Against a blood-splattered background, a brown, turbaned man is shown with his forefinger outstretched, angrily pointing, almost out of the poster and at the viewer. Upon closer examination, the gory red background reveals piles of skulls and massacred bodies. The text, appearing in sections across the page in Hindi and Bengali, recalls pivotal moments in the subcontinent’s history: the 1765 Massacre in Dhaka, the first war of Indian independence in 1857, the 1919 Amritsar massacre, and the First World War sacrifices in 1918. The singular thing that all these crucial moments have in common is the failings of, and the conflict caused by, the British in India, and as if addressing that, the final piece of text in the centre of the poster reads, “The English claim to understand and care for Indians. But the 300 years of exploitation…”

This poster, dropped into Assam by the Japanese in 1944, is eerily reminiscent of others from history. It has the same directness of War Minister Lord Kitchener’s “BRITONS [Kitchener] Wants You!”, which was published in 1914 as a call to join the First World War and inspired Uncle Sam’s infamous “I want YOU for U.S. Army”. It has the same urgency. Above all, the poster is a crystalline example of the psychological advertising and conversion attempts employed by the Axis powers in the Indian subcontinent during World War II.

“During the Second World War, the British and Japanese governments fought a fierce propaganda war in South Asia to influence mass opinion in their favour,” said Parthasarathi Bhaumik, assistant professor of comparative literature at Jadavpur University and a British Library Chevening Fellow. “They exploited all available media – wireless, film, print and live performances... The aim was to discredit the opponent and to project their own side as the true friend of South Asian people.”

This poster recalls pivotal moments in the subcontinent’s history and highlights the failings of the British in India.

India dragged in

On September 3, 1939, at 8.30 pm, the voice of Viceroy Lord Lithlingow rang through the frequencies of All India Radio, announcing that His Majesty’s Government was at war with Germany – and as a colony of that government, so was India. “I am confident,” he said, “that India will make her contribution to the side of human freedom rather than against the rule of force.”

This announcement sent leaders of the Indian National Congress into rage and frenzy. India’s involvement in the Second World War had begun, although the Viceroy had neither consulted his advisors nor the Legislative Assembly or Indian leaders. The Congress leaders were torn. On the one hand was the hostility towards Nazi oppression and a desire to end it, and on the other was the sheer necessity of non-cooperation with the British Empire unless they took concrete steps towards Home Rule in India. How could one expect the soldiers of India to die for the freedom a nation that denied them the very same right?

Decades before, during the Great War, 1,302,394 Indian soldiers had travelled across the black waters to fight for King and Country in unknown lands. For the most part, the recruitment was voluntary, since this was a time when there was a belief in the rule of the King and notions of izzat, or honour. But World War II, set in motion against the backdrop of the struggle for independence in India, was not the same. Though nearly 2.5 million Indian soldiers in all participated in the war, the British were tormented by events on the home front, such as the Quit India Movement in 1942 and the Great Bengal Famine in 1943. What was also harrying them was the rise of the Indian Independence League, a political organisation that was headed by leaders like Subash Chandra Bose and Rash Behari Bose, who were collaborating with the Axis powers.

India was of interest to all. Its strategic location, its abundance of natural and financial resources and armed power had proved it to be an attractive territory in the South Asian theatre of the War, for both the Allied powers to retain, as well as Axis powers to gain.

A folio in the British Library, labelled Japanese Policy in Regard to India since the outbreak of the War of Greater East Asia up to the end of May 1942, has detailed and chronological notes provided to British officers on the activities of Japan, including its occupation of Malaya (1941) and Burma (1942). The Japanese were at the very threshold of India, threatening the Empire’s dominance. There are records of captured Sikh soldiers from these wars being given the option of either joining the Indian Independence League under Bose, or facing persecution, imprisonment or execution. “Japan openly showed her interest in India,” the document reads, “and Premier General Tojo publicly announced that the Indians should take this opportunity and revolt in order to drive the British out of India, thereby gaining for themselves, their independence.”

