Amnesia or Fantasy? The Indian Contribution in the Second World War

Amnesia or Fantasy? The Indian Contribution in the Second World War

Indi­an amne­sia? “Dunkirk, the War, and the Amne­sia of the Empire,” by Yas­min Khan. New York Times, 2 August 2017.


We should be grate­ful to Pro­fes­sor Yas­min Khan. Why? Because in deplor­ing the absence of Indi­an troops in the new movie Dunkirk, and the trag­ic 1943 Ben­gal famine, she blames “the impe­r­i­al state,” not the usu­al cul­prit, Win­ston Churchill:

At least three mil­lion Ben­galis died in a cat­a­stroph­ic famine in 1943, a famine that is almost nev­er dis­cussed. The famine’s caus­es were a byprod­uct of the war, but as Mad­hus­ree Muk­er­jee has proved in her book Churchill’s Secret War, the impe­r­i­al state also failed to deliv­er relief. Many sol­diers signed up as vol­un­teers to fill their belly.

Curi­ous­ly, the link above is a semi-cri­tique in Harpers, itself a mix­ture of truth and coun­ter­fac­tu­als. For a bal­anced review of Churchill’s Secret War, see Arthur Her­man, “Absent Churchill, India’s 1943 Famine Would Have Been Worse.” (Arthur Her­man was nom­i­nat­ed for a Pulitzer for his book Gand­hi & Churchillan ele­gant account of the two lead­ers. It cap­tures both Churchill’s gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it and Gandhi’s great­ness of soul.)

An endless supply of victims…

Yes, the film leaves out Indi­an troops at Dunkirk. But why stop there in the quest for vic­tims? The film omits the Cana­di­ans. It doesn’t show one Bel­gian! Except for a cou­ple of nurs­es, it leaves out women. (A gal­lant band of female tele­phon­ists of the Aux­il­iary Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Ser­vice were among the last off the beach­es. Hero­ic women were in some of the res­cue craft. Oth­ers worked 24/7 in Admi­ral Ram­say‘s Dover bunker, which direct­ed the operation.)

If we are going to accuse Britons of amne­sia over the Indi­an war effort, we ought at least to grasp the facts. Like Prof. Khan, we begin with the 1943 Ben­gal Famine. Arthur Her­man was right: with­out Churchill and his cab­i­net, it would have been worse. See also the Indi­an his­to­ri­an Zareer Masani: “Last Word on the Ben­gal Famine,” 2021.

Churchill mined his resources for Indi­an food supplies—amidst glob­al con­flict, strained ship­ping, hos­tile U-boats, and short­ages every­where. He even tried to sub­sti­tute Iraqi bar­ley, which Indi­ans wouldn’t eat. In vain he plead­ed for help from Roo­sevelt. He got much from Aus­tralia. Not all of Australia’s grain ships bypassed India, as the author of Churchill’s Secret War has stated.

To tell the truth…

It is quite untrue that “the impe­r­i­al state failed to deliv­er relief.” The oppo­site is the case. Vast sup­plies of grain reached Indi­an ports. There are oth­er vil­lains in the sto­ry. The Japan­ese seem always to escape blame—yet their inroads into Bur­ma and India had much to do with the short­ages. So did hoard­ing by Indi­an grain mer­chants. Before accus­ing “the Impe­r­i­al state” of starv­ing the Ben­galis, one ought to con­sid­er more than one dis­cred­it­ed book.

After the British left the gov­ern­ment con­tained famines (1967, 1973, 1979, and 1987 in Bihar, Maha­rash­tra, West Ben­gal, and Gujarat respec­tive­ly).  That is great­ly to India’s cred­it. Of course there was no glob­al war going on. There were no Japan­ese sub­marines tor­pe­do­ing car­go ships in the Bay of Bengal.

The famine is not “almost nev­er dis­cussed.” The evi­dence is there for any researcher to con­sid­er. See for exam­ple “Did Churchill Cause the Ben­gal Famine?” (Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project). Review the proof itself  in Hillsdale’s The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Vol­ume 19 (scroll this link to “Ben­gal Famine”).  Read Arthur Herman’s Finest Hour arti­cle. Con­sult “Churchill and the Ben­gal Famine” on this site. The record is clear. Again and again and again.

Churchill on Indian contributions

Since Prof. Khan is con­cerned about British “amne­sia” over Indi­an con­tri­bu­tions in the Sec­ond World War, per­haps this will enlight­en her. Author Muk­er­jee often quotes Churchill’s post­war asser­tion: “India was car­ried through the strug­gle on the shoul­ders of our small island.” That quote is bad­ly trun­cat­ed. Pray con­sid­er the full con­text. (Chap­ter XII, The Hinge of Fate, 1951):

British Gov­ern­ment offi­cials in India were wont to con­sid­er it a point of hon­our to cham­pi­on the par­tic­u­lar inter­ests of India against those of Great Britain when­ev­er a diver­gence occurred…. Con­tracts were fixed in India at extrav­a­gant rates, and debts incurred in inflat­ed rupees were con­vert­ed into so-called “ster­ling bal­ances” at the pre-war rate of exchange…. we were being charged near­ly a mil­lion pounds a day for defend­ing India from the mis­eries of inva­sion which so many oth­er lands endured. We fin­ished the war, from all the worst sever­i­ties of which they were spared, owing them a debt almost as large as that on which we default­ed to the Unit­ed States after the pre­vi­ous struggle.

