Behind enemy lines

Behind enemy lines

we were soldiers

Behind enemy lines
England was the first country in the world to acquire a modern industrial economy, based on growth and the application of science and technology to productive process. This resulted in the creation of wealth and affluence at an unprecedented level.

In becoming the first affluent country, England gave a new message to the world — in order to become rich and richer, a country needed wealth and resources which could only be obtained by a conquest over other countries, and by controlling their resources. In order to conquer other countries, a country needed to possess arms and other modern weapons of destruction. All the European powers were quick to learn this lesson. The net result was a search for colonies which were found in Asia and Africa. After all of Asia and Africa had been conquered, the European powers had to fight among themselves to protect one’s colonial possessions and encroach upon others’. Japan was the last and the only non-European Asian country to join this race.

Capturing other countries economically and politically, and using them to enrich one’s own economy was a singularly European idea and the world as a whole paid a very heavy cost for this. Two big wars were fought among the European superpowers, taking as many as 115 million lives. The rest of the world was sucked into these wars among European superpowers, on account of being under their control. And so, India being a British colony, became a party to the War, declared by England against Germany in September 1939, much against her wishes. Strictly speaking, this was not India’s war; it was imposed on her. Yet, no other war fought by India has affected Indian society and politics as profoundly as the Second World War. It would be no exaggeration to say that the War shaped Independent India in many ways.

What was the Second World War all about? The First World War had ended without settling the dispute over who ought to be the rightful master of the planet. The victors of the war were insecure. The losers were resentful and belligerent. As a result, the 1930s witnessed a new aggression displayed by the losers of the First World War and late entrants in the race for global supremacy. Japan encroached on parts of China. Italy invaded Ethiopia. Hitler captured Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The early conquerors (mainly England and France) were really threatened by late conquerors.

Hitler made more advances and when he captured Poland, an ally of England, both England and France declared war on Germany. Hitler had signed a pact with the USSR to neutralise latter’s opposition to Germany’s advances. In 1941 he violated the pact and invaded USSR. This encouraged Japan which had feared threats to its domination in the Pacific Ocean and the South East Asia from the USA. Japan bombed the USA’s naval base at Pearl Harbour in 1942 to cripple its navy. The Second World War was now in full swing between the allied powers (England, France, USA and the USSR) and the axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan).

The War was really a product of mutual threat and suspicion among all the European superpowers from one another. All the powerful countries of the world felt acutely insecure. The greater the power, the greater the insecurity. After the First World War, these superpowers got divided along ideological lines into three major blocs — the liberal democratic world led by the USA, the Socialist world led by the USSR, and the totalitarian Fascist bloc led by Germany under Hitler. It appeared to many that the whole world was faced by a real and dreadful possibility of a Fascist takeover. In this grand battle among the ideological superpowers, the liberals and the socialists formed an alliance against the Fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. Thus, from a tripartite conflict, it became a straight battle between two combatants.

Caught in-between

India was of crucial strategic significance for the War for two reasons. It was geographically located between two major theatres of the War, in the East initiated by Japan, and in the West initiated by Germany. India also got pulled into the War because of being a British colony. But the big question was — what should be India’s role in the War? Opinion on this question was deeply divided. Some felt that the global struggle against Fascism was more important than the national struggle against British imperialism, and therefore India should support England and USA fighting against Germany and Japan. Some others, such as Subhas Chandra Bose, argued that the War was essentially one between imperialist superpowers and it was India’s great opportunity to support the forces fighting against England.

This was the moment to strike at British imperialism and achieve India’s independence. Bose actually led the Indian National Army (INA) with Japanese help and fought the British army in South East Asia. The INA was a force of around 60,000 Indian soldiers in the British army who had been captured by the Japanese and made prisoners of war. They were then organised into an army unit, on the promise of fighting along with the Japanese against the British. The Japanese army and the INA scored crucial victories in Singapore, Malaya and Burma (Myanmar) before reaching the Indian borders. Bose was confident that on INA reaching the Indian frontiers, there would be a nationalist rebellion within India against the British. The combination of two major strikes, by INA from outside and a rebellion of the Indian people from within, would succeed in liberating India. This was, however, not to be. After unfurling the Indian tricolour in Andaman & Nicobar and entering Imphal, the INA, along with the Japanese army, was defeated and pushed out.

In-between the two extreme positions was the mainstream position, represented and argued by Jawaharlal Nehru among others. He incorporated some elements from both the extreme positions in articulating the Congress stand on the War. Nehru looked upon the War as one between the forces of democracy and freedom on the one hand, and those of Fascism and totalitarianism on the other. England and USA were fighting for the triumph of democracy against Fascism. Indian support was clearly for democracy and freedom. But in order to support freedom, a country had to be free in the first place.

Nehru wrote in the editorial of National Herald: “Freedom can have no meaning for us if we ourselves do not possess it, and it would be a hollow mockery if we shouted for the freedom of distant land and submitted to subjugation ourselves.” The Congress stand was therefore one of total opposition to Fascism but without compromising the freedom of India. England, which claimed to fight for freedom, denied the same to the people of India. Congress offered to support the war against Fascism, but only on the condition of Indian freedom at the end of the War. As England was unwilling to agree to this, Congress withdrew all support for the War.

The Congress refusal notwithstanding, the War involved a high participation by Indians. Nearly 2.5 million Indian soldiers were recruited for the War. This was roughly half of all the soldiers recruited from England and all the other colonies. The figure 2.5 million is considerably larger than the numerical strength of the Indian army today. In other words, more Indians were recruited for the Second World War than the numerical strength of the Indian army today. The Indian economy was completely placed at the service of the War. All the Indian resources were channelised towards the operation of a War which was not even theirs.