This interest in India led the Japanese to start a fascinating propaganda effort to convert, as if it was for the benefit of India herself, the Indian soldiers and civilians to the side of the Axis powers. In Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, journalist-writer Raghu Karnad describes how after the fall of the city of Rangoon to the Japanese, the air was filled with “thousands of fluttering leaflets. These were propaganda cartoons...depicting starving Indians ground under the heels of fat imperialists or turbaned jawans being kicked out of evacuation lorries by blond-haired Tommies”.

Five Asian men, including a Japanese soldier, raise a toast together, suggesting that all Asians can live in harmony. The text on the poster reads, “This is an apt occasion to drive out the English from Asia.”

Psychological armoury

The National Army Museum in London holds the original copies of several of these propaganda leaflets – known as Dentan in Japanese – printed on durable, long-weave Japanese paper. These can be quite obviously divided into batches based on the style of imagery and printing technique, but it is clear that within each batch, the scribe and the artist have remained consistent. The pro-Japanese, anti-British posters detail the discrimination, racism, xenophobia and inequality propagated by the Empire, and focus on “Asia for Asians” or the idea of racial grouping. A poster shows five different Asian men, including a Japanese soldier, all united and raising a toast, suggesting that Asians can live in harmony. An injured figure (donning the British flag) is falling from the globe. The text reads, “This is an apt occasion to drive out the English from Asia.”

These posters emphasise on intense psychological conversion, and they were distributed to troops and civilians, particularly along the border regions. They also fluttered down from circling airplanes across the battlefields in Europe, North Africa and Burma, hoping to convert the Indian soldier. In The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, historian Yasmin Khan writes, “Although [the troops] had been trained to ignore Axis propaganda, some of it reaching the Indian troops was extremely was directed at the weakest spots in the psychological armoury of the sepoys. It played on their homesickness, anxieties about hunger and home and on their desire for the war to end.”

Each poster evokes a moment of misery under the Empire, and some even attempt to give alternative outcomes, should India free herself from the shackles of the Raj. The approach to South Asian figures is strange and sardonic, in a sweeping, over-generalised way – men and women drawn out as dark and meagre, with protruding eyes and a pointy chin. The highly stylised approach is evocative of cartoons, even manga, in places. The colours, still remarkably well-preserved, are often either garish or muted in tones – depending upon the printing techniques of lithography or offset.

Several figures are repeated. Among them are the rotund, crude caricature of Winston Churchill – portrayed as the ambassador of the Empire – and the figure of a dark, sparsely-clothed, furious-looking Indian, who is often holding a weapon over the British Prime Minister. This dark, turbaned figure, appearing time and time again, can be viewed as a metaphor for self-empowerment against the Empire.

There is a desperate image of a woman – perhaps the embodiment of Mother India – holding a dying body and standing among a sea of bodies at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. In the background can be seen a slew of Indians holding sickles and other weapons, a fluttering tiranga with Gandhi’s chakra emerging from within the crowd, chasing uniformed men carrying rifles. The text in Hindi and Bengali reads, “Any Indian whose blood doesn’t boil at the memory of the Amritsar massacre cannot be called an Indian. This is the golden opportunity for revenge.” This can be seen as a haunting reminder of Jallianwala Bagh, particularly juxtaposed against the fact that soldiers, fighting in World War I for the British, would have only just returned home to be greeted by news of the massacre. The sheer consideration for detail and nuances from history in the poster is really quite remarkable.

With Churchill at the centre of a spider's web surrounded by peace-loving locals, a poster calls for Indians to "...awake, arise and destroy the English shackles”.

In another image, Churchill can be seen at the centre of a web, his head placed upon the body of a spider that has spun a web of submission. In his hands is a bag of gold coins – riches from the subcontinent – and around him are submissive figures of Indians in pleading or praying positions. They are clothed like ascetics, and their hands are shown folded in devotion, portraying the peace-loving nature of the locals. The caption, when translated, reads, “An unprecedented opportunity to win freedom presents itself. Awake, arise and destroy the English shackles.”

