Victims of unconscious bias? (A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

November 2, 2021   5 mins

Whenever I give a lecture in India about the Second World War, I encounter the same awkward problem: more than 75 years since it concluded, the country remains reluctant to discuss its involvement in the conflict. This is because, I am frequently reminded, India did not exist before independence in 1947; everything that happened in the region involved another, far distant, country.

For Indian nationalists, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the subcontinent was tainted by an Islam that has subsequently exported itself to Pakistan and Bangladesh. And secondly, it was part of the Raj, and thus tainted by Britain. It is politically unbecoming, then, to equate a sense of Indian-hood with what Marxist historians in the West and Hindu nationalists in India tell us was India’s slave status.

As a British historian researching India’s role in the Second World War, I’ve encountered this view repeatedly. And not just in India; to be fair, it is equally rampant in the UK, especially in parts of academia. But it is hardly logical. In fact, it is deeply unhelpful.

The problem is that the post-colonial interpretation makes slaves of Indians. It argues that they had no personal control of their destiny because their government was in the hands of others. When the British declared war, India became an unwilling participant. This argument, simply stated, is that the colonial government, together with its systems, structures, cultures and attitudes, were deeply and inherently exploitative, such that it cannot properly be argued that colonial intentions were anything other than unfair and abusive.

In this view, Indian men fought and strived against their will, even though they weren’t fully aware of it, as cultural coercion blinded them to the reality that they were fighting a British war against Britain’s enemies. The absurdity of this argument suggests, to give but one example, that the efforts of Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, to raise the pay of Indian Commissioned Officers to the levels of their British colleagues in 1943 and 1944 were for the purpose of buying their loyalty rather than of giving them equality with their peers.

It is also seriously suggested in some quarters that the offer of money likewise persuaded millions of otherwise impoverished Indians to sign up for war work during the industrial expansion of India. According to this narrative, illiterate peasants knew no better than to take the financial bribes offered in exchange for their labour. It is argued that others were forced by convention and the belief that family and personal honour depended on a military career. Millions of men thus became mercenaries of the British, subject to intense and relentless propaganda which bound their minds and wills in an unprecedented and highly successful, coercive, manipulation.

Rather than being taken as fact, these assertions must be recognised for what they are: exaggerations and political point-scoring, with the purpose of proving that the Raj was evil and that the Indians who willingly fought against fascism and totalitarianism weren’t doing so for India, but because they were forced against their conscious will to do so.

It needn’t matter that there is no evidence that 2.5 million men joined the Indian Army between 1939-45 as the result of what one leading historian described as a “propaganda offensive” by the British government which “secured the partial allegiance or at least acquiescence of part of the population”. This argument fails to explain why the men thus recruited were prepared to die for this compulsion, and why Indian soldiers went on to win 22 of the 34 Victoria and George Crosses awarded, for example, during the Burma Campaign.

Instead, it seems rational to conclude that most Indians who joined the armed forces did so because they had weighed up the options and assessed the nature of the sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of the government in India, regardless of its political colour. In this sense, their decision was made on the basis of a conception of India much larger than the framework of politics as it existed within Indian polity at the time. Even before 1947, the threat to their conception of what India was and could be therefore far outweighed the rights and wrongs in their minds of colonialism, if the issue or argument ever surfaced at all.

The truth is that reality trumped ideology in the face of the imminent and existential danger to the Indian state by the Japanese. Most Indians accepted that the Raj was, rightly or wrongly, or for the time being, the legally constituted Government of India. Like all governments, it had supporters and opponents. Few who opposed it on nationalistic or self-governance grounds questioned its legitimacy, as that would have invalidated their own claim to be its successor in due course. Likewise, the Indian Army was India’s army, not Britain’s.

As Professor Roger Beaumont has observed, “it is most interesting to weigh the charges that the Raj built its army in India as an oppressive instrument against what one sees in how lovingly and energetically the Indians have retained the model”. Rather, the evidence suggests that the theory of “prosaic oppression” and its common language of “unconscious bias and systemic structures of power” is a fabricated political construct that does not relate to everyday human experience in colonial India. The facts are being squeezed to fit within a fixed and unbending theoretical, political and ideological model.

It was true that India did not have political independence, but in every other sense the freedom to make social, economic and political choices within this environment cannot be said to have been constrained by such oppression that human agency was so deviously manipulated to suit ruling British interests. Young Indian men and young Britons both joined the Indian Army for the same purpose in times of peace; for adventure, employment, the lure of military glory, the age-old attraction of the sword.

Indians were no more victims of their polity than were Britons, both of whom were, of course, victims of the fascist militarism that dragged the world into a second great slaughter of world war. The tyranny to which some refer, if it relates to anything, can only do so to the prosaic constraints of ordinary civic society — such as obeying the law, as can be seen during the Quit India protests in 1942 — rather than that of an unbending and devious oppression.

Looking back at the imperial period through the lens of victimhood is therefore deeply problematic both historically and philosophically. It ensures that we never see the 350 million Indians of the time as they saw themselves, collectively or individually: as a people with acute political agency (as evidenced by the burgeoning nationalist movement), on a journey to self-rule. Likewise, it treats every Briton in India at the time, every level of power exercised and every action undertaken in response to a decision by London or Delhi, as oppressive. It also forgets that agency in imperial power relationships is never one-sided; for instance, it ignores the importance of Indian political, social and economic agency in the Twenties and Thirties (combined with Japan’s pricking of the imperial bubble) in enabling India to achieve independence in 1947.

Our sense today of the size of the nationalist protest against colonial rule has almost certainly exaggerated its impact on ordinary people. This is not to underestimate its ultimate importance, rather the influence it had on the behaviour of men considering joining the armed forces, and the impact it had on those who had already enlisted. History remembers the noisy minority, whose views tend to be over-represented in any analysis of the past, while generally neglecting those without a voice.

Fortunately, nationalism and respect for the Government’s legitimate role in defending India (even a colonial one) were not mutually exclusive in 1942, or the ranks of the Armed Forces might have remained empty, and India’s door opened for the Japanese to march in. Perhaps it is precisely because the ranks of the army were so large between 1942 and 1945 that so much effort is generated today in post-colonial studies in explaining away why these men joined in such numbers and with such alacrity.

India, therefore, has every right to recover the history of the pre-1947 period, for it was then that the foundations of modern India were established. The Japanese in Assam and Manipur in 1944 and in Burma in 1945 were defeated by an Army that was 87% Indian. Victory in Asia could never have taken place without Indians coming forward in large numbers, and of their own volition, to serve their country. And that is surely something in which India can take great pride.

Robert Lyman is a British military historian and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain: 1941–45.