Memo­r­i­al to the Indi­an Army at St. Paul’s Cathe­dral. (Pho­to by Andrew Roberts)

It is worth adding that the Indi­an Army was pro­fes­sion­al and vol­un­teer, made up of those who chose it as a career, unlike con­scripts from Britain who had no choice.

In Victory, Magnanimity

Churchill’s mag­na­nim­i­ty will out. Those who accuse him of racist dis­re­gard for the Indi­an peo­ple might look at what he writes next. Think about it:

But all this is only the back­ground upon which the glo­ri­ous hero­ism and mar­tial qual­i­ties of the Indi­an troops who fought in the Mid­dle East, who defend­ed Egypt, who lib­er­at­ed Abyssinia, who played a grand part in Italy, and who, side by side with their British com­rades, expelled the Japan­ese from Bur­ma…. The loy­al­ty of the Indi­an Army to the King-Emper­or, the proud fideli­ty to their treaties of the Indi­an Princes, the unsur­passed brav­ery of Indi­an sol­diers and offi­cers, both Moslem and Hin­du, shine for ever in the annals of war….

Near­ly three mil­lion Indi­ans vol­un­teered to serve in the forces, and by 1942 an Indi­an Army of one mil­lion was in being, and vol­un­teers were com­ing in at the month­ly rate of fifty thou­sand…. the response of the Indi­an peo­ples, no less than the con­duct of their sol­diers, makes a glo­ri­ous final page in the sto­ry of our Indi­an Empire.

The Indi­an and oth­er mon­u­ments at the Memo­r­i­al Gates, Lon­don. See com­ments below, and (Car­charoth, Cre­ative Commons)

6 thoughts on “Amnesia or Fantasy? The Indian Contribution in the Second World War

  1. @Pravin Wil­son: In addi­tion to the St. Paul’s Memo­r­i­al and Memo­r­i­al Gates pic­tured in the arti­cle, Britain has a memo­r­i­al for Indi­an sol­diers, the Chat­tri in Brighton, that is more than a cen­tu­ry old. 

    Nor have Britons in any way neglect­ed the con­tri­bu­tions of Indi­ans, from the Great Man him­self to even Michael Hes­el­tine. In his book Toward Resur­gent India, Lt. Gen. M. M. Lakhera PVSM AVSM VSM writes:

    I had gone to UK in 1995 as Deputy Leader of the Indi­an Del­e­ga­tion to take part in the 50th Anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tions of the vic­to­ry in Europe dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. I, along with four oth­er Army offi­cers, had just stepped out after attend­ing the inau­gur­al ses­sion and were wait­ing on the road­side for the traf­fic to ease so as to walk across the road to the vehi­cle park. Among those with me was Hon­orary Cap­tain Umrao Singh, a Vic­to­ria Cross win­ner. All of a sud­den, a car mov­ing on the road came to a halt in front of us and a well-dressed gen­tle­man stepped out.

    He approached Umrao Singh and said, “Sir, may I have the priv­i­lege of shak­ing hands with the Vic­to­ria Cross [win­ner]?” Evi­dent­ly he had spot­ted Umrao Singh’s medal from his car and had stopped to pay his respect to a win­ner of Britain’s high­est gal­lantry medal. Then he looked at me and said, “Gen­er­al, you are from the Indi­an Army.” When I replied in the affir­ma­tive, he gave out his name, say­ing that he was Michael Hes­el­tine. I was absolute­ly astound­ed, as the recog­ni­tion dawned on me that he was about to become Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister. 

    I was total­ly over­awed by such cour­tesy shown by such a dig­ni­tary, and humbly thanked him for hav­ing invit­ed our del­e­ga­tion for the VE-Day func­tion. Again, his reply was typ­i­cal of his sagac­i­ty: “Gen­er­al, it is we, the British, who should be grate­ful to your coun­try and your Armed Forces, who had helped us win both the First and the Sec­ond World Wars. How could we be ever so ungrate­ful as to for­get your country’s great contribution?’

    Sud­den­ly I became con­scious that all the traf­fic behind his car had come to stand­still. I hur­ried to thank him and polite­ly request­ed him to move along to relieve the traf­fic hold-up. He stat­ed, “Sir, how dare I dri­ve off when [the] Vic­to­ria Cross has to cross the road?” Real­iz­ing his gen­uine feel­ing I and my col­leagues quick­ly crossed the road. Reach­ing the oth­er side I looked back and saw that Mr. Hes­el­tine still stand­ing, wait­ing for the Vic­to­ria Cross to be safe­ly across.

