Since the release of the movie Dunkirk, there has been a fair bit of commentary on news and social media about the whitewashing of non-British forces who were either conscripted or volunteered in large numbers in World War II. Christopher Nolan may have had his reasons for leaving them out, but it will remain his cross to bear.
In India, the film industry – by many accounts, the largest in the world – has responded with, generally speaking, an apathetic kind of protest. For those who have raised their voices louder than usual, the writer, Sandip Roy, threw down the gauntlet, and rightly so, saying they ought to make WWII movies that tell our stories and take control of our own narratives. Clearly, the Indian film industry has all the resources, talent, and know-how to be able to do so.
But is the increased griping about denied representation due to concerns about distortion of history and/or being unappreciated by the West for India’s considerable wartime contributions? I venture to say: no. For the average middle-class Indian, when it comes to understanding India’s role during that particular time in history, the emphasis in both formal education and popular culture has mostly been on India’s freedom struggle at the expense of almost all other narratives.
Certainly, growing up in 1970-80s India, the only battles and wars that I recall being made aware of – whether in school texts or other reading or popular culture – were those related to the Mughals, the Marathas, or India’s independence from the British. These days, there is a new story nearly every month in Indian media about school history texts being altered and/or books and movies being censored/tailored to fit a nationalist agenda.
Also, we are not so innocent in how we portray other nationalities or history in popular media. The last big period movie with the British in it was the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, which showed the British colonialists as either saviors or sinners. Entire groups of people can hardly be described in such binary terms, can they?
It is more bothersome that there continues to be a lack of curiosity and knowledge about India’s WWII history – not just within the film industry but also across large groups of movie-watching audiences. The American author, George Santayana, famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Here, we have a case of not even knowing the past, which is, surely, even more egregious.
Further, to avoid succumbing to the various dangers of a “single story,” as authorChimamanda Ngozi Adichie has described so beautifully, we would do well, as a community or nation, to expand our view of all that we were capable of in the past and what came of those capabilities. To that end, here is a starter list of 10 well-researched and well-written books about India’s role in the two World Wars.
Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, Raghu Karnad
Through the personal stories of three young men from his own family, Karnad, a journalist, unfolds India’s little-known WWII story. The prose and sweeping narrative are both novel-like and make for a gripping read.
WWII was different from WWI in many respects, of course, but for Indians, it was also the first time that many were college-educated and became officers less out of financial necessity and more from a desire for glamour and adventure. The Fifth Indian Infantry Division, which the book mostly follows, fought in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, Egypt from 1940 to 1944.
But Karnad also shows us that many Indian soldiers and officers did not actually fight enemy forces. Rather, they worked toward maintaining the British empire and even the domination of certain Indian classes over others.
India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, Yasmin Khan
A historian and professor, Khan reveals not only the personal stories of many individual Indian soldiers and their families but also how this war shaped social, economic, and cultural changes across all of South Asia.
Khan also goes deeper into what happened to the families the Indian soldiers left behind at home to face hard labour, starvation, disease, steep price inflation, and more. Beyond the descriptions of campaigns and battles, she gives us the lives of people across all walks of life – peasants, politicians, businessmen, seamen, brothel owners, English memsahibs, prisoners of war. In particular, she describes how the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed more than three million people, was a direct result of WWII and, thus, caused the greatest number of war-related mass casualties that India has ever seen.
India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia, Srinath Raghavan
This book draws us into the many battles both abroad (West Asia, North and East Africa, and Europe) and at home, showing how and why WWII helped end colonial rule in South Asia. It covers a wide arc from Gandhi’s early support of Britain’s war efforts to the Burma Campaign.
Prior to his distinguished academic career in the UK, Raghavan spent six years as an infantry officer in the Indian army. So his descriptions of frontier action and battles, including some rather obscure ones, are vividly brilliant. It is also marvellous that, in this hefty volume, he manages to dive deeper into war economics than most other books on the list to reveal how, toward the end, the British owed India an unbelievable £1.3 billion.
The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II, Mihir Bose
This is the story of a quintuple spy, a Hindu Pathan from British India, who worked for Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Russia. His espionage adventures and daring escapades ought to be a movie by now.
Codenamed “Silver” by the British, Bhagat Ram Talwar is known in India for his role in helping Subhash Chandra Bose escape to Germany to get Hitler’s help to free India from the British. However, beyond that daredevilry, Talwar played a much larger role in the global war by playing the British off the Germans, the Germans off the Russians, and so on. In the British Intelligence Services, he worked under Peter Fleming, brother of Ian Fleming who famously created James Bond. Talwar was so highly regarded by the British that they rewarded him handsomely at the end of the war with a house, money, and more. The Germans rated him highly too, awarding him the Iron Cross.
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, Shrabani Basu
A descendant of the legendary Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan, Khan was a Muslim princess and had quite the dashing, daring spy life in wartime Europe before the Nazis captured, tortured, and shot her to death at Dachau. She was only 30 years old and, tough to the end, she did not give away any of her secrets. Her final word was “Liberté”.
Born in Russia before WWI, she had grown up in England and France and, after her father’s death in India and the subsequent grief-driven seclusion of her mother, she had raised her younger siblings. When she joined the British Special Operations Executive organisation, she become one of their most resourceful and efficient spies helping the French Resistance and escaping the Gestapo for at least three months – longer than most others who had done similar work. Though trained as a guerrilla fighter in bomb-making, sabotage, and secret communications, Noor also had a gentler, creative side – having been raised in a tolerant, pacifist Muslim Sufi tradition, where she wrote children’s stories and studied and played music.
