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India is being erased from history Modern historians perpetuate a cycle of victimhood

Victims of unconscious bias? (A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Victims of unconscious bias? (A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


November 2, 2021   5 mins

Whenever I give a lecture in India about the Second World War, I encounter the same awkward problem: more than 75 years since it concluded, the country remains reluctant to discuss its involvement in the conflict. This is because, I am frequently reminded, India did not exist before independence in 1947; everything that happened in the region involved another, far distant, country.

For Indian nationalists, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the subcontinent was tainted by an Islam that has subsequently exported itself to Pakistan and Bangladesh. And secondly, it was part of the Raj, and thus tainted by Britain. It is politically unbecoming, then, to equate a sense of Indian-hood with what Marxist historians in the West and Hindu nationalists in India tell us was India’s slave status.

As a British historian researching India’s role in the Second World War, I’ve encountered this view repeatedly. And not just in India; to be fair, it is equally rampant in the UK, especially in parts of academia. But it is hardly logical. In fact, it is deeply unhelpful.

The problem is that the post-colonial interpretation makes slaves of Indians. It argues that they had no personal control of their destiny because their government was in the hands of others. When the British declared war, India became an unwilling participant. This argument, simply stated, is that the colonial government, together with its systems, structures, cultures and attitudes, were deeply and inherently exploitative, such that it cannot properly be argued that colonial intentions were anything other than unfair and abusive.

In this view, Indian men fought and strived against their will, even though they weren’t fully aware of it, as cultural coercion blinded them to the reality that they were fighting a British war against Britain’s enemies. The absurdity of this argument suggests, to give but one example, that the efforts of Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, to raise the pay of Indian Commissioned Officers to the levels of their British colleagues in 1943 and 1944 were for the purpose of buying their loyalty rather than of giving them equality with their peers.

It is also seriously suggested in some quarters that the offer of money likewise persuaded millions of otherwise impoverished Indians to sign up for war work during the industrial expansion of India. According to this narrative, illiterate peasants knew no better than to take the financial bribes offered in exchange for their labour. It is argued that others were forced by convention and the belief that family and personal honour depended on a military career. Millions of men thus became mercenaries of the British, subject to intense and relentless propaganda which bound their minds and wills in an unprecedented and highly successful, coercive, manipulation.

Rather than being taken as fact, these assertions must be recognised for what they are: exaggerations and political point-scoring, with the purpose of proving that the Raj was evil and that the Indians who willingly fought against fascism and totalitarianism weren’t doing so for India, but because they were forced against their conscious will to do so.

It needn’t matter that there is no evidence that 2.5 million men joined the Indian Army between 1939-45 as the result of what one leading historian described as a “propaganda offensive” by the British government which “secured the partial allegiance or at least acquiescence of part of the population”. This argument fails to explain why the men thus recruited were prepared to die for this compulsion, and why Indian soldiers went on to win 22 of the 34 Victoria and George Crosses awarded, for example, during the Burma Campaign.

Instead, it seems rational to conclude that most Indians who joined the armed forces did so because they had weighed up the options and assessed the nature of the sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of the government in India, regardless of its political colour. In this sense, their decision was made on the basis of a conception of India much larger than the framework of politics as it existed within Indian polity at the time. Even before 1947, the threat to their conception of what India was and could be therefore far outweighed the rights and wrongs in their minds of colonialism, if the issue or argument ever surfaced at all.

The truth is that reality trumped ideology in the face of the imminent and existential danger to the Indian state by the Japanese. Most Indians accepted that the Raj was, rightly or wrongly, or for the time being, the legally constituted Government of India. Like all governments, it had supporters and opponents. Few who opposed it on nationalistic or self-governance grounds questioned its legitimacy, as that would have invalidated their own claim to be its successor in due course. Likewise, the Indian Army was India’s army, not Britain’s.

