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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff