World War Two Provides the Indo/British Breaking Point.

Author:Dorschner, Jon
Position:Featured Review - India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War' 'India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia' - Book review

January/February 2017

"India at War" (The Subcontinent and the Second World War) by Yasmin Khan, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-975349-9, 416 pp., $29.95 (Hardcover).

India's War (World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) by Srinath Raghavan, Basic Books, New York, 2016, ISBN 978-0-465-03022-4, 554 pp., $35.00 (Hardcover)

This is the second installment of a two-part series examining India's experience of the First and Second World Wars. We noted in the first installment that the ongoing commemoration of the centennial of the First World War spurred interest around the world, including in India. Indian historians have written new works trying to make sense of that war to subsequent generations of Indians, who often have had little exposure to "the war to end all wars." India's role in World War I has been largely overlooked, most particularly in India. This is largely because of the painful Indian experience of colonialism.

The same can be said of the Second World War. Post independence Indians look at these two conflicts far differently than Americans. For us, World War II was the closest thing to a "just war." It was a simple conflict between good and evil. The allies stood for everything that was good and just, while the axis powers indulged in cruelty and naked aggression. For Americans, World War II was, in many ways, a fight for civilization.

For Indians, World War II was not so simple. This is because India remained a British colony throughout the war years. The British government expected Indians to enthusiastically join the fight. The colonial government pledged Indian support to the war effort without consulting its colonial subjects, much as it had done after the outbreak of World War I.

But much had changed in India since 1918. A powerful nationalist movement emerged in the decades of the 1920's and 1930's. Mahatma Gandhi had expanded the Indian National Congress (INC) from an elite parlor party into a mass movement. India's peasant masses, which had been excluded from the nationalist debate, were enlisted as active participants. Indians of all social classes chafed under British rule and there was a deep longing for freedom that had not existed during the World War I era.

During World War I, the idea of Indian independence was unthinkable for all but a few radical intellectuals. By 1939, there was a growing realization in India that the days of British rule were numbered. By the end of the war, there was a consensus among the Indian population that Britain would have to depart. The INC was India's largest party and represented India's nationalist aspirations. The INC leadership initially assumed Britain would acquiesce to a handover of power to Indians in exchange for Indian participation in the war effort.

However, the British colonial government remained mired in its old ways. The British leadership, from the Viceroy down to the ranks of the Indian Civil Service, continued to assume that India was not yet ready for self rule. The continued to put off Indian independence, thinking that it could not take place for decades. The more blatantly imperialistic faction, headed by the future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, continued to entertain the notion Britain could rule India indefinitely.

The British rejected the proposals put forth by India's nationalist leadership for a date certain for Indian independence as soon as the axis was defeated. The British projected their own attitudes onto the Indian population. They assumed that Indians would make victory their top priority and shelve nationalist demands for the duration. This implacable divide resulted in bitterness and conflict. That...

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