The commander-in-chief, General Robert Cassels, produced a plan that he hoped would mitigate the challenge posed by the growing number of Indian officers. His solution was to fix a high ratio of British to Indian officers in the army and plan accordingly for recruitment. Any further acceleration of Indianisation, he warned the viceroy, would “inevitably result in ruining the Indian Army as an instrument of war”.

The upshot of this was that the average number of officers in units had dropped to desperately low levels by 1941. Only after Cassels’ departure from office and the appointment of Auchinleck as commander-in-chief did the army adopt a rational policy towards Indian officers. From January 1942, there was marked upturn in the number of Indian officers – right through to the end of the war. During the same period, the ratio of British to Indian officers fell sharply.

The recruitment of officers was a two-stage process. Initially the volunteers were screened by their local Provincial Selection Board. Those who got past this were then interviewed by the Central Selection Board of the General Headquarters. Initially, the army used rather informal techniques for officer recruitment. KV Krishna Rao – future chief of the Indian army – was among the youngsters who made it to the second stage.

There he was quizzed on general questions about the war and at greater length about his passion for cricket: “how a leg-break was bowled, what a late cut was, what position was known as gully and so on”. Satisfied with his replies, the chairman of the board remarked: “Well, Mr Rao, I hope you will get to play plenty of cricket in the Army.”

A successful Jewish volunteer, JFR “Jake” Jacob, was asked in his interview in mid-1941: “Do you shoot games?” Jacob replied, “No sir, I don’t shoot games, I shoot goals.” There were peals of laughter round the table and no further questions.

The officers so recruited went through a five-month crash course at Dehradun or the new officer training schools at Belgaum and Mhow. By 1943, the rapid Indianisation of the officer corps began to raise questions about the quality of the volunteers. This led to the adoption of a more “scientific” system based on applied psychology – one that aimed at selecting men fitted by temperament and character for the duties of an officer.

To attract suitable candidates, the army offered such incentives as the reservation of a percentage of appointments in government services for retired officers. Age and educational qualifications were relaxed. Propaganda was stepped up in schools and colleges. Teams of officers travelled around showing films depicting the life of an officer and interviewing potential candidates prior to the formal selection process.

Yet, 50 to 65 per cent of the volunteers were weeded out by the Provincial Selection Boards. Of the rest, almost 75 per cent were rejected by the GHQ Central Selection Board.

The army, in short, was unable to attract the best talent. Most of those who signed up saw it simply as an avenue of employment. As one Indian officer cheerfully confessed, “Hats off to the University for granting me the degree but I think a degree of the Punjab University is not worth much.” There were only a few officers like AM Bose – nephew of the distinguished scientist JC Bose – who joined the army because they “wanted to do my bit to fight the Nazis”.

Why did the best men not volunteer in adequate numbers? While there may have been a variety of reasons at the individual level, collectively high school and college students were strongly drawn to the nationalist movement. As Krishna Rao recalled, “Whenever a great leader such as Mahatma Gandhi visited, most of the students used to cut classes and attend the public meetings, as volunteers.”

Indeed, students were in most places the backbone of the Quit India revolt in 1942 and went to prison in droves. Given the political deadlock during the war, the best and brightest seem to have chosen not to volunteer.

For all its problems, recruiting men was the easier part of mobilising India. Rather more difficult was gearing up the Indian economy for the exigencies of war. Very simply, India was a desperately poor country. Between 1900 and 1939, per capita income in India grew by a mere 0.42 per cent. And during the inter-war period, per capita income was actually stagnant.

The dismal economic performance between the wars stemmed from a combination of a sharp increase in population growth and the stagnation of the largest sector (accounting for almost half) of the Indian economy, agriculture.

The latter, in turn, occurred for various reasons: lack of an increase in cultivated areas; an inability to improve productivity per acre; and, above all, the slump in global demand for agricultural products, particularly during the Great Depression. The Indian government’s refusal to devalue the rupee, especially after Britain abandoned the gold standard in 1931, made economic recovery extremely slow, halting and painful.

At the same time, India was also a significant industrial power outside the Western world, not incomparable in scale with Japan and the Soviet Union. During the previous century, India – very like other colonised tropical countries – lacked well-developed capital and labour markets or the capacity to achieve a technological revolution. The colonial connection, however, did help India surmount these obstacles to industrialisation by drawing on British capital, investment and trading networks.

The principal beneficiaries of this were those industries, pre-eminently textiles, where India had a relatively strong resource cost advantage. Capital industries like machine tools and chemicals failed to take off since they needed much higher levels of capital and technology than, say, textile or steel mills.

The First World War underscored both the utility of India as a manufacturing base and its limitations. Although the Indian government was granted some leeway to pursue an industrial policy, especially on tariffs, London also sought to protect British goods in the Indian market. In consequence, Indian industry grew more by expansion than diversification.

Additional factories in cotton and jute textiles, iron and steel, cement and sugar, paper and matches sprang up across India, especially outside the traditional industrial cities of Calcutta and Bombay. During the inter-war years, while the economy as a whole stagnated, manufacturing output grew annually by almost 4.7 per cent.

Nevertheless, the squeezing of rural India’s purchasing power during this period left industry facing a vicious cycle of high costs, low prices and insufficient effective demand. All told, by 1939 Indian industry had limited capability to contribute to the manifold requirements of modern war.

Unsurprisingly, India’s arms industry was rather rudimentary. The government had only six ordnance factories, which by 1938 produced barely enough military equipment to meet the needs of a peacetime force for internal security duties. In 1936–37, India imported arms worth Rs 100.5 million – the bulk of them from Britain.

There was no private arms industry. Nor did the configuration of Indian industries allow the government to expand the indigenous production of armaments. Although India produced 1.55 million tons of steel in 1936-37, it still had to import an additional 6 per cent of its own production level to meet the overall demand. India relied even more heavily on imports of aluminium. Worse, there was no production of aluminium in ingots and finished forms. Further, India had no domestic automobile manufacturing capability – almost 82 per cent of its cars were imported from Britain, the United States and Canada – never mind any aircraft industry.

The Indian and British governments were aware of these problems prior to the outbreak of war. Even as India was called on to defend its traditional sphere of influence, strategic planners in India sounded a note of caution. A modernisation committee led by Auchinleck submitted its report on 10 November 1938. The committee bluntly observed that India had “neither private armament firms nor those basic industries, such as chemical and optical industries, which are essential to the production of armaments.” The burden would, therefore, have to fall on the government’s ordnance factories.

Yet the government could not, with its “strictly limited financial resources”, afford to invest adequately to attain self-sufficiency – not least because the peacetime requirement and output would be rather low. Even if it did so, India would be heavily reliant on imports of raw materials as well as a range of components, especially for automobiles and aircraft.

Despite these grim conclusions, the committee recommended expanding the ordnance factories to produce more light machine guns, field artillery and ammunition. Key ingredients such as cordite, trinitrotoluene (TNT) and amatol must also be manufactured in the ordnance factories. In addition, these factories should develop the capacity for the maintenance and replacement of certain types of equipment – heavy artillery guns and ammunition, aeroplane bombs – that would otherwise have to be imported from Britain. This programme of modernisation was envisaged over a five-year period.

Excerpted with permission from India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945, Srinath Raghavan, Penguin Books.