In the shadows

Subjectively, the Indian people may not have seen it as their war. Objectively, however, it cast its spell on every aspect of Indian life. No other war fought by Indians has transformed India as much as this War. When the War ended in 1945 in a victory of allied forces against the menace of Fascism, the world had been propelled on a course of monumental changes, some of which appeared unthinkable before the War. In a decade’s time, most of the colonies of Asia and Africa were liberated from European imperialism. Fascism was politically eliminated as a serious contender for global domination. USA and USSR emerged as the new superpowers and rivals in the race for global domination. Their rivalry was played out in the form of a ‘cold war’ which went on for five decades before ending in a decisive victory for the USA. All these were crucial global developments which emanated directly from the War and how it ended. The post-war world lived in the shadows of the War.

India too remained in the shadows of the War for a long time. The course of the War and the manner in which India was implicated in it heavily underpinned some of the major developments in independent India. For one, both the major events of 1947 — independence and partition — were connected to the politics of the War as it was played out. It was clear that even though England had won the War, it had lost its eminence in modern world and would not be able to hold on to its colonial empire. The loss of the empire began with Indian independence and continued through the 1950s. But the partition also was a product of the War in some ways.

When the British Viceroy unilaterally declared India to be at war with Germany, the Indian leaders demanded a price for cooperation. The British government was asked to make an unambiguous offer of independence for India after the War. The British government was extremely reluctant to concede Indian independence. Churchill, the new Conservative British prime minister, saw India as an integral part of the British Empire. Under no circumstances would he agree to the disintegration of the British Empire, which is what independence implied for Great Britain. The possibility of the disintegration of the British Empire was as yet unfathomable to the diehard British imperialists. Yet it was necessary to obtain Indian support for the War. This was done by mobilising all the possible forces opposed to the Congress. The British really went out of their way to put together a grand alliance against the Congress.

They mobilised and pampered groups that had nothing in common with each other — Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha, Ambedkar, Liberals and the princely states. The princes reciprocated to the British appeals by contributing 13.5 million pounds to the War efforts. During the entire course of the War, the British undermined Congress and its claims. The representative capacity of Indian nationalism was both denied and weakened.

A weakening of Indian nationalism during the course of the War was really strange. Wars generally bolster the forces of nationalism. This was true for England, Germany, USA and the USSR. Stalin mobilised the people for the War, not by invoking socialism, but in the name of protecting ‘Russian Fatherland’. All the participating countries succeeded in mobilising their populations under the banner of nationalism.

However, as far as India was concerned, the War produced very serious strains for the forces of Indian nationalism. It is important that it was during this period that Muslim League, under the leadership of Jinnah, came out with its demand for Pakistan as a separate representative nation-state for Indian Muslims. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Jinnah had been encouraged by the Viceroy to make some ‘concrete proposal’ which would be accepted by the British. Muslim League stepped up its opposition to Congress and was rewarded for it in the form of Pakistan. The British struck at the roots of Indian nationalism by partitioning India. Indian nationalism in independent India has been haunted by the memory of the partition which has continued to determine its shape and outline in crucial ways. Activating and supporting the forces of partition was one major way in which the War affected Indian polity.

Yet another way in which the War cast its spell on India was by creating the pre-conditions for the type of capitalist development that was underway in independent India. The early part of 1930s was a period of crisis for Indian capitalism. The national industry had not been able to cope with the deflation created by the Depression of 1929. The War opened the floodgates and created an inflationary situation. The old stocks of manufactured goods were consumed during the War. It also created a demand for more goods. This provided a spurt to an independent Indian capitalism. The War brought profits to Indian capitalists at an unprecedented level. The prospects of an independent capitalist growth in India had been constrained by two major factors — an alien state not interested in promoting national industries and a low purchasing capacity of the people because of poverty.

The War altered both these conditions. It created a new demand. A large number of new companies were floated. Industries such as chemicals, machinery, automobiles, textiles all received a big boost. Most of the major industrial houses, which played a dominant role in independent India, acquired maturity during the period of the War. The new industrial houses also realised that their long-term interests would be secured by a national government and not by an alien state. They supported the demand for Indian independence. The end of the War ensured that Indian independence could not be delayed for long.

The trajectory of economic development in independent India was characterised by a mixed economy, important role of the State, and the major initiatives in the hands of a few industrialists. It is easy to see that this model owed itself to the experiences of the War in no small measure.  The War made huge demands on Indian society and people. The colonial state was expected to ensure that these demands were fulfilled. This brought untold miseries to the common people, and unprecedented opportunities to a tiny class of rich peasants, manufacturers, traders and industrialists. It was also during the course of the War that the colonial state in India was transformed from a minimalist state into an extractive, intrusive and interventionist state. This also created a crisis for the colonial state, leading eventually to its overthrow in 1947. All these experiences set up the model and the pattern for the institutional arrangements in independent India.

Apart from the class divide, the War also set up patterns of regional divide. The War brought enormous wealth to the Punjab countryside. Bengal, by contrast, experienced the worst famine of the 20th century which claimed over 3 million lives. The War heralded a significant contrast between a prosperous Punjab and a poor Bengal. These images have survived in independent India. The War made Indian society more and more inegalitarian both on a class (and by extension, caste) and also regional basis. Independent India has inherited this legacy.

(The writer teaches history at the Ambedkar University Delhi. He has relied heavily on the seminal contributions of 3 major historians of the World War: Indivar Kamtekar — A Different War Dance: State and Class in India, 1939-45; Srinath Raghavan — India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia; and Yasmin Khan — A People’s History of India’s Second World War).  
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