Archived article

The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan

In one of the saddest scenes in Paul Scott’s novel The Jewel in the Crown, is set at the beginning of Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement, a crowd in Mayapore gets out of hand and attacks the car of the missionary, Miss Crane. They kill not her but her Indian companion, the teacher Mr Chaudhuri. She is found in the mud, the rain pouring down, cradling his head in her lap and repeating endlessly to herself “a promise not fulfilled.”

The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War by Yasmin Khan
The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, Yasmin Khan (Vintage India, July 2015; The Bodley Head, July 2015)

 When recovering in hospital, she shows her nurses the picture she used to teach her pupils English, that of Queen Empress Victoria receiving a jewel from an Indian prince. It is meant as an allegory of the “Jewel in the Crown” that was India’s place in the Empire.

The promise that was not fulfilled, of course, was Britain’s commitment to India and its peoples. Just how that commitment unravelled in the Second World War and what that meant to the people of the sub-continent and its rulers is the subject of Oxford historian Yasmin Khan’s new social history, The Raj at War.

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is a tragedy focusing on the sundering of Anglo-Indian ties and ending in the horrors of Partition, a subject that Yasmin Khan addressed some years ago in her prize winning first book, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. In writing that account, as she explains in her new book, she came to see that the explanation for the blood-soaked division of the Raj in 1947 had to be sought, not so much in the period immediately before it, but instead somewhat earlier, in the course of the Second World War.


India’s enormous contribution to the Empire’s war effort has only been recognized in the last few decades, far too late in the day, but what had not been widely realized until the arrival of Khan’s new book was the way that the war changed Indian society and hastened the dissolution of British dominion in India. Khan shows how the long and devastating conflict hollowed out the Raj, so that when peace came it was evident to most that independence had become all but inevitable and that it had to come soon. The war altered the sub-continent in complex ways, so that the two states that emerged from partition turned out to be very different from any independent India that might have been conceived before 1939.

The war was therefore transformative in national terms, but from Khan’s account it is clear that the changes it brought about were as much, if not more, at the at the level of individual Indians, which then fed through into the political and economic spheres. Indeed, the strength and innovation of this new account of India at war is that it concentrates on neither military nor political issues. Instead, Khan uses a myriad of personal sources to illustrate her themes of the decay of the imperial state at the grassroots and the growth of an Indian consciousness. She weaves details culled from a very large number of memoirs, diaries, letters and interviews, written and recorded by men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds. In doing this and in placing these personal accounts in a rough chronological order, she has formed a changing series of tableaux illustrating how Indian life was altered over the six years of the war. This is history as it was felt by those who are usually never heard, yet whose lives were changed forever by the forces unleashed by war.


Between the lines of the vivid texts quoted in this book lies the unspoken theme that the British did not do as well by India as they might have. The promise inherent in their liberal beliefs, their reverence for the rule of law and usually, at a personal level, their human decency, somehow by the end of it all had not been fulfilled, submerged by the need to maintain imperial power and prestige.

This has often been highlighted before. It is, however, Yasmin Khan’s major contribution in this book to show that the promise was also not fulfilled because of the demands of the war and the gigantic disruptions it caused to the Indian social fabric. Everything had to be subordinated to winning the war. Many benefited in this process; people seized the chance to become rich, to escape the boundaries of caste and geography, to adopt new viewpoints and to adapt themselves to a modern age that India had not experienced much until then. Most did not benefit, for the war also brought destruction, of course, and the chance for hundreds of thousands to die, fall sick, be injured, or starve. As they did in Britain, the catastrophic effects suffered by a large part of the population opened people’s minds to the need for change when peace came. The war, in effect, altered almost everything.  

One of the most attractive features of this book is the balance of its author’s approach. It would be so easy to write such a history with clearly identified villains, heroes and victims. Khan does not do this. She credits the humanity of all those whose lives she examines, whether Indian, British or those of the many other races that the war brought to the Raj, be they Jews, Poles, Americans or Chinese. She writes movingly of the common man of whatever race: the British Tommy getting to grips with the turmoil and devastation around him in India while trying to concentrate on fighting the Japanese; the Bengali peasant losing his land, hastily cleared for an airfield, then starving with his family in the famine of 1943-44; the hill tribesman turned laborer, only to die in the mud of the Burma road; the jailed Congress activist with a wife on the run from the police.

This is a warm, human account, and the more powerful an explanation of vast social changes just for that reason. As a history it is a landmark, a proof that there is something new and worth writing in every generation, even about events which we all think we know well.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released.