At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Indian army numbered around 200,000 soldiers. By the end of the war in 1945, that figure had soared to 2.5 million. During the conflict, Indian troops fought at major battles across various theatres, from Monte Cassino in Italy to Kohima in north-eastern India. They served in the deserts of north and east Africa, and around the Mediterranean in Greece and Italy, rolling into Rome as it was recaptured from the Germans. They were the backbone of Allied forces in the grisly battles for Burma. Indians were evacuated at Dunkirk, and Indian fighter pilots in the RAF flew deadly sorties during the Battle of Britain.


We know more about these soldiers than ever before. Some 86,000 of them died, while others were captured and held as prisoners of war; many experienced brutal treatment in the Pacific. Some 30 Indian soldiers were awarded Victoria Crosses for valour during the Second World War. There is hardly a Commonwealth War Memorial that doesn’t include at least a few south Asian names; rather than headstones marked with crosses, memorials mark the sites of ghats (cremation pyres) for Hindus or Sikhs, while the graves of Muslim soldiers face towards Mecca. South Asian casualties (including men from regions now in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) from both world wars are commemorated in 50 countries.

Enlisting was voluntary – the Indian army was not raised by conscription – but for many men, joining the forces was a longstanding traditional family occupation. For others, the chance to earn regular meals and a decent salary was too good to refuse.

But what about south Asians at home – how did ordinary people experience the war on India’s ‘home front’? This part of India’s war story is strangely obscure, yet the global war that wrenched apart societies across the world was a powerful force shaping India’s development during the 1940s.

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Epicentre of conflict

In February 1942, George Orwell wrote: “With the Japanese army in the Indian Ocean and the German armies in the Middle East, India becomes the centre of the war.” India was the pivot of the British empire, and in 1942 the Japanese seized the entire flank of the empire east of India. This was a decisive moment: Britain’s jewel in the crown had to be held at almost any price.

In fact, mainland India was never occupied by the Japanese (though the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal were captured), but from that point the war reverberated through villages and towns across the subcontinent. The war also set the stage for the traumatic division of the country – the partition of 1947. As the historian Srinath Raghavan put it, millions of Indians were “pulled into the vortex” of the Second World War. India experienced its own total war.

In India, the tremors of war were felt first in the towns and cities. Pre-partition India, a patchwork society of regional provinces and princely states, had a population of approximately 350 million. It stretched across desert, forest and mega-cities; then, as now, it was a deeply divided society with great extremes of rich and poor, of caste and class inequalities. The majority of people lived on the margins.

At the outbreak of the war, there was a sense that the depression years had ended in India. Cities such as Bombay (today called Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) boomed. Industrialists, spying the chance to get rich quick, scrambled to produce the vast quantities of supplies required by armies overseas: 7 million garments and 3 million pairs of boots rolled out of Indian factories each month. Jobs were plentiful and wages increased. Within three years, India would be producing as much for war supply as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa combined.

Factories and small workshops sprang up everywhere. Barracks, airbases and installations spread across the land. The expansion of military forces in India – where troops from Britain, America, Africa and the Dominions were stationed – led to demand for land, new roads and the expansion of ports, and property was extensively requisitioned. “Bengal is as flat as a billiard table and, given the requirements of the air force, it is a simple matter to construct hard earth runways to meet the present emergency,” wrote the governor of that province. Indeed, at least 215 new airfields were constructed in India during the 1940s. Whole paddy fields and villages were cleared overnight.

This war effort, then, created a vast, invisible army of military and contracted workers: labourers and tea-plantation workers who hacked out roads in the north-east to advance the recapture of Burma; dock workers who sweated it out in ports along the coast. Thousands of cooks, washermen and other servants – not to mention prostitutes – serviced the needs of the armies. This supply line stretched right into the Indian hinterland. In contrast to comic depictions of Indian workers such as the punkah-wallah (fan-puller) in the British TV sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, the reality was more gruelling. Hundreds of anonymous road-builders died from diseases including malaria in the swampy jungles of the north-east. War graves also commemorate bootmakers, water-carriers and water-bearers.

