which fuelled the British resurgence and the combined strength of the Empire and the Commonwealth (including Africa, the Caribbean, Canada and Australasia) which won the day for Britain.
All military operations in the Second World War were complex multinational operations, where good co-ordination made the difference; the Allies got their organisation, supply lines and the health of the men slickly managed by 1944, and the Indian Army was just one cog in the machine.
But it was the Burma campaign, where, in Field Marshal William Slim’s words “defeat was turned into victory” when South Asian troops manned the front line.
More than three quarters of the men at Imphal and Kohima, just inside the Indian border, where the Japanese were finally pushed back, were from Imperial and Commonwealth forces.
The fighting was bitter and often intensely personal with men enclosed in claustrophobic spaces and foxholes, exhausted by the prolonged siege and locked in hand-to-hand combat. The British (including the Indian Army) sustained 12,500 casualties at Imphal and another 4,000 casualties at Kohima.
The South Asian role was pivotal, also, because they were dotted all across the globe. These men added strength to other operations in an astounding array of places, from restoring Allied power over the South Pacific islands, to the guarding of the oil refinery at Abadan in Iran.
Of the men and women who fought in the war, some were from ‘loyalist' families who had served the British for generations, but others looked forward eagerly to the British departure from South Asia. They wondered if they would be rewarded by the British with freedom after the war, as they had been promised.
Some men and women, after being captured as prisoners of war, joined the Indian National Army and fought for the Japanese. Many junior soldiers, just 13 or 14 years old, joined up with little idea of what they were getting into, or how long they would be away from home.
When compared to other countries taking part in the war, Indian military losses were significant but simply not comparable to European countries. However, if we consider those affected by starvation as wartime casualties, especially in the 1943 famine, then the numbers tell a darker story.
Beyond the front lines, the South Asian contribution becomes difficult to quantify once we consider all the other forms of Asian labour used in wartime. Often used cheaply and with considerable cost to life, literally millions of rock breakers and road builders, lascars and miners created the foundations for the war economies.
Most soldiers in the 1940s instinctively recognised that they had been part of a great and united effort – one that was also shaped by race, class and caste – that was inherently international.
The world has since become intensely nationalistic. Many in Britain had forgotten these Indian men and women, but the stories are still there to be discovered, and many are now starting to remember them again.
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