Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Vintage. London, 2016. (First published 2015.)
It hadn’t occurred to me until I heard of The Raj at War that India must have been central, and centrally important, to the Allies’ efforts in World War II — particularly once East Asia became an active theatre of war, with the Japanese attack on Hawaii in 1941 and the invasion of Burma in 1942. Indian regiments and Indian soldiers fought in all major theatres of war, and the fact that their contributions are not strongly remembered is a failure of historiography — almost as great a failure of historiography as the ones which meant I knew about the famines in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Greece under Nazi occupation, but not about the Bengal famine in India during the war: a famine ignored by Churchill and made worse by the action and inaction of British politicians and civil servants.
The Raj at War tells the story of World War II from an Indian perspective. It’s a relatively short book to cover a continent’s experience of six years of war: 416 pages including the end matter and index. Khan is a careful writer, and a skilled one: her brevity feels efficient, rather than forced, and she moves from grand overview to focusing in on a particular person or detail with great smoothness. This is history writing at its best, and it’s no fault of Khan’s — indeed, it is much to her credit — that my strongest reaction is: but I want to know MORE!
Khan’s account ranges from the start of the war, when the British empire mobilised its Indian regiments, through the changes in Indian society that resulted from the Raj working to put India on a total war footing, to the challenges and changes to the Raj’s traditional class and race systems, the mass mobilisation of labour, the hardship and suffering undergone by many, and the widespread tension between an empire that said it was fighting for “freedom” and the Indian people to whom it refused to listen or engage with on the question of self-rule or independence — tension that would in the end lead to the British withdrawal from India.
This is not a book about Indian regiments on the battlefield, or indeed a book about battles at all. It is more an overview of the social developments that occurred and social conditions that prevailed in India as a consequence of India’s experience of being a British possession during WWII. And, in consequence, some of the political developments during that time.
Yasmin Khan has also written a book about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan). With this in mind, it is easy to understand why at times her account of India’s war experience tends towards the teleological, particularly with respect to the changes in Indian nationalism and nationalist feeling during this time. The Raj at War does that thing of so many history books, where because something momentous did happen, the narrative defaults to the assumption that it was unavoidable that it would happen, which is a historiographical tendency that deeply annoys me.
That said, this is a really interesting and compelling piece of history-writing. I learned a great deal from it — so much that even to summarise the highlights could go on for pages. It’s fascinating, and I recommend it highly.