In WWII, Millions Of Indians Fought For A Britain They Abhored

Aug 22, 2015
Originally published on August 25, 2015 4:30 pm

We often hear the story of the Second World War through the experiences of American and British soldiers pitted in battle against Germany and Japan.

But the largest volunteer force in the world then was the Indian Army: More than 2 million Indian men fought for Britain, even as Indian citizens struggled to be free of the British Empire.

Raghu Karnad, an award-winning Indian journalist, uncovers a piece of this story through the history he discovered in his own family. His new book, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, begins with three sepia-toned photos in silver frames in his grandmother's house.

The photos were of Karnad's maternal grandfather, Kodandera Ganapathy — or Ganny — and his brothers-in-law Bobby and Manek. Ganny, a doctor who joined the Indian medical service, had a tragically short war: He died at 26, of asthmatic bronchitis.

Manek became a pilot and an officer in the Indian air force, flying dangerous operations behind enemy lines in what was then Burma. He died when his plane went down in a monsoon cloud. Bobby joined what became a fabled unit called the Bengal Sappers, and died in 1944. The book ends with a mystery about Bobby's fate.

Farthest Field attempts to understand why so many Indians volunteered to fight for Britain, a country they wanted to be rid of.

"I think the story of Bobby, and the story of Indian soldiers in the Second World War more broadly, is remarkable because it's not one of heroic conviction," Karnad tells NPR's Scott Simon. "It really, really is a story about ambivalence and doubts, and serving and finding courage nonetheless."


Interview Highlights

On why Indians volunteered

If you were from a farming community that was suddenly under a great deal of stress because of the food crisis that the war brought on, you might join up as a soldier simply because of the promise of three square meals a day.

If, like the three protagonists of this story, you were from the middle class and you have a college degree, and you've just come out of the 1930s, and the sort of doldrums and the low employment prospects, then it was a kind of dazzling, glamorous proposition that you might be able to be an officer in the Indian Army, because that had been almost exclusively reserved for white men until that point.

On Ganny

He never served in the war as we think about it at all. He was sent off to the northwestern frontier provinces of India, which is now the northwest of Pakistan, the areas that are home to the Pashtun tribes, which had always been very hostile to British control and to imperial domination.

By following Ganny I discovered that much of the Indian Army, even at the peak of the Second World War, were not fighting Germans or Italians or Japanese, but were still employed in the business of maintaining Britain's own empire, and maintaining the domination of Indians of different kinds themselves.

On Manek

Manek just wanted to fly planes — that much is very clear from the people who knew him. Manek and his squadron were sent to Burma. They were flying ... long-range penetration operations behind Japanese lines in Burma. Those were very treacherous flights and very difficult missions. It was in the course of flying those missions that Manek lost his life.

On Bobby, and whether he was a hero

The question of the word "hero" hangs very heavily over the Indian Army in the Second World War, because they certainly aren't accorded the status of heroes in our public memory today. I think it's fair to say that they've been allowed to be forgotten because they were fighting on the wrong side of history from the perspective of modern Indians.

I think the story of Bobby and the story of Indian soldiers in the Second World War, more broadly, is remarkable because it's not one of heroic conviction and it's not one of heroic unity. But it really is a story about ambivalence and doubts and serving and finding courage, nonetheless. And I think that's exactly what Bobby's position was.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We often hear the story of the Second World War through the experiences of American and British soldiers pitted in battle against Germany and Japan. The largest volunteer force in the world then was the Indian Army, more than two million men who fought for Britain, even as Indians struggled to be free of the British Empire. Raghu Karnad, an award-winning Indian journalist, tries to tell some of this story through the history he discovered in his own family. His new book is "Farthest Field: An Indian Story Of The Second World War." And Raghu Karnad joins us now from Bengaluru, which until last year was known as Bangalore. Thanks so much for being with us.

RAGHU KARNAD: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The story begins with three sepia-tone photos in silver frames that were in your grandmother's house. Who were the young men in those photos?

KARNAD: Well, at the beginning, I didn't know who they were myself. I had grown up never really hearing their names or being aware that they were part of my family. And it was only three years ago that I became aware that the three them - one of them my grandfather and the other two my grand uncles - had existed and that all three of them had joined the Indian Army in 1942, at the peak of the Second World War.

SIMON: How do you explain - to use your memorable phrase - that two and half million Indians fought for the British Empire in the very hour that its countrymen fought to be rid of it?

KARNAD: The reasons that Indians chose to volunteer were in fact very many, and it depended on where you were from and what class you were from. If you were from a farming community that was suddenly under a great deal of stress because of the food crisis that the war brought on, you might join up as a soldier simply because of the promise of three square meals a day. If, like the three protagonists of this story, you were from the middle class and you have a college degree and you've just come out of the 1930s and the sort of doldrums and the low employment prospects, then it was a kind of dazzling, glamorous proposition that you might be able to be an officer in the Indian Army because that had been almost exclusively reserved for white men until that point.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the three individuals in those photos. Ganny, your grandfather, was a doctor. And he went into the Indian medical service. And we must note that tragically, he had a very short war.

KARNAD: He did have a very short war. He never served in the war as we conventionally think about it at all. He was sent off to the northwestern frontier provinces of India, which is now the northwest of Pakistan, the areas that are home to the Pashtun tribes, which had always been very hostile to British control and to imperial domination. So by following Ganny, I discovered that much of the Indian Army - even at the peak of the Second World War - were not fighting Germans or Italians or Japanese, but were still employed in the business of maintaining Britain's own empire and maintaining the domination of Indians of different kinds themselves.

SIMON: Ganny died at the age of 26 from asthmatic bronchitis.

KARNAD: Yes, he did.

SIMON: Manek became an officer and a pilot in the Indian Air Force. What was his war like?

KARNAD: Manek just wanted to fly planes. That much is very clear from the people who knew him. Manek and his squadron was sent to Burma. They were flying support flights for what's called the Chindit Operations, which were long-range penetration operations behind Japanese lines in Burma. And those were very treacherous flights and very difficult missions. And it was in the course of flying those missions that Manek lost his life.

SIMON: And let me ask you about Bobby, the third photo in your grandmother's house. Bobby joined what became a pretty fabled unit called the Bengal Sappers. The book ends in a kind of mystery about what happens to Bobby. But you're still left with a very vivid impression of a man who heroically sacrificed his life.

KARNAD: Well, the question of the word hero hangs very heavily over the Indian Army in the Second World War because they certainly aren't accorded the status of heroes in our public memory today. I think it's fair to say that they've been allowed to be forgotten because they were fighting on the wrong side of history from the perspective of modern Indians. I think the story of Bobby and the story of Indian soldiers in the Second World War more broadly is remarkable because it's not one of heroic conviction. And it's not one of heroic unity. But it really is a story about ambivalence and doubts and serving and finding courage nonetheless. And I think that's exactly what Bobby's position was.

SIMON: Raghu Karnad, his new book is "Farthest Field: An Indian Story Of The Second World War." Thanks so much for being with us.

KARNAD: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.