    Twen­ty-nine Vic­to­ria Cross­es were award­ed to Indi­ans. Of these, 19 were award­ed for val­our in the pres­ence of the ene­my in the Sec­ond World War. Thir­teen VCs were award­ed to the Nepalese, nine for val­our in the Sec­ond World War. 

    The truth remains that only a minor­i­ty of Indi­ans were against the British, and few­er still hat­ed them as you imply. There’s a rea­son why Britons [women and chil­dren includ­ed] num­bered no more than 0.06% of the subcontinent’s pop­u­la­tion. And also why, 250 of 395 arti­cles in the Republic’s con­sti­tu­tion were tak­en ver­ba­tim from the Gov­ern­ment of India Act passed by the British Par­lia­ment in 1935.

  2. Real­ly? If Churchill and any of Britain were so appre­cia­tive, show me one mon­u­ment in Eng­land to Indi­ans who “fought” for Britain. Only some­one deranged would “vol­un­teer” to fight for the British who all the while were col­o­niz­ing and dai­ly impov­er­ish­ing and treat­ing Indi­ans like dogs while enrich­ing them­selves. Show me one famine that occurred after the British left. Show me. Where ever the Brits went they enriched them­selves and impov­er­ished peo­ple and ruined the coun­try, not to men­tion the wild life, etc. Churchill is a great hero only in the west, just like Mao is a great hero in Chi­na. He will always remain equal to or worse than Hitler in India. Same goes for all those Brits who went before him in ruin­ing India. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Churchill and the Brits this thing called the inter­net came along to help us all cor­rect the ver­sion of his­to­ry writ­ten by the Brits.
    Real­ly: Thanks to “this thing called the Inter­net,” you don’t have to remain in stag­ger­ing igno­rance. St. Paul’s has memo­ri­al­ized the Indi­an Army since the First World War. A giant Memo­r­i­al to Indi­an and Empire troops who fought in both World Wars is bang in the mid­dle of Lon­don between Buck­ing­ham Palace and Hyde Park Cor­ner. You can tell the mon­u­ment to Indi­an troops because it has the word “India” on it. Five regions of the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent are hon­ored: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pak­istan and Sri-Lan­ka. It’s on Con­sti­tu­tion Hill oppo­site Aps­ley House in pride of place close to the Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Bomber Com­mand mon­u­ments and not far from the Cana­di­an, though it’s larg­er, taller and more dis­tinc­tive than any of them. It was opened by HM the Queen in 2002. It is part of a Memo­r­i­al hon­or­ing hold­ers of the Vic­to­ria and George Cross­es, includ­ing many Indi­ans, whose images are rotat­ed on the Memo­r­i­al web­site:

    Far from being deranged, near­ly three mil­lion Indi­ans vol­un­teered to fight, the largest vol­un­teer army in the his­to­ry of mankind. They pre­sum­ably knew bet­ter than you about which side to choose. —RML

  3. The film “Dunkirk” was quite sur­re­al in oth­er ways. Any news­reel or pho­to of WW2 shows many sol­diers with a cig­a­rette hang­ing out of their mouths…and as for the pris­tine beach­es! There are a few min­utes of the Dunkirk beach­es shown in the film “Atone­ment” (2007) which are far more real­is­tic and cap­ture the mood of despair over the whole shambles.

  4. Thank you for your con­stant vig­i­lance in pro­tect­ing Win­ston Churchill’s good name from those who con­tin­u­al­ly seek to besmirch it.

  5. Any­one who fought against Nazi oppres­sion is to be applaud­ed. So many died to stop one man try­ing to change the world; imag­ine what it would have been like if he had achieved his ambi­tion. But now we have new prob­lems, which could solve all earth­ly mat­ters by a cat­a­stroph­ic nuclear exchange, turn­ing the earth into a burnt out plan­et hurtling away into obliv­ion. Been there done that. I am 93 years old and have peeped into the future. World War II was a pic­nic com­pare with what the next World War would be like.

  6. My grand­fa­ther proud­ly served with the Dins in the 27th Divi­sion dur­ing the Great War, or Cogadh Mor as he called it. As not­ed, over a mil­lion Indi­an sol­diers vol­un­teered for WW1 and over two mil­lion for WW2. In the lat­ter, most fought in Africa and lat­er Sici­ly and Italy and the Far East. Dur­ing WW1, Indi­an troops fought in the Balka­ns, Egypt, Pales­tine and Mesopotamia. Churchill nev­er for­got this vast con­tri­bu­tion. The major­i­ty were Sikhs and the Sikh and Gurkha reg­i­ments, as respect­ed and trust­ed as the best High­land or Cana­di­an reg­i­ments. My grand­fa­ther was of the opin­ion that Britain would have lost the First World War with­out Indi­an sup­port before the entry of the USA.

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