World War II and the Indian Soldiers

Wednesday, 27 January 2021


World War II and the Indian Soldiers

Pratik Dhar | September 19, 2020 14:52 hrs

We have known the World Wars mainly from a western perspective. Little do we know that colonial and other allied armies played notable roles in the distant battlefields away from home that turned the tide of the battles with numerous arduous conflicts set amidst the various theatres of World War II. 

Unlike the First World War, the Second World War was different from the fact that the British had included more Indians in the officer corps this time. But despite such induction, officers of Indian origin faced severe discrimination from their British counterparts. Often less paid, the officers had to serve in inferior conditions than the British officers serving in the same war. 2.5 million young men from India served in the Second World War, in the colonial era, with over 87000 of them losing their lives.

A brief history

The 1940’s was a time of the immense uprising in undivided India. It was a time when the British Empire was facing its strongest resistance from the Indian people. Both the Non-Violence Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and armed resistance by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose were dashing into the final chapter of the struggle for independence. 

Though the Muslim League was in support of Great Britain entering into a war against the Axis Powers, the Indian National Congress on the other hand demanded independence before deriving at a point of granting help to Great Britain which in turn was blatantly refused by the British Empire. 

The Quit India Movement in August 1942 was an answer to such refusal that held many freedom fighters responsible for mutiny against the government that resulted in their imprisonment. Simultaneously, Japan had set up an army of prisoners of war under the dynamic leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose known as the Indian National Army (INA) to fight against the British. 

As a full-fledged internal war was undergoing its developing changes, what prompted Indians to participate in the World War II rather than to stick to their own struggle for freedom? It has been ascertained that the assurance for daily livelihood played an important part, while it may also be assumed that India under British dominance had no other option but to forcibly abide by the orders of its ruler. Somewhere it was also felt by the Indians that the British would terminate its colonial rule once the global war ends and brand India as an Independent nation on the world map.

Indian soldiers in the WW II

Indians started joining the war from the year 1939 to assist the British Empire for its expeditionary force to advance towards France. The then Viceroy of India Lord Linlithgow (From 1936 to 1943) without consulting the prominent Indian political heads made mass inclusion for the Second World War that triggered a spark of fierce agitation among the native population against the 200 years of foreign rule. 

Though it got suppressed in turn by barbaric use of force with open firing and public whipping, such actions further acted as a catalyst for future rebellion.

The British Empire never launched the process of compulsory enlisting of cadets/conscription in India. Rather it was voluntary and apparently the cadet could decide whether to join the army and go to war. However, amidst the rising peril of the global war outbreak, Great Britain eased the recruiting norms by accepting even the underweight and anemic jawans who were also in anticipation of a stable livelihood for themselves to support their families.

The Indian soldiers played a decisive role in this greatest battle of 20th century. They had served in theatres of war across the continents. 

They had served at sea as well as in the air. The Indian army of World War II during the British Raj era was the largest volunteer army in history. Seventy-five years back Great Britain celebrated its victory against Hitler’s aggression. They were fighting against Nazi Germany in Europe which eventually came to an end that involved service from these millions of soldiers from colonial India. The German High Command, in the person of General Alfred Jodi, signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces at Reims, in northeastern France. The Indian troop’s unswerving loyalty towards the British Empire backed Great Britain in fighting against the Axis Powers. The soldiers of Indian origin stationed in Europe fought with true courage defeating Germany and liberating Rome and most of Italy.

Indian participation in the war remained strong. Their military assistance contributed to a breakthrough success against the Germans in Europe and the Imperial Japan in Asia. As allies, it displayed organizational abilities when fighting in treacherous terrains, from the forests of Malaya and Burma to the rocky territories of Eritrea, the desert of North Africa to the steepy mountains of central Italy. 

The Burma campaign in the South-East Asian theatre of World War II was fought by the British Commonwealth, the forces of China and the United States against Japan, who was assisted by the Burmese National Army, the Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Thailand to an extent. The imperial Japanese army had to experience a heavy blow when it was defeated in Burma by the Allied Powers. With the end of the long stretched worldwide war, India came out as the fourth largest industrial power and with its constantly rising political and economic influence along with rapidly growing fight for independence, the country detached itself from the British rule and finally in the year 1947, the nation breathed its first air of freedom. 

The adverse effect of the Great Bengal Famine

The Bengal famine of 1943 was not an outcome of a serious natural drought since arguments over the years have been stacking up till date that it was the Churchill guided British economic policies that contributed as a significant factor towards such a catastrophe. Nobel laureate and Economist Amartya Sen in his book Poverty And Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), argued that there should have been sufficient supplies to cater to the food requirements of the region and that widespread deaths came out as a consequence of inflation caused by a war and flash hoarding that escalated the price of commodities making it difficult for the poor section to procure them. 

The restrictions made on import of rice, in particular, as imposed by the authorities of the British government maximized the impact of the man-made famine. Churchill’s deliberate attempts on diverting the food stock from starving Indian civilians to the well supplied British and allied soldiers fighting at the warfront left Bengal and a few other British presidencies of India in extreme poverty. As war and starvation remained inseparable, tragedy reached even the home fronts claiming more lives of civilians than the Indian soldiers who were not only fighting a gory war but also a doomed fate that they had been carrying throughout the war away from their motherland.

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.)

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