Books interview with Yasmin Khan: “By the end of the war, few people in the Raj believed it could continue to exist”

Yasmin Khan talks to Matt Elton about her new book exploring the impact of the Second World War on the ordinary people of India, and explains how it fuelled the surge towards independence

A British sergeant measure the chest sizes of Indian men

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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How did the Second World War start for the Indian people?

The crunch point was the country’s entry into the war – without its people really being consulted. The feeling was that Gandhi and leaders of the India National Congress should have been able to acquiesce or agree to the decision. The fact that it was done by central decree created a situation that – to put it mildly – put people’s backs up.

At the same time, plenty of people in India were concerned about the rise of fascism and quite supportive of some of the British war aims. They wanted to square that with their own nationalism and anti-imperialism, but felt that their voices and democratic rights had been overruled by this central decision.

How close to independence wasIndia at the beginning of the war?

Though a commitment to eventual dominion status had been made, no date or time frame had been specified. There had been devolution at the regional level, with provincial assemblies in which Indian politicians could hold power and make decisions on a whole range of domestic, municipal issues. But what they didn’t have was real power at the centre, which was critical when it came to important decisions relating to defence and international relations.

To what extent could imperial subjects see the war as being ‘just’?

It very much depended on people’s location, education and experience. An example is Krishna Menon, one of the characters who feature in my book. He was based in London and had been fighting fiercely for Indian independence for years. But, at the same time, he was committed to the defence of Britain: he was an air-raid warden, in the vanguard of anti-fascist campaigns, and subscribed to the idea of a ‘just’ war. So there were Indian individuals who felt very strongly about these issues.

For many others, this was a war that was very unknown, being fought very far away. Plenty of Indian peasants, who did not have exposure to large cities and travel and newspapers, did not really know what was happening. A great transformation had taken place: soldiers were going off and fighting, but people didn’t necessarily understand the mechanics, the details, exactly what it was going to mean for them. And they were suddenly faced with changes – price rises and so on – but had not necessarily been well informed initially about the cause.

What challenges faced army recruiters in India?

Initially the process seemed straightforward. In parts of south Asia, families had served the Raj for generations and were used to fighting and recruitment. They were loyalists, for want of a better word. And they signed up: this was a volunteer army, not formed through conscription. They came forward and, in return, they got paid, as well as enjoying the chance to travel and the chance to fight.

The problem set in when more and more men were needed. India represented a vast resource of manpower, so the army grew very quickly: in the 1940s, 20,000 men were signing up each month. Recruitment spread into regions less accustomed to military service. New recruits came in from towns with no prior connection to the military, where people didn’t really know what service involved but were drawn in by the high, steady wage and the opportunity for adventure – and sometimes because they wanted to get away from their family.

People had lots of reasons for joining the military and that created a very big, complex organisation made up of different types of people from all over India. It was a very different mix from previous Indian armies. You also had non-combatants – woodworkers and metalworkers and barbers – who were not seen as part of this great fighting force but were actually doing hard work that propped up this massive military system.

Indian Recruits Undergo Army Medical, ca. 1941
A British sergeant measure the chest sizes of Indian men who have signed up to join the army, c1941. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

What were the experiences of Indian women while the men were away?

The bits and pieces of evidence that we have suggest it was really tough for women. The daily lives of a lot of peasant-farming women suddenly got much harder. They had to work in the fields and look after the children, as they always had done, but now had no help at home from the menfolk.

The fact that women weren’t getting letters or information about what was happening to their husbands or sons also seems to have led to them resisting when other male relatives tried to sign up. There may have been pride in military service but, compared with Europe, there was much less of a support system for women. They were often just left to wait and wonder what was going on.

The big turning points for India came in 1942. What were the major events?

Pearl Harbor was a big moment, but for the Raj, the Japanese assault on Burma was hugely important. India experienced the fallout over a number of months, with refugees arriving in the country from the affected regions. There was the threat of the Japanese navy in the Indian Ocean and, for a time, leaders thought that the Japanese were going to arrive in India.

I don’t think that anybody within military command ever thought that India would fully fall to the Japanese, but there was concern that some of the eastern ports and regions abutting Burma might. It was a great moment of uncertainty, because this stable imperial system that colonial subjects had been used to was suddenly up for grabs.

Everything was in turmoil. The British system might not have been liked, but it was very familiar, and people became very uncertain. They were holding on to currency and withdrawing money from banks – signs of deep anxiety. People felt that the political state they lived in might implode.

Many Indians had connections in south-east Asia, people who had seen the Japanese invading, so rumours spread despite British propaganda to counter fears.

People were worrying about basic needs and provisions, and losing faith in the state. They often sought protection through their own means: they tended to flee inland and stay with family members.

In your book, you write that migration spurred by the war “held up a mirror to the fabrications of the Raj”. How?

There had always been people from other nations in India but, in the 1940s, things got much more mixed up. People were coming from all over Europe and fleeing from Japanese forces in south-east Asia, so the state was no longer in control, nor sure of who was there and who wasn’t.

The idea of an elite white British colonial class who could stand above and apart from society was challenged, because poor white people were quite visible and people lived alongside each other. So the way the Raj projected its image, through ceremony, grandeur, beauty and separation, couldn’t quite be maintained any more. The idea of Europe as a better, more sophisticated place quickly broke down because the world had just seen this terrible war.

Famine was a problem too, wasn’t it?

The famine of 1943 was the biggest issue that India faced during the decade. It was a really horrible cataclysm, and there’s been a fair amount written about it. I’m trying to set it within the broader narrative of the war. There was famine in Bengal, in which up to 3 million people starved to death – they just didn’t have enough food. But across India during the 1940s, food shortages and a lack of calorific intake led to more and more hungry people, even if they might not all have been near starvation – although there were such instances, even near the start of the war. So while the Bengal famine was a moment of particular horror for everybody, it should be seen as part of a wider affliction.

How much did the war change the Raj?

By the end of the war, very few people in the Raj believed that it could continue to exist. The war had completely undermined its rationale, purpose and legitimacy, and really led to the decolonisation of India. The nationalists were important, too; Gandhi and the Indian National Congress played a key role. The two combined to have a big effect.

In 1945, everybody knew that the Raj was going to go. It was just a question of what constitutional settlement could be put in place and how the mechanics were going to work. The British government and people didn’t want to be in India any more, and financially it didn’t make sense because Britain owed India money for war expenses.

So the settlement on which the British empire and India was based no longer held. The whole fabric had given way and the Raj could not continue.

How would you like this book to change readers’ views of this period, this country, and this people?

I’d like people to understand the vast contribution India made to the war. From a British perspective we often forget the imperial contribution, and the fact it went far beyond the role of servicemen. It called on the resources and infrastructure of a whole country to support the British.

The contributions of a lot of non-combatants haven’t really been thought about before: tailors, mechanics, women in nursing… They weren’t necessarily involved because of any ideological commitment, but their roles and stories are still important.

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The Raj at War: A People’s History of the Second World War by Yasmin Khan (Bodley Head, 432 pages, £25)