Women at war

These changes affected women just as much as men. In India, as elsewhere, the war created opportunities for women. Many experienced new freedoms and liberties, especially middle-class women living in cities. In Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, increasing numbers of women wore trousers, haircuts became shorter and the divorce rate rose. The Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India), a force of 11,500 women, recruited without attention to race; white, Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Burmese and Indian women served alongside each other. They worked in anti-aircraft direction-finding and plotting, in parachute inspection and packing, as cipher clerks and operators, and in more traditional roles such as catering.

Some Indian women lived exceptional lives because of the war. Noor Inayat Khan is a well-known example: born to an Indian father and American mother, she was recruited as a Special Operations Executive agent and worked as a wireless operator with the French resistance in 1943 before being captured by the Nazis and executed at Dachau concentration camp. As the hospitals swelled with the bloody traumas of the Burma front, racial distinctions started to fall away. Nurses of many different nationalities treated the wounded and sick from Burma.

Wives and mothers waited for news of loved ones serving abroad. Postal services were unreliable, with letters difficult to write and expensive to send, especially for the illiterate and very poor. “The postman’s statement that I am dead is baseless,” wrote an infantryman in the Middle East to his family in the northern industrial city of Kanpur. “I am quite well here by the grace of God.” Mothers, torn between the appeal of a reliable soldier’s wage and the risk of losing a son, often resisted the enticements of recruiters or pleaded with their sons not to join the army. With so many men away from home, in peasant societies it was the women who picked up the pieces, working longer hours in the fields and running households. Remittances sent home from troops were the norm everywhere in Asia, and an Indian soldier might routinely send home 15 rupees of his 18-rupee monthly wage. Women worried that the remittance would stop, or that it still didn’t stretch far enough to feed the family.

By far the greatest impact of the war, and the one that affected the most lives across the subcontinent, was inflation. Prices soared – sometimes trebling in a couple of years – putting many ordinary household essentials out of the reach of agriculturalists. Most people purchased only a small number of goods for their daily needs – matches, kerosene, cloth. But as the war continued the costs of these things spiralled along with the price of food, while wages did not rise at the same rate. City-dwellers, dependent on buying food from markets or shops, could not predict how far their salary would stretch each month.

For people already living on the margins, the situation became perilous. So many complained about the cost of matches to civil servant Malcolm Darling as he toured the north-western province of Punjab at the end of the war that he described it as almost a battle cry between the competing political parties. In their letters from home to soldiers serving away, many families complained about the rising cost of living. Hunger and food deprivation were widespread, and reached critical levels in Bengal.

Famine in Bengal

In 1943, the terrible spectre of famine descended on Bengal. Some 3 million Bengalis died of starvation and famine-related diseases. Historians have emphasised different factors as the major causes of the famine: loss of rice stocks from Burma, administrative and political failure and callousness, a cyclone and flooding that destroyed vital crops. But the war effort and the famine were definitely closely connected.

Bengal was the province most directly affected on a daily basis by the war, because of its proximity to Burma and because Bengal’s major city, Calcutta, was the centre of military operations in India. It is no coincidence that the terrible famine happened here. In his 2015 book Hungry Bengal, Janam Mukherjee contends that the famine was a product of the wartime state in which defeating the Japanese was the most important objective and feeding civilians remained a low priority. And in Churchill’s Secret War, published in 2010, Madhusree Mukerjee provides evidence suggesting that the British leader and the War Office repeatedly ignored news of the famine and blocked the viceroy’s urgent pleas for grain imports that could have prevented more deaths.