As Professor Roger Beaumont has observed, “it is most interesting to weigh the charges that the Raj built its army in India as an oppressive instrument against what one sees in how lovingly and energetically the Indians have retained the model”. Rather, the evidence suggests that the theory of “prosaic oppression” and its common language of “unconscious bias and systemic structures of power” is a fabricated political construct that does not relate to everyday human experience in colonial India. The facts are being squeezed to fit within a fixed and unbending theoretical, political and ideological model.

It was true that India did not have political independence, but in every other sense the freedom to make social, economic and political choices within this environment cannot be said to have been constrained by such oppression that human agency was so deviously manipulated to suit ruling British interests. Young Indian men and young Britons both joined the Indian Army for the same purpose in times of peace; for adventure, employment, the lure of military glory, the age-old attraction of the sword.

Indians were no more victims of their polity than were Britons, both of whom were, of course, victims of the fascist militarism that dragged the world into a second great slaughter of world war. The tyranny to which some refer, if it relates to anything, can only do so to the prosaic constraints of ordinary civic society — such as obeying the law, as can be seen during the Quit India protests in 1942 — rather than that of an unbending and devious oppression.

Looking back at the imperial period through the lens of victimhood is therefore deeply problematic both historically and philosophically. It ensures that we never see the 350 million Indians of the time as they saw themselves, collectively or individually: as a people with acute political agency (as evidenced by the burgeoning nationalist movement), on a journey to self-rule. Likewise, it treats every Briton in India at the time, every level of power exercised and every action undertaken in response to a decision by London or Delhi, as oppressive. It also forgets that agency in imperial power relationships is never one-sided; for instance, it ignores the importance of Indian political, social and economic agency in the Twenties and Thirties (combined with Japan’s pricking of the imperial bubble) in enabling India to achieve independence in 1947.

Our sense today of the size of the nationalist protest against colonial rule has almost certainly exaggerated its impact on ordinary people. This is not to underestimate its ultimate importance, rather the influence it had on the behaviour of men considering joining the armed forces, and the impact it had on those who had already enlisted. History remembers the noisy minority, whose views tend to be over-represented in any analysis of the past, while generally neglecting those without a voice.

Fortunately, nationalism and respect for the Government’s legitimate role in defending India (even a colonial one) were not mutually exclusive in 1942, or the ranks of the Armed Forces might have remained empty, and India’s door opened for the Japanese to march in. Perhaps it is precisely because the ranks of the army were so large between 1942 and 1945 that so much effort is generated today in post-colonial studies in explaining away why these men joined in such numbers and with such alacrity.

India, therefore, has every right to recover the history of the pre-1947 period, for it was then that the foundations of modern India were established. The Japanese in Assam and Manipur in 1944 and in Burma in 1945 were defeated by an Army that was 87% Indian. Victory in Asia could never have taken place without Indians coming forward in large numbers, and of their own volition, to serve their country. And that is surely something in which India can take great pride.


Robert Lyman is a British military historian and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain: 1941–45.

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

As a result of tracing my family tree I ended up reading the autobiography of a fairly obscure distant relative, Lt-General Sir John Sprot, who served out in India during the period of the Raj.
He served as an Engineer in India and was involved in road building to relieve famine. What was striking was the fact that he differed radically from the popular image of the snobbish racist army officer presented in contemporary popular narrative. He described his best friend in India as a native Indian advisor to one of the local rulers. He expressed admiration for the building techniques of native builders. During the Mutiny he travelled freely about India on his own and never felt himself to be at risk because Indians would reliably advise him which areas to avoid and which were unaffected by the Mutiny. He equally expressed horror at the way the mutineers were killed tied at the muzzle of cannons.
It seems unlikely that he was wholly untypical of army officers serving in India else he would surely not have risen to the rank of Lt-General had he been an untypical outlier.
The British were able to rule in India because they were able to secure the cooperation of large sections of the Indian population. Oppression alone could not have secured this. Where they ultimately more foreign than the Mughals who proceeded them?

