Colonial Divisions

India’s forgotten role in the Second World War

01 August 2015
More than 2.5 million troops were enlisted from the subcontinent. Nearly 90,000 perished, many of them in North Africa.
TOPICAL PRES AGENCY/ GETTY IMAGES
More than 2.5 million troops were enlisted from the subcontinent. Nearly 90,000 perished, many of them in North Africa.
TOPICAL PRES AGENCY/ GETTY IMAGES

ON 3 SEPTEMBER 1939, Subhas Chandra Bose was addressing a rally of 200,000 people by the oceanfront in the city now known as Chennai. The ambitious Congress leader had acquired an impressive national following. He could draw similar-sized crowds throughout the country, luring them with his charismatic style and his uncompromising demands for Indian freedom. During the speech, a member of the audience thrust an evening paper into his hand. Bose paused to glimpse the headline on the front page. War had broken out in Europe. It was the event that he, an inveterate opponent of the British, had eagerly anticipated. The moment, he would go on to write in his memoir, offered Indians “a unique opportunity for winning freedom.”

In India, Bose was a distinguished leftist with pronounced views on equality. He regarded Mohandas Gandhi’s wing of the party as too weak and too right-wing for his taste. Earlier that year, he had formed his own faction within the party, the Forward Bloc, to break Gandhi’s grip on the Congress and steer it in a more progressive direction. When it came to the wider world, however, Bose was an ultranationalist. For years, he had been busy ingratiating himself with Europe’s foremost fascists. He met Benito Mussolini multiple times in Italy, a fact he advertised with pride, provoking cringes from Jawaharlal Nehru who suspected Bose fancied himself a local variant of the Duce.

Nehru had travelled to Spain during the country’s civil war to express solidarity with the republican cause. In London, he spoke at anti-fascist rallies alongside leading British socialists. Bose, who by this time had developed a weakness for military uniforms, was unbothered by the character of the Italian and German regimes. Getting the British out was all that mattered to him. A fascist victory in Europe, he hoped, would break up the British Empire to finally deliver the dream of Indian independence.

Omar Waraich  has covered Pakistan since 2007, writing for TIME, the New Yorker, The Independent and others. He is a former SAIS-John Hopkins International Reporting Project Fellow.

COMMENT