Photographers, crusading journalists and activists strove to bring the terrible famine to the world’s attention, and their images of dying men, women and children remain chilling to this day. The famine was a powerful spur for decolonisation, and marked a turning point for the Raj – the end of the prestige of the British empire in India. As Viceroy Archibald Wavell wrote to Churchill, the famine was “one of the greatest disasters that has befallen any people under British rule and damage to our reputation both among Indians and foreigners in India is incalculable”. Though Wavell personally worked hard to bring relief to the region, when relief came it was too little, too late. The shame of the famine coloured Indian attitudes towards the war and hardened Gandhi’s resolve to win independence for India.

Fuelling nationalism

Loyalties wavered throughout the war, and south Asians certainly felt no simple, straightforward desire to defeat fascists or help the British state. Many of those who served in the army were motivated by bread-and-butter politics rather than by ideology. But this was a deeply complex matter, shaped by social and economic traumas caused by both imperial rule and wartime. Minds became confused: which side to back? Jawaharlal Nehru, who would later become the first prime minister of independent India – and anti-fascist to his marrow – was torn about whether nationalist protests should continue in wartime. Indians often felt exploited and exposed by imperial rule, and looked for alternative answers about how to achieve freedom; many were, understandably, distrustful of Churchill’s intentions towards Gandhi.

After the launch of the Quit India movement in 1942, when nationalists tried to sabotage the war effort by targeting imperial installations and railway lines, the stability of northern India was in the balance. Churchill admitted that 500 protesters had been killed, though official British statistics recorded 1,060 deaths and nationalists pegged the figure much higher. During the autumn and winter of 1942 there were between 60,000 and 100,000 detentions of Indian nationalists. Japanese, nationalist and British propaganda flooded the radio airwaves. Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the pro-Japanese Indian National Army, looked superficially like an alternative hero; however, when Indians did encounter the Japanese – as in the Andamans – there was no pan-Asian solidarity, and even nationalists were treated pitilessly.

The political repercussions of these wartime experiences were staggering. Without the war, I would argue, independence could have been held at bay until the 1950s or even later, but it might also have been less bloody when it finally arrived. The war delivered independence, but it also increased deep-rooted division.

The British, rightly determined to win the war and to defend India against the fascist threat, lost control of the political game that they had been playing with Gandhi and the Congress party since the 1920s. Serious anti-British protests could not, Churchill argued, be countenanced in wartime. During the war, the British imprisoned Gandhi for long periods and locked up the leading lights of Congress for years, during which time the All-India Muslim League (which campaigned for the creation of a separate Muslim state, Pakistan) increased in strength and stature. Britain prioritised whatever was necessary to win the war – at the cost of famine, scorched-earth policies and social division. Its worst fear was that the Indian army would not hold, though in the event the majority of the army stayed loyal to the anti-fascist cause.

Aftermath of the war

Wartime events in India left deep and bitter legacies. In 1945, prison doors were flung open and Congress leaders who had been behind bars since 1942, including Jawaharlal Nehru, were released. More than a million men had to be demobilised, and it had become clear that a new constitutional settlement had to be agreed. India had been shaken to its core.

Young men and women were stirred up with nationalist and anti-British passion, publicly shouting support for the Indian National Army. Strikes and protests broke out everywhere, including in the army and navy. Demobilised soldiers – often still with their weapons and uniforms – returned to Punjab determined to defend their homesteads against any threat. Differences between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had become wildly inflamed. In the face of food and cloth shortages, supplies often became channelled along religious lines as local committees started to favour their own ethnic groups.

The partition of 1947 was a postscript of the empire’s total war. British soldiers waited to be shipped home and imperial administrators felt weary and frustrated after long years without leave. British coffers stood empty and the Indian empire was now a drag on resources. The final severance between Britain and its Indian empire came in the shape of new viceroy Louis Mountbatten’s quick and decisive plan, agreed in June 1947, to settle the constitutional dispute by partitioning the country into India and Pakistan. The plan was carried out in just six frenzied weeks, and in August both independence and partition arrived. The result: millions of displaced refugees and up to a million more dead – a high cost, even by the terrible standards of the Second World War.

Yasmin Khan is associate professor in British history at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, specialising in the history of the British in India


This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016