Last edited 2 years ago by Jeremy Bray
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Exactly.

mac mahmood
mac mahmood
6 hours ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The Mughals were foreign only in so far as they were, to start with, immigrants. In time they went, to use a colonial phrase, native. Therein lies the difference. However all Hindu nationalists consider them as foreigners.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I spent a good deal of my childhood in the tail end of the Raj, and it was the most fantastic time really. My father being part of the Western Technocrats who were giving the infrastructure building aid, roads, dams, and the commercial oil, and other things, the Native people were always very hospitable, the ones we knew very intellectual and gracious and dignified.

We never felt any anger towards us, we would go anywhere, to the most remote places where few of the children had seen a car – they would all run along riding on the fenders, massing on – and helpful if needing a camel or ox to pull your car out of the river ford, or sand. It was another world, and one which had many good and fine aspects which are gone forever today.

My 96 year old mother now lives with me, I brought her to USA from her home in London to permanently stay here last December, and she lives in my guest cottage by my house. This April her things from a lifetime arrived in big pallets – Persian Carpets, Mongol swords and shields, thousands of slides, an Afghan Jezail, carvings, art, just all manner of things collected from 70 years. Most of it remains boxed still, the stuff from the end of an empire……

And what do you do with it……almost all high grade stuff, but of not much value, and it is a poignant fact of the past we lived, of a world which no longer exists, and soon neither will she, and I am getting old too, this stuff so far from where it was relevant really.

Patrick Heren
Patrick Heren
2 years ago

My father switched from the British Army to the Indian Army in late 1942. He found himself an officer in a crack Indian Army armoured regiment with a proud cavalry heritage. When he arrived, the colonel was an Indian, as were more than half the officers. The soldiers – two squadrons Punjabi Muslims and one squadron of Punjabi Sikhs – were, he said later, the bravest and most disciplined men he encountered in the war. The squadrons were segregated because they ate different food, but otherwise they were entirely united. They saw a lot of action, up to the recapture of Mandalay and beyond. The Indian soldiers loathed the Japanese. They were fighting to defend India, which, they all knew, would soon gain its independence. His closest friend in the regiment was an Indian officer who later was one of the defence attaches in the new Indian High Commission in London post independence, and as such, wearing Indian army uniform, was able to be my father’s best man at his wedding in 1948.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

Rather, the evidence suggests that the theory of “prosaic oppression” and its common language of “unconscious bias and systemic structures of power” is a fabricated political construct… 
Amen. Post colonial theory is one of a number of critical social justice ‘theories’. Using the term ‘theory’ – even in the neo marxian critical sense – is misguided. In my view they are speculations and as such could be called critical social justice speculations. As such, post colonial ‘theory’ is post colonial speculation.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

Oh look, another failure to mention the 1/3rd of India ruled by its own people.

Last edited 2 years ago by Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
2 years ago

The road to modernity has been tough for most countries. India is no exception. The ones we don’t know about are still not modern; they are third world and have it tough for that reason. “Colonialism” is a funny word that doesn’t really capture the entirety of the relationship. In the end, demographics are the more potent force and “reverse colonization” is proving to be more potent than colonization itself.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

For starters, India was never a colony.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

That rather depends on your definition doesn’t it? India wasn’t, as were the ‘white colonies’, colonised by large numbers of British emigrants, but then neither were the African colonies. British colonialism was very contingent and a real mixed bag.

India was however politically, and until the last few decades of the Raj, economically subservient to the interests of Great Britain

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

2.5M Indians served in the Armed Forces, with many medals for bravery being won including VCs and GCs and that there was no uprising against British rule in WW2, showed that many Britons had earned the respect and loyalty of the majority of Indians. Indians considered the Army an honourable profession and once the oath of loyalty was made it was invariably kept, even in a Japanese POW Camp.
Many Indian and Pakistani regiments continue traditions started by the British- they still come to Sandhurst for competitions.
Few British Marxists volunteered for combat in WW2( a fact noted by G Orwell- Isherwood and Auden for example ) and I doubt even less led Indians into combat. When it comes to Indian Nationalists I wonder how many have ancestors who saw combat in in WW2, especially those who won medals for bravery?
All countries have divides. In India the difference in character between the tough fit military person and the sedentary academic is massive and they often come from different areas. Is the rewriting of history an attempt by the sedentary academic to gain status over the militarty type and reverse the roles they had under The Raj ?

