One often finds writers in New Delhi today professing to be “strategic experts”. But rarely does one come across a relatively young analyst being as thoughtful and erudite on questions of war, peace and national strategy, as Dr Srinath Raghavan.
His book India’s War—The Making of South Asia (1939-1945) is a comprehensive account of how a 2.5 million-strong Indian Army was raised, trained, equipped and deployed, to fight during the Second World War. This was the largest volunteer force in human history, raised to fight for a colonial power, against the forces of German Fascism and Japanese Imperialism. When the war ended, independent India inherited a disciplined army, with capable, battle-hardened officers and men. This army has served the country well, with loyalty, valour and distinction.
This build-up of the Indian Army occurred when the country’s freedom fighters and political parties were divided on how they should respond to a call to war by Imperial Britain. Raghavan dwells on how the British astutely used fissures in the Indian polity to their advantage, with their classic ploy of “divide and rule”. The Congress agitations, led by Mahatma Gandhi, faced solid roadblocks, caused by Jinnah and a large number of rulers of the country’s 565 Princely States. Then, there was the determination of Netaji Subhas Bose to make common cause with the Axis Powers, Germany and Japan, to overthrow British Rule, much to the consternation of Mahatma Gandhi.
What primarily shaped the British approach to developments in India during WW II was Churchill’s determination to quell opposition to colonial rule. Raghavan focuses on global events, which shaped the course of Indian involvement in the war. He dwells at length on the US, where there was a measure of support for the demands of Congress party for a greater say in governance during the war. But President Roosevelt was not willing to challenge Churchill’s obstinacy, on this score.
The initial threat to British in India was seen arising from the German moves to seize control of the oil-rich countries to India’s west. There are detailed accounts of battle strategies in Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Ethiopia, to the oil-rich Iraq and Iran. The battle lines moved eastwards when Japan conquered Malaysia and Singapore, and moved from Burma into India’s Northeast, to Manipur and Nagaland. Raghavan brilliantly describes the battles in each of these sectors.
A must-read for those joining the Indian armed forces and who wish to understand the evolution of India’s strategic thinking and foreign policies. India’s British rulers were forced to ‘look east’ when the Japanese reached the country’s borders. During that time, China’s supreme leader Chiang Kai-shek supported India’s struggle for independence and sought Nehru’s cooperation in China’s war effort against Imperial Japan. India and Japan, however, cooperate today in the face of an aggressive China, as India continues to “look east”!
Raghavan concludes India cannot play its due role across Asia, unless it integrates economically and strategically, with its SAARC neighbours. Such thinking of “liberal intelligentsia” in Delhi is questionable. India’s place and influence in the world will be determined by its economic and military strength and its political resilience.