September 3rd, 1997
Akhilesh Mithal

The War had its Saving Graces


Hit Counter


September 3 is a date of consequence in human history. On this day, in 1939, fifty eighty years ago, Adolf Hitler of Germany invaded Poland in open defiance of Britain and France, the superpowers of that time. A conflagration was sparked off and it was to cover the globe and last until 1945.

Although this war caused untold human misery and many million deaths, it also inflicted a blow to racism, the ideology which fuelled it and has been in retreat ever since it ended. The victorious British and the French also lost their empires soon after this war. We need to take a closer look as the problems of the 21st century will still have inequality based on gender and colour at the very top.

In 1939, the world belonged to and was owned by European powers. The largest area was coloured pink for the British empire on which “the sun never set.”

The French empire was the second largest. Huge tracts of territory were labelled as French Equatorial Africa, British Guyana etc. Even the tiny state of Belgium had a bit of action in the form of the Belgian Congo. The map of the world most used was Mercator’s projection where the British Isles looked as big as India and Europe dominated the globe.

The superiority of white Caucasion Europeans had been proved in battle after bloody battle all over the globe. Gobineau, a philosopher of 19th century Europe translated this supermacy into a doctrine which proclaimed that God made man in three or four different experiments before his hand achieved perfection.

In experiment one, he overbaked the clay and as happens to bread, the product was burnt black. This was the African race. The next experiment went the other way and the underexposure produced the light coloured Chinese. The third attempt was “browned” by the fire and God had boobed once more and produced the Indians. Only at the fourth attempt did God achieve perfection in the form of the Caucasian European in this way was obviously “God’s chosen” and hence a master race.

Adolf Hitler believed in this rabid racist construct. He further wished to “correct” the errors of the Almighty by extermining all those who were non-white. He believed these “mistakes” to be pathogenic mutants and a peril to the master race.

As readers know, Hitler was not alone in this belief. The European invaders of Australia and the Americas were Anglo-Saxon or Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese). The original inhabitants of the Americas were decimated as were those of Australia. Adolf Hitler had few colonies to practies his racism and used the home country inhabitants for his belief. Jews and gypsies were captured, caged like wild animals and used for experiments and otherwise brutalised and killed in millions.

India, in 1939, was desperately struggling for freedom and the British where holding on, doggdly buying time by various stratagems. Unlike Hitler and with true Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy, they practised racial discrimination without making too much of noise about it . The Indians were thrown a few scraps like very small number of places in the hierarchy of power. Only those who showed an utter reluctance to exercise it were given power. These Indians were knighted and much fussed over. Even Army commissions were opened to them and at the time of Independence, an Indian had actually risen to the rank of a Lieutenant Colone!

Real power was kept in the hands of the Viceroy and the governors of provinces. The legislatures at the centre and in the provinces were rubber-stamping bodies.

The outbreak of war put the cat among the pigeons. The Indian leaders wanted Independence not with immediate effect but promised as something that would occur after the war on fixed date. The British refused. India was dragged into World War II without its consent. There were elected (by most limited franchise but neverthless “elected) governments at the state level in 1939. The Indian National Congress had leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru, Jai Prakash Naayan and Subhash Chandra Bose who would have most enthusiastically and with fervour espoused the cause of freedom and democracy. They would have fought the rabidly racist regimes of Germany, Italy, Japan and Albania with all the strength they could muster but no one asked them.

The British were masters and saw no reason to ask their slaves whether they would fight for ideals like freedom and equality and the brothered of man.

The Congress governments in states like UP and Madras resigned office and many who had been minister were arrested and sent to British Indian jails in the name of “defence of India.”

Gandhi tried everything in his power to make the British see reason but failed to make a dent on their obduracy. In 1942, on August 9, Mahatma Gandhi, the great 20th century votary of protest and agitation by peaceful means, the messiah and role model of Martin Luther King and the Vietnamwar protesters in the USa and Nelson Mandela in Africa felt compelled to call upon the British to “Quit India.” He also called upon the Indian masses to use all peaceful means in their power and “do or die” in order to impel, compel and force the British to depart.

The situation was desperate. The British were losing battle after battle. Territory after territory was falling to invasions and to the seemingly invincible Japanese. Burma, a part of India until 1935, had fallen to the Japanese. It appeared that the British would lose the battle for India and unless it could be shown that Indians were not their enemies by choice, the Japanese would visit the same atrocities and the brutalities on Indians as they had inflicted on other people.

Gandhi and the Congress were not pro-Japanese when they disassociated from the war effort. They were pro-Independence for India. They wanted their people to escape from the atrocity and brutality which the Japanese could be expected to inflict on collaborators.

In the event, the British crushed the “Quit India” movement with great brutality. Aerial bombing, shooting of unarmed civilians, torture in police custody, rape of women were all visited upon Indians. This exposed the hollowness of the claim that the British made the best masters as well as the lie that they were slowly, assiduously and consistently training the Indians in the subtleties of “freedom” and “democracy!”

Winston Churchill, with characteristic bluster, announced in the British Parliament, “I did not become the first minister of the crown to preside over the liquidation of te British empire!”

He then proceeded to give figures of cost in terms of human suffering incurred while suppressing the movement. These were doctored to minimise the severity of blows which only an alien ruler and his minions could inflict. Thousands of unarmed protesters, men, women and children were shot down in the streets by the Army and the police. Tens of thousands (250,000?) including Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Azad were held without trial, often in solitary confinement. A student leader of Ballia. Paras Nath Mishra, was kept handcuffed and in fetters. He was given jute sacking to wear as prison uniform. Similarly incarcerated, Keshav Dev Malviya, who was to become father of the Indian oil Industry, was not paroled even to bid farewell to the dying Kapil Dev Malviya. The spirit of India was not crushed despite this massive crackdown. Subhash Bose escaped to Germany and then to Japan braving the surveillance of the British and their allies.

Arriving in the theatre of war in the East, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was soon picking up pieces of the British Indian Army whose morale was shattered. He was forging them into a force dedicated to the liberation of the mother-land.

When the British received news that an Indian National Army had been formed out of the “brown sahebs” they had trained at Sandhurst and Sandhurst-like Indian institutions, the more perspicacious one saw that things were back to square one and the spirit of 1857 was alive again.

After 1857 and until 1947, Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims formed two-thirds of the British Indian Army because they were considered “loyal.” They were the favourites and specific regiments were designated for their employment, training and careers. An example will illustrate this point.

Shahnawaz Khan, General Officer Commanding in the Indian National Army came from a Punjabi Musalman family which had served in the same “Punjab” regiment since 1857. He used to recall that this regiment was officered by English subalterns from one or two families. He was himself grateful to be the first king’s commissioned officer. His loyalty to the British arose due to generations of service to the Raj and personal bonds with British officers for many years.

The betrayal of Indians by the British at Singapore where they took care of their own kind and left Indian officers and men to fend for themselves, destroyed the bond.
Shahnawaz joined the INA and became a trusted lieutenant of Netaji. He was tried for treason against the king-emperor in the Red Fort where the last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah II Zafar had also faced the victorious British after the 1857 revolution failed.

Along with Shahnawaz, a Sikh officer called Dhillon and a Hindu officer Shahgal were facing the same judges. The British effort to create a class loyal to the Raj had failed.

There was thus no alternative other than garrisoning India with white troops in sufficient numbers or quitting. Ten British divisions garrisoned in India were impossible and the only thing to do was to to quit. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis cannot ignore the role of World War II in making freedom possible and should honour those who suffered for their Indian origin like the gypsies of Europe.  


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
Back to the Itihaas Home Page