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

Why doesn’t this article mention the Indian National Army?
43.000 men fighting on the Japanese side to expel the Brits.
Relevant, surely.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_National_Army

Patrick Heren
Patrick Heren
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

It’s a good point, but think of the circumstances. 45,000 Indian Army troops were captured during the catastrophic British defeat in Malaya and Singapore in 1942. POW’s were appallingly treated by the Japanese. Faced with a choice between being worked to death or fighting under the Japanese for the “liberation of India”, 43,000 chose the latter. They were fed a lot of propaganda. They did not perform well as the INA, in marked contrast to their fellows in the Indian Army.

Manu Sankar
Manu Sankar
1 year ago

British India Army had recruited from the so called “martial races” centered in Punjab, Rajasthan, and the Himalayan region. Generations of young men from the same families had joined the British Army. They were certainly not slaves. Even today, same tradition goes on. There are still villages in Haryana, Himachal or in Punjab, where every single able bodied young man wants to join the Army.

The issue of the India’s role in World War Two is therefore a political one. The Government of India Act, 1935 had provided India with a representative government. In 1937 provincial elections, Indian National Congress had won majority of the seats. However, when the war broke out in 1939, Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared India’s entry into the war without consulting any of the elected leaders. Congress obviously saw this as a slap in the face and went on to launch Quit India Movement.

It is for this reason post-Independence India don’t celebrate Indian contributions to World War 2. We don’t even have an official Remembrance Day for World War 2 in India and I don’t even think there is any need.  After all, the British famously made promises of Home Rule during the First World War to get Indian support and conveniently ignored it after war was won. The reason British had to leave India in 1947 is because by then, the loyalty of the Indian military has started to waiver. The famous Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 (which this article conveniently ignored) shattered any sense loyalty and reliability Indian Armed Forces have towards Britain. Thus, we get the Attlee’s 1946 Cabinet Mission to India and Independence in 1947.

Manu Sankar
Manu Sankar
1 year ago

British India Army had recruited from the so called “martial races” centered in Punjab, Rajasthan, and the Himalayan region. Generations of young men from the same families had joined the British Army. They were certainly not slaves. Even today, same tradition goes on. There are still villages in Haryana, Himachal or in Punjab, where every single able bodied young man wants to join the Army.

The issue of the India’s role in World War Two is therefore a political one. The Government of India Act, 1935 had provided India with a representative government. In 1937 provincial elections, Indian National Congress had won majority of the seats. However, when the war broke out in 1939, Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared India’s entry into the war without consulting any of the elected leaders. Congress obviously saw this as a slap in the face and went on to launch Quit India Movement.

It is for this reason post-Independence India don’t celebrate Indian contributions to World War 2. We don’t even have an official Remembrance Day for World War 2 in India and I don’t even think there is any need.  After all, the British famously made promises of Home Rule during the First World War to get Indian support and conveniently ignored it after war was won. The reason British had to leave India in 1947 is because by then, the loyalty of the Indian military has started to waiver. The famous Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 (which this article conveniently ignored) shattered any sense loyalty and reliability Indian Armed Forces have towards Britain. Thus, we get the Attlee’s 1946 Cabinet Mission to India and Independence in 1947.

Sayantani Gupta Jafa
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
1 year ago

As an Indian who had relatives in both the armed forces as well as the civil service in British India I mostly agree with you.
However there were complications like the INA and the Naval Revolt of 1946 which donot help a trope of remembering the bravery of our loyal to colonials troops of the era.
A quibble is your cliched reference to the current government as ” Hindu nationalist “. That is a truism favoured by the post colonial Marxist academia you otherwise seem to counter.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sayantani Gupta Jafa
Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
2 years ago

Indians were no more victims of their polity than were Britons, both of whom were, of course, victims of the fascist militarism that dragged the world into a second great slaughter of world war.”
“Of course” is always a giveaway. The one valid point this makes is that Britons and Indians had the same interests. Not just in opposing ‘fascist militarism’, but in opposing both sides in the imperialist war.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

A non choice. Failure to fight actual existing fascism, however flawed the Allied nations were, would have meant the former’s triumph.

