LENGTHENING distance from the 20th century’s two world wars, along with changing perspectives on key aspects of those conflagrations, have stimulated fresh engagements with the events, disruptive energy and long-term impact of the double global catastrophe. Established narratives have been challenged and long-running debates (for example, over the causes of the First World War and the relative culpability of different players) have drawn in new combatants. This process has also involved a widening of the lens, a re-exploration of the term “world war” in a quest to capture the scale and diversity of those caught in its meshes and to redress past omissions. In the case of South Asia, David Omissi’s Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918, first published in 1999, provides an example of this impulse to reclaim lost voices, to weave the first-hand experiences of the humble and the overlooked into our understanding of what war on a global scale meant to those who lived through it.
As its subtitle suggests, Yasmin Khan’s new study is an addition to this wider angle perspective on the past. In the prologue, the writer identifies the need to pay “proper attention to the people who have tended not to feature so prominently in military histories: the non-combatants and camp followers, the Lascars, prostitutes, nurses, refugees and peasants whose lives changed because of the demands of military commitments”. In so doing, Yasmin Khan seeks to turn the tables on conventional Second World War history by looking at the impact of the war on South Asia—“how the Indian subcontinent itself was reshaped by the war” —rather than India’s contribution to the Allied war effort.
The origins of this project lie in Yasmin Khan’s earlier study, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (2007), which won acclaim for its interweaving of stories of everyday life with political analysis. While writing it, the Oxford historian became aware of the profound transformation India had undergone in the 1940s: as she puts it, “how the Second World War had determined so many aspects of decolonisation and Partition”. She is determined to dig deep into this period, to subject its complex texture and multiplicity of voices to forensic examination in an attempt to “really comprehend the exit velocity of the British, the crisis that accompanied Independence in 1947 and the Partition of the subcontinent”.
In pursuit of these objectives, Yasmin Khan adopts a strategy at once chronological and thematic. This works particularly well in the opening chapters, which track India’s shift from a seemingly peripheral wartime player to a front-line gatekeeper of the empire in the wake of Pearl Harbour. This account is rich in ironies: in the early stages of the war, India was perceived as a place of sanctuary for children of the Raj at school in England and, therefore, at risk of German bombing.‘Volunteer’ army
Yasmin Khan provides a useful exploration of the process of recruiting young Indian men into what would become a two-million-strong “volunteer” army. She shows how time-tested British recruitment methods, based on imperial notions of “martial races” and family traditions of military service in such fecund hunting grounds as Punjab, became overwhelmed by the sheer need for numbers. As the net widened to embrace recruits from ever more varied social and caste backgrounds, economic necessity increasingly motivated enlistment, although for some recruits the element of choice was vanishingly small: in Nepal, where slavery had only recently been abolished, “headmen and landlords, responding to demands from higher up the hierarchy, needed to supply men as proof of loyalty to the regime” (page 31).
While Indian troops, often heavily outnumbered, conducted ferocious assaults on Italian forces in north and east Africa, contributing victories which lightened Allied gloom during the early stages of the conflict, back home the war was steadily inflicting a different kind of savagery. The short-lived economic boom of 1940-41, a time of rising profits, new manufacturing ventures (aircraft, pharmaceuticals), and such additions to infrastructure as a spanking new shipyard at Visakhapatnam, suggested an overturning of the colonial relationship, with India now required to roll out the material requirements of modern warfare, from uniforms to guns, from steel to battleships. Yasmin Khan argues that war workers won better pay and conditions, stoking an influx into urban centres, while highlighting that more generous wages were soon eclipsed by shortages and rising prices. Intensified by Japan’s entry into the war in 1941, inflation and scarcity began to bear down upon ordinary Indians with the malignant weight of an economic tsunami.
From this point on, any credible telling of India’s wartime story must register the drumbeat of actions which led, step by step, omission by wanton omission, to the catastrophic famine which, between 1942 and 1944, claimed an estimated three million lives, chiefly but not exclusively in Bengal. While providing a plethora of detail—evidence of distress at home gleaned from sepoys’ letters; first-hand accounts of starvation on Calcutta streets; extracts from reports filed by frontline officials desperately seeking emergency aid —Yasmin Khan emerges as curiously coy, and at times contradictory, when it comes to analysing and attributing blame for the horrors she describes. While the national government receives a rap for being “too slow to recognise the crisis”, Bengal is essentially presented as “caught at the administrative interstices of war”, a victim of war-enhanced hoarding, administrative bungling and “inadvertent stockpiling” (pages 209-211). Such an assessment sits oddly with Yasmin Khan’s discussion, a few pages earlier, of the stream of top-level warnings flowing into London from late 1942, or with her view that the War Cabinet “blocked and delayed imports” that could have prevented further deaths.
