India underwent irreversible and extraordinary changes between 1939 and 1945. Many Indians found themselves fighting and in uniform in the Middle East, Europe, North and East Africa, and against a Japanese army poised to invade India's eastern part. The entire country was pulled into a whirlwind of wartime mobilization with the threat of the Axis powers looming. The Indian Army became the largest volunteer force in the conflict by the end of the war, consisting of many men. In contrast, others had offered their agricultural, industrial, and military labour. India would never be the same, but the only question was, would the efforts of war push the country away from independence or towards it?

Historian Srinath Raghavan in India’s War has painted a picture compelling life on the home front and the battles abroad, arguing that the war is critical and crucial to explaining why and how the colonial rule ended in South Asia. World war II altered the nation's social landscape by overturning Indians’ assumptions and opening up new opportunities for disadvantaged people. India emerged as a major Asian power when the war dust settled with her feet set on the path of Independence.

The early urging in Gandhi’s support of Britain’s war efforts, the very crucial Campaign of Burma, Raghavan, has brought out the theatre of World War II. The account of India during World War II, India’s War: World war II and the Making of Modern South Asia chronicles around the war that transformed India, its politics, its people, and its economy, laying the framework for the emergence and the rise of India as a major power.

An Indian prisoner of war in 1943 (PoW) in one of the Nazi Germany camps faced a dilemma that seemed outrageous. The recruiters approached the 2nd Royal Lancers Labh Chand Chopra for Free Indian Legion of Subhash Chandra Bose. The 22-year-old Chopra found himself in a clash of loyalties. In his book, Srinath Raghavan explained that the decision to dis vow the Indian army was not easy for the volunteers. This was true of men of the martial class who were tied by the military service that was long-running in the family by the pension and welfare schemes and by a sense of loyalty to the king.

Only 2,000 out of the 15,000 Indian prisoners of war volunteered for Bose’s anti-British force. The Axis forces held the PoWs after a year of appeals led by Bose by 1943.

The very commendable quality of Srinath Raghavan’s book is that he doesn’t have the time to grind these axes. For him, it doesn’t matter what the Indian history is, the “politics" of historical narrative, and who must tell it. Raghavan has delivered a “rounded narrative” instead of lingering on such matters bringing in the dimensions of the war. He has told the story of the second war of India through the intertwining strands of the military, the strategic, the international, the domestic, and the socio-economic narratives.

Labh Chand Chopra locked himself in a room for 24 hours to discuss the pros and cons and consider his decision to break the oath to the King of England. Though it was challenging for him to decide, the emotional, sentimental, and patriotic feelings prevailed, and he chose to be a part of the uniform of the Indian Legion.

Raghavan has laid out the analysis of the data without the temptation to pass on the patriotism of the businessmen. In the Bengal famine of 1942-43 million deaths would make you consider this book as Raghavan writes about the Bengal calamity that engendered a desire to find the guilty.

Raghavan has tried to assess the long-term effect and impact of the war towards the end of the book. The impact was horrific and immediate. He has written that the districts with significantly higher numbers of men during the partition saw higher levels of ethnic cleansing with combat experience.

For India and Pakistan as distinct nations, Raghavan has explained that it was a history that none of the countries wanted to recall. The states and nations of India and Pakistan saw new histories for self-legitimization and sought to gloss over the years of war for common sacrifice and mobilization.

There were fewer deleterious impacts in the long term—the matter of Indian independence and a deeper politicizing of the Indian people. Ideas of social and individual rights, freedom, and democracy seeped into the discourse of the marginalized.

One who reads this book will come back with an ocean of knowledge about India and its history. It would also make sense to the readers, and they will be able to comprehend how World War II was a pivotal period in Indian history, and Raghavan has tried to make a convincing case for it in his book. Some readers will find Raghavan’s Indian National Army and Bose’s treatment underwhelming, but they all played a fleeting role in the course of the war.

India’s War: World war II and the Making of Modern South Asia is a fantastic book addition to a slow-growing book canon on India's world wars. The books are not easy to engage with those who demand unaccentuated glory and pride. These are the books for nuanced minds to understand what we are and why we are. 

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Author: Papiha Ghoshal