Another poster shows Churchill seated at a table eating meat carved in the shape of India – allegorical of the sheer consumption of the subcontinent by the Empire – while a British officer carves the form of a Union Jack into the back of a withering Indian, whose hands and feet are bound with chains. Behind Churchill is a dark figure, holding a stick and coming towards him in anger. The text reads, “Beat the devil with sticks and save India.”

Yet another poster evokes the tragedy of the Great Bengal Famine, depicting a British couple, possibly based on Churchill and his wife, indulging in a lavish meal of succulent meat and wine, while beneath the dinner table lie starved Indians. The text reads, “Kill all the British who are sucking Indian blood.”

There is another image that shows the thumbs of mulmul workers being cut in Dhaka and their looms destroyed so they can no longer weave the historic cloth locally. This leaflet referenced the “deindustrialisation of India”, where Britain all but destroyed the cotton industry by imposing export duties and forcing the population to purchase imported British cotton. A similar image shows Churchill himself cutting off the hands of a weaver. There is another one that depicts what the conditions of life are under the British rule – death, disease and famine – and what they could be, should India gain independence – peace and prosperity.

There is a sole poster depicting a fluttering Japanese flag along with its grand armies – taking up more than half the page, a sign of the vastness of support and power – and the flags of Britain and America in another corner – much smaller and meeker in comparison. In the foreground, Churchill can be seen treating shackled Indians like slaves, and perhaps for the first time in this poster, one can see a difference in the kinds of facial features of the Indians, representing, we can assume, different communities. Behind Churchill, as always, is the figure of the dark turbaned man.

What is striking is the combined use of language and historical imagery in these posters, which served a two-fold purpose – to lure the common man with the prospect of a better life free from the Empire, and secondly, to attempt to convert the sepoys to the side of the Axis powers. Propaganda aimed at civilians seems to be mostly in Hindi, Bengali or Burmese and evokes plight and strife. In contrast, propaganda aimed towards the sepoys – martial races – seems to be in Urdu, the language most commonly read across the fighting belt of Undivided Punjab.

In this strand of propaganda, historian Yasmin Khan discusses one poster with the omnipresent figure of the sepoy’s wife. There is a chubby child in her arms and one of the Urdu captions on the page reads: “After bidding farewell to you, we kept on looking for you on the horizon.” The poster is labelled Milap, or reunion. There is no text in Gurmukhi or Nepalese, and so one can assume that the Axis powers knew it would be near-impossible to convert the Sikh and Gurkha soldiers, who since the Revolt of 1857, had remained loyal to the British Army.

So who was helping create these images? A series of posters bears the signature of the “Azad Hindostan League”. They are mostly text-based, appealing to fellow Indians in several languages (Urdu, Bengali, Burmese, English) to join their cause for independence, and help Nippon – Japan – in driving out the Devil – England – from India. The handwriting seems amateurish for a local and in places, reminiscent of the finesse of Japanese calligraphy, particularly in the smaller lines of text. There are several instances of hyphenation, line-breaks or merging of words in unusual places. In light of these oddities, it might be fair to conclude then that even if members of the Azad Hindostan League were consulted in the creation of these posters, it was the Japanese hand that rendered them.

Though this paper war is fascinating and a remarkable attempt at conversion of allegiances, it did not yield the desired effect it had intended. In retaliation, the British embarked on their own endeavour, printing and distributing pro-British, anti-Japanese and anti-German flyers within India and Burma, hoping to keep the loyalty of their most precious colony.

The folio from the British Library, near the conclusion, reads, “Japan has so far miscalculated...this wishful thinking led her to believe that the occupation of India would be a simple and an easy matter, but...Japan has been forced to call a temporary halt to her plans.” Ultimately though, the Second World War flattened out the Raj, leaving England a victor on the war front but a pauper almost everywhere else. The crumbling structures of imperial governance – no doubt, made weaker by all forms of rebellion, including the perpetuating propaganda from the Axis powers – paved the way for eventual Home Rule in 1947.

Images courtesy National Army Museum, London, and museum curator Jasdeep Singh. Translations from Bengali to English by Sujaan Mukherjee.