Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War. Their experiences have been little remembered, either in the UK where a European/US-centric memory of the war dominates, or in modern South Asia where nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire have largely prevailed. In this post, RHS Past & Present Fellow Dr Diya Gupta, introduces her research.
What did it feel like, fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?
My doctoral research, undertaken at King’s College London, was born out of the need to find answers to this question. It now forms the core of the book that I am writing as Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity and Equality in History at the Royal Historical Society and Institute of Historical Research. In my book, I place Indian emotions at the heart of the Second World War, and by doing so, uncover and examine for the first time the experiential and affective dimensions of this conflict for both veterans and civilians.
My sources are diverse. I have spent many hours in archives in the UK and India, recovering colonial photographs, letters, memoirs, political philosophy and literary texts in English and Indian languages, principally Bengali and Hindi. These include fragments of letters by rank-and-file Indian sepoys, memoirs by Indian officers, and official photographs of Indian soldiers in international theatres of war – France, North Africa, Singapore and Burma, to name some. I then consider civilian responses – wartime poetry by Indian women such as Tara Ali Baig, Mulk Raj Anand’s novel The Sword and the Sickle (1942), and the poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s final essays, among others.
Emotions reveal how we communicate with ourselves and the external world. They can, of course, be predictable but also take us by surprise, forging affinities between strangers, undercutting political and nationalist divides. My source material reveals a complicated Indian emotional landscape during the war, inflected by differences in military rank, race, class, caste and gender.
“Letters… are a great consolation to us”
“I have written to you many times but God alone knows why I don’t get your letters. You say you write regularly. Letters mean half meetings and they are a great consolation to us.”
– An unknown Indian sepoy, writing from Tunisia, 16 May 1943
“In adversity, strangers had extended a helping hand to me, regardless of petty prejudices. And war then seemed so futile!”
– Indian officer R.G. Salvi, Whom Enemies Sheltered (1983), about his Italian experiences
“I had at one time believed that the springs of civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether.”
– Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Crisis in Civilisation’ (1941), Calcutta. This was his final essay.
In the three examples I have quoted above, we can see a range of emotional expression. In the first, letter-writing becomes an act of intimacy for the Indian sepoy, connecting him with his homeland. These written exchanges are ‘half-meetings’ for him – a substitute for seeing loved ones in the flesh, assuaging his loneliness and longing. The second quote highlights Indian officer R.G. Salvi’s deep connection to an Italian family which gave him refuge from German forces when he was a prisoner-of-war on the run. In particular, Salvi outlines in his memoir how he developed a close bond with Romano, a former Italian soldier, and it is this friendship across racial and national boundaries that evokes in him anti-war feelings. And the final extract is from poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s writing. For Tagore, looking at the Second World War as a colonised intellectual, aggressive nationalism, European civilisation and war are inseparable. In his final essay, written near the end of his life, it is a much disillusioned Tagore who sees the Second World War as a cyclical pattern of rapacious destruction born out of European civilisation, which is now imploding.
What is historical knowledge?
For me, archives on the Second World War and India have been a treasure trove indeed, but during my research I became keenly aware that they were also repositories of loss – partial, fragmentary and unremembered. The more I recovered sources from the archives, the more I realised that there was so much I did not know, could not know. Perhaps this is where my academic interest intersects most strongly with the discipline-related race and equalities work entailed by my Fellowship at the RHS. How do we decolonise our research practice, our perspectives? What and whom do we choose to include, and leave out? Who gets to determine the research questions? And what forms of knowledge are of value?
The Royal Historical Society’s 2018 report on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History revealed the overwhelming whiteness of the discipline of History. I found in its critical introspection and evidence-based conclusions an urgent call for change, from student intake and curriculum reform to museum collections and their exhibits.
Teaching ‘marginalised’ histories in the UK, for instance, is not simply relevant to students from ethnic minority backgrounds but broadens the frame of British history itself. As Stefan Collini put it in a recent article in the Guardian: ‘The core experience of life-changing education […] involves engaging with what is not us. It’s not about studying something we can “identify” with: it’s about encountering manifold forms of otherness; it’s about coming to understand things we didn’t previously know existed; it’s about struggling with the knotty intractability of how the world is, rather than how we like to think of it.’
The messiness of Indian emotional responses to the Second World War motivated me to continue my research journey. They resisted categorisation, compelling me to reckon with their complexity. Teaching and researching History, then, from multiple viewpoints and subject positions, examining the full legacies of empire, colonialism and slavery in a diverse community of students and academics, can only lead to a richer discipline. As Past & Present Fellow, it is this enrichment that I will be advocating for.
Dr Diya Gupta is Past & Present Fellow: Race, Ethnicity & Equality in History at the Royal Historical Society and the Institute for Historical Research where she develops and moves forward the work of the RHS Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group (REEWG).