I’m pretty surprised anyone is still regurgitating this tired Marxist jargon.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Ess Arr
Ess Arr
2 years ago

Gosh, what a stupid article. Maybe most Indians joined the army because it was a paying job, one of very few that Indians could get. The Raj destroyed Indian livelihoods, perhaps on purpose, in order to drive them toward the army and death.

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

ramaswamisita, doesn’t India still have a problem with famine and sewage ?

Ess Arr
Ess Arr
2 years ago

Really? When was the last major famine? Oh right – 1943, the one engineered by Churchill.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

I refer you to the article here on the Bengal Famine (I believe this is the one to which you are referring)
https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/churchill-and-the-bengal-famine/

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

It wasn’t ‘engineered’.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

Indian nationalists always make me laugh in their unwavering hatred of the evil British Empire but methinks they doth protest too much. They also seem to have expunged the Mughal Empire from their collective memory – the invaders who slaughtered Hindus and Buddhists in their 100s of millions, to the point where a whole new religion sprung up to resist them. The Sikhs. Which might explain the Sikhs loyalty to the British Empire, for which we are very grateful.

https://www.sikhnet.com/news/islamic-india-biggest-holocaust-world-history

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Absolutely.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

The Sikh website is, dare I say, a little one-sided. But they are a splendid, brave and noble people to whom we in the UK owe a considerable debt.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

The Raj did indeed restrain Indian industrial development much of the time, no doubt, which the British but not the Mughals could possibly have engendered had they wished to earlier. But then again Gandhi thought such development was un-Indian and that cottage industry was the way to go in an independent India which would have left India as impoverished as much of it still is.

I love India, but perhaps it is now time for the nation to deal in a more open and honest way with its many many entirely self inflicted problems, including the still extremely widespread caste system, beatings and murders of lower caste people, discrimination against Muslims, misogyny and rape on a grand scale, repression of minorities, corruption, etc etc, none of which can realistically be blamed on the dastardly Brits.

And who exactly was it who forced rampaging gangs to kill hundreds of thousands of people during the Partition?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Britain introduced the Industrial Revolution to India, for example railways.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

And who exactly was it who forced rampaging gangs to kill hundreds of thousands of people during the Partition?
This is a question I’ve often asked; it seems to imply that certain outcomes are inevitable. a simple cause and effect – drop a pencil and it falls to the ground. However, there is such a thing as human action and intervention; people can decide to do or not do something.I’ve heard the same argument (or assertion) put forward about terrorism in this country; the government does something (e.g. invade Iraq) and the inevitable outcome is someone blows up their fellow citizens. This not a cause and effect, someone makes a decision to to this and are therefore responsible, the British government is responsible for what happened in Iraq, not a London bombing. Of course, if one is an absolute determinist then all bets are off.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Muslims in the Punjab organised various groups and the Hindus, groups such as RSS.Indian Civil Servants warned about the dangers of communal violence which Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru downplayed. Local leaders in mixed neighbourhoods undertook acts of violence to force others to flee, especially where the Muslim Hindu plus Sikh population was close to parity. Demographics is destiny in a democracy. Nehrus refused to allow British soldiers and police to be used to quell the riots. I think the original date for British departure was 1948 but was brought forward to 1947. My Father was in Calcutta in 1947 and he said he saw more dead bodies than in 5.5 years of war.
The Muslim and Hindu leaders decided to ignore what regional leaders were up to in these areas where the religious divide was close to parity such as the Punjab and Bengal/Calcutta.
There was an Indian saying ” What could have been stopped by 300 in the morning could not be stopped by 3000 in the afternoon”.