It is here, in relation to the monumental human toll exacted on India by wartime “exigencies” in the context of a colonial relationship achieving its fullest and most deadly expression, that Yasmin Khan’s account proves particularly wanting. Analysis is abjured in favour of a delicate tiptoeing round the issues; controversies are alluded to but left unexplored (Madhusree Mukerjee’s exemplary study of wartime famine in India, Churchill’s Secret War , simply gets a mention in the bibliography); and readers are advised that “the debate about why the famine happened may never be fully resolved” (page 212).
For a study seeking to retrieve the voices of those excluded from previous historical accounts, Yasmin Khan’s book emerges as strangely impotent when it comes to unearthing the lived experience of Indian famine victims. Madhusree Mukerjee’s combination of archival research with fieldwork in rural Bengal geared to interviewing survivors of the famine (whose memories were sharp even six decades later) shows how larger political processes and grass-roots, famine-front stories can be interwoven to powerful, illuminating effect. While there is truth in Yasmin Khan’s observation that “the voices of the famine are still muted in the historical record”, her view that famine victims “have often remained undifferentiated, pitied but lacking distinctive faces, personalities and desires” (page 208) seems at odds not only with available research but also with a long line of artistic, literary, theatrical, film and journalistic efforts to identify, honour and do justice to those who perished.This lapse seems related to a more general problem: the book’s relentless pursuit of the grail of “capturing it all”. From beginning to end, it strives to be panoramic, comprehensive, all-encompassing. At first beguiling, this profusion and richness of texture gradually begins to weary and bewilder. As if peering into a kaleidoscope, the reader is subject to abrupt shifts in focus; an interesting pattern or discussion takes shape, only to be displaced by the next image.
Take, for example, pages 132-157. We’re tracking the failure of the Cripps Mission. Click. Now we’re with Jinnah, whose “moment” has allegedly arrived. Click. We’re finding out how militarised Indian society has become in the context of war. Click. Now we’re off on a brief trip to the Princely States. Click. A chapter about Allied soldiers in India: British Tommies complain about the filth and flies of Bombay before (click) we’re into a discussion of prostitution and venereal disease. While some readers may bask in this multiplicity, for others the cumulative effect of piling on the detail may result in sensual overload.
In his 1981 essay “In Search of People’s History”, the historian Eric Hobsbawm explored what was then the new genre of “people’s history” or “history from below”. The term “the people”, he argued, “combines the maximum of emotional resonance with the minimum of precision in defining the multiple and overlapping meanings it conceals. It is a badge, not a technical term”. Accordingly, “people’s history” is “anything on which this badge can be pinned”.
Applying this insight to Yasmin Khan’s study reveals an underlying confusion of purpose. For a start, lack of clarity surrounds the identity of the “people” of the subtitle. If meant to denote the people of India, this sits awkwardly with the inclusion of so many non-Indian testimonies and recollections. Perhaps the writer had in mind a broader definition, embracing all the people present in the subcontinent during the course of the war.
But the book’s preface suggests something different again: by specifying the need to focus on those largely excluded from historical accounts, Yasmin Khan appears to place her project in the genre of history from below: “histoire des masses et non de vedettes” (history of the masses and not of starlets), as Lucien Febvre famously put it. This in turn is contradicted by the extensive use made of testimony from the educated, articulate and socially advantaged; the memoirs of Aruna Asaf Ali make frequent appearances. Or should the book be understood as history for people: an attempt to offer a popular account, arrestingly vivid and readily accessible to ordinary readers?
At the end of her book, Yasmin Khan devotes a page or two to the war’s tumultuous Indian aftermath: the Indian National Army (INA) trials, the naval mutinies of 1946, the general mood of unease as battle-hardened troops returned to a country they found ravaged by hunger, scarcity and privation. This might have stimulated an attempt to pull threads together, a return to the question (posed at the outset) of the ways in which the war “determined so many aspects of decolonisation and Partition”. But the author retreats from such a challenge. “Our own understanding of this global war, and appreciation of its severity, is enhanced by realising its fullest extent,” she concludes, adding that progress towards full spectrum vision will of course require more research.
Such a finale will be anti-climactic for readers anticipating a discussion in which major findings are presented and lessons drawn. But it would not have surprised Hobsbawm, consummate explorer and analyst of large, teeming canvases. He saw people’s history as “largely inspirational … a transformation of the past, through identification, into an everyday epic”. Therein, he suggested, lay its strength and its weakness: “The problem about this kind of history … is that it sacrifices analysis and explanation to celebration and identification.”