For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front – 1914-18, Shrabani Basu
The first Great War changed the world forever, causing the collapse of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. Over a million Indian soldiers fought in it. Basu gives us well-researched personal stories of both the soldiers and their officers and, again, how the experiences ignited the flame for the call for India’s independence.
The biggest challenge for historians trying to uncover India’s WWI story is that most of the soldiers were illiterate. So, for personal first-person accounts, there are no wartime memoirs or vast troves of letters back to India as with the rest of Europe. The few literate Indian soldiers who did manage to write letters back home painted a very different picture of trench warfare and how the wounded were treated than we might assume from the letters of European soldiers. Prejudice and racism – both by the British and between the various Indian classes and castes – were rife even as Indian bravery was awarded Victoria Crosses. There are several shocking details in this book and, for me, none more so than the fact that some of the Indian soldiers were no more than 10 years old.
If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me? India and the First World War, Vedica Kant
At the start of the first Great War, there were more Indian soldiers in the British armies than the British themselves. Through personal letters, army archives, and rare photographs, Kant gives us a view of a war that, through exposure to other cultures and politics, also changed India forever.
In his foreword to this book, Amitav Ghosh, whose own Ibis trilogy of novels covers many other wars involving India, wrote, “… the Indian soldier’s experience of the First World War resists appropriation by those who would like to merge it seamlessly into the triumphal narrative of the winning side. The sepoy’s ambivalence, as much as the anomalous circumstances of the army to which he belonged, made sure that his story could not be fitted into the usual frames of ‘victor’ and ‘vanquished’. This is another reason why the sepoy’s role in the war is so often overlooked.” And it is this ambivalence of the Indian soldier, between loyalty and mutiny, that Kant captures here.
Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914-15, Gordon Corrigan
As a commanding officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas, Corrigan is a military historian and a compelling storyteller, weaving together a narrative from interviews and archives across India and Nepal. Here, he gives us the troubles and heroics of an Indian corps of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade – all fighting against enemies they hardly knew for a cause that was not their own.
Corrigan had a military education and career (in the British Army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles.) In addition to describing the mundane activities of the everyday life of Indian and British soldiers, he also gives us the sheer terror and, yes, exhilaration of Indian soldiers who spent days in “no man’s land” or in the firing line. Interestingly, based on his own 30 years in the Gurkhas, Corrigan posits that a very strong bond existed between the British officer and the Indian soldier. And the most interesting bits, for me, are when Corrigan describes how the Indian soldiers brought something unique to the British in trench warfare: jugaad or the ability to improvise things like trench mortar or hand grenades from, say, wood bound with wire or steel tubing. There are also various fascinating anecdotes of Indian bravery – or suicidal stupidity, as was the case sometimes.
The Indian Army on the Western Front: India’s Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium in the First World War, George Morton-Jack
Despite the ever-emerging accounts of resilience and bravery, India’s role in both the Great Wars is still riddled with controversies. Specifically on the Western Front, Indian soldiers who fought alongside the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1914 to 1918 were considered to have performed poorly. However, like many other writers on this list, Morton-Jack also holds the belief that the British would not have lasted without Indian soldiers.
He starts well before WWI began to give us a thorough description of the Indian army – their capabilities and weaknesses and how skills in mountain or tribal warfare and lack of skills in trench warfare both helped and hindered. He then goes on to show, through accounts of how these particular Indian Expeditionary Force soldiers adapted, organised, and eventually contributed greatly to modern warfare. Morton-Jack asserts that, had these Indian Corps continued serving on the Western Front for the entire First World War, they would have become one of the most elite and formidable forces of their time. Instead, of course, they were sent on to fight in other theatres, putting to good use all that they had gained.
World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anti-colonialism in an Era of Global Conflict, Heather Streets-Salter
This book was only released earlier this year and covers a wider region beyond present-day India: British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indochina. Indian expatriate revolutionaries were spread all across these regions and, during WWI, they collaborated against the Allies by smuggling arms and people in the cause of Indian independence from the British and the French.
Streets-Salter takes us thousands of miles away from the Western Front, which is the primary theater of battle most of us are familiar with for WWI. In her introduction, she writes, “The stories I tell about empire and colonialism are about connections between colonies – and between colonies and independent states – rather than simply colonial connections with their various metropoles. And the stories I tell about world history begin with individuals in a small place and move outward, from the local to the regional and global.” And she shows how, during WWI, the interconnected influences between the British, French, and Dutch colonies were consular, diplomatic, anti-colonial and, above all, highly porous.
Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia and Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
Both of these books provide spectacular, nuanced accounts of the end of the British empire in Asia after and as a direct result of WWII. We find that “forgotten” is a deliberate misnomer for “never reported” war-related atrocities that happened after Hiroshima across the British empire in Asia. For these parts of Asia, WWII never really ended but continued in the form of bloody civil wars, anti-colonial freedom movements, and communal massacres.
As the British empire crumbled and receded, it left behind a terrible, messy backwash of conflict and devastation that, for much of the region, is still being reckoned with. Drawing on a vast range of Indian (including Pakistani and Bangladeshi), Burmese, Chinese, Malay, British, American, and Japanese voices, the authors show how modern south and southeast Asia rose from the ashes of the British empire.