Book Review: India At War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War


by Yasmin Khan

New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 416. Illus., chron., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0199753490

India’s War Behhind the Front

Author of the prize winning The Great Partition, Prof. Khan (Kellogg College, Oxford) offers a look at the Indian Empire in World War II, from the Indian perspective. It is not specifically a book about India’s forces on the fighting fronts, a subject already rather well treated, but rather explores the effects of the global conflict on India.

While not neglecting the role of Indian troops in many theatres, Khan , concentrates on how and why the war affected India’s economic, social, environmental, cultural, institutions. Naturally Khan discusses the problems of raising a massive army, which strained manpower resources needed for other purposes. She also looks at how the war furthered the industrialization of India, such as increasing the need for munitions plants or aircraft repair shops, which caused the economy to boom, though primarily benefiting only a few. Khan also discusses the political problems engendered by the war, and as rifts developed among the leaders of the growing independence movement over whether to support or oppose the British war effort, while some even sought to join their cause to that of the Axis. Her discussion of the terrible famine in Bengal during the war, engendered in part by wartime shortages of food and shipping, but certainly worsened by colonialist indifference and even arrogance, is particularly grim, and she throws light on the surprising demographic upheaval that war caused, as not only did millions of young men leave their homes, and even India, to serve, but millions more men and women migrated to cities or other places, to seek employment in war industry. There’s much more, of course.

In telling this story, Khan brings in people from all levels of society, poor women trying to make ends meet with husbands and sons at war, the amazingly unqualified Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, soldiers (Indian, British, African-American, and more), rajahs, of laborers, and many more, including the leaders of the independence movement, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, and even the collaborator Bose.

Although not for the casual reader, India at War is an important work for any serious student of the Second World War, the last days of the Raj, and emergence of modern South Asia.

Note: India at War is also available in e-book format.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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