In early 1943, an Indian prisoner of war (PoW) in a camp in Nazi Germany was faced with a dilemma that would seem outrageous today. Labh Chand Chopra of the 2nd Royal Lancers had been approached by recruiters for Subhas Chandra Bose’s Free Indian Legion. The choice seems obvious today but 22-year-old Chopra found himself torn apart by a clash of loyalties. As Srinath Raghavan explains in his excellent new book, “The decision to disavow the Indian army was not an easy one for the volunteers. This was especially true of men from the martial classes whose allegiances had been tied to the Raj by long-running family traditions of military service, by generous schemes of welfare and pension, and by an abstract sense of loyalty to the king emperor".

Thus, even after a year of fervent appeals led by Bose, by early 1943, just over 2,000 of the 15,000 Indian PoWs held by the Axis forces had volunteered for Bose’s anti-British force (and even here recruitment rates picked up only after recruiters began to work along caste and creed lines, sending Muslims to draw Muslims, Gurkhas to draw Gurkhas, and so on).

Chopra later said in a letter that he was forced to lock himself in a room for 24 hours, “discussing with myself the pros and cons of breaking my oath to the King of England. It was indeed a very difficult task to decide, but inner sentimental, emotional and patriotic feelings prevailed and I finally chose the uniform of the Indian Legion".

Hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers fought both wars and tens of thousands of them died in the course of the most vicious fighting in the most perilous conditions. Yes, they were Indian soldiers but—and herein lies the rub—were they really Indian soldiers? Were they fighting for the salvation of empire or the vanquishing of fascism? Or both? Does the merest common cause with empire instantly make worthless the substance of their valour and the trauma of their sacrifice?

One of the commendable qualities of Raghavan’s book is that he has no time to grind such axes. Not for him the tiresome matters of what is Indian history, who should tell it and, most soul-sapping of all, the “politics" of historical narrative. Instead of lingering on such matters, Raghavan aims to deliver a “rounded narrative, bringing in the manifold dimensions of the war". He does this really quite enjoyably by telling the story of India’s second war through five intertwining strands of narratives: the strategic, the military, the domestic, the international, and the socio-economic.

This is no mean task as each one of these strands is full of incident and individuals and implications and the most bewildering interconnections. Yet, in the course of a 554-page book on war history that moves along at a fair nip, Raghavan tells a wholly satisfying story.

Raghavan takes particular relish in his descriptions of war-front action and set-piece battles. After all, Raghavan was a soldier himself and his fluency with military matters shines through. And yet—and perhaps this is in the nature of good military historians—his observation of “civilian matters" is sharp and direct.

Indeed, and I mean to offend no one here, one quickly tends to forget the fact that the book is written by an Indian historian. There is a certain secular, dispassionate, nationality-agnostic quality to Raghavan’s writing that only helps to make this book doubly enjoyable.

Did Indian business boom during the war years? Raghavan lays out the data and the analysis without being tempted to pass comment on the patriotism of businessmen. Not to say that there is no value in such judgement, but this is not the book for that.

Consider the book when it comes to the millions of deaths in the 1942-43 famine in Bengal. Raghavan writes: “The calamity of Bengal has engendered an understandable desire to find the guilty men. Yet, however appalling Churchill’s attitude and devastating the consequences for Bengal, the taproot of the problem was the inflationary financing of the war."

This is a strong assertion but Raghavan makes a convincing case for it in the book.

All of this is open to contestation of course. Indeed, some readers may find Raghavan’s treatment of the Indian National Army and Bose underwhelming. For, in Raghavan’s telling of the grand story, they played an all-too-fleeting role in the course of India’s war.

Towards the end of the book, Raghavan tries to assess the long-term impact of the war. Some of the impact was immediate and horrific. He writes that “…during Partition, the districts that had higher numbers of men with combat experience saw significantly higher levels of ethnic cleansing".

In the long term, there were other less “deleterious" impacts. There was the small matter of Indian independence itself, but also a deeper politicizing of the Indian people. “Ideas of freedom and democracy, social and individual rights seeped into the discourse—not just of the elite but also of the marginalized."

No one who reads this book will come back not having learnt new things about India. Or without the sense that World War II was a pivotal period in Indian history. So then why do we tend to ignore it?

For both India and Pakistan, Raghavan explains, “this was a history that neither country wanted much to recall. The nation-states of India and Pakistan needed new histories for self-legitmization. And so they sought to gloss over the war years of common mobilization and sacrifice."

India’s War is an outstanding addition to a slowly growing canon of books on India and the world wars. These are not easy books to engage with, especially for those who demand their history books to be gushing fountainheads of unaccentuated pride and glory. But for more nuanced minds, these are essential, difficult stories of why we are the way we are.

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