Raghu Karnad is a journalist and writer. His book, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War came out in 2015 and was one of Tank’s 100 books of the year. Tank caught up with him after a panel on India during the Second World War.
Tank Why do you think that the history of India during the Second World War, which you wrote about in Farthest Field, has been so forgotten?
Raghu Karnad I’m a journalist and once upon a time I was a war buff, I mean, when I was a teenager. So I always fancied that I knew quite a lot about the Second World War and I also fancied I knew all about modern India – yet I had never once, in my life, thought about how the two overlapped. It certainly never occurred to me that I might find a personal connection, my own family, in that overlap. But then a couple of years ago, I was talking to my mother when she mentioned someone named Bobby – I’d never heard his name before.
It turned out he was my grandmother’s brother, who had gone off to the war in 1942, the year that was both the peak of India’s freedom movement but also the peak of the global military crisis. It was a complete surprise to me that there was this family history and that there was this national history of the war, and both were completely erased. So I started tracking down these young men and women of that generation, and through their eyes I started to see the hidden landscape of the Indian experience.
Tank You were saying at the end of your talk that British historians are very good at writing endless biographies of people at the top of the pyramid, yet there is such a large number of people whose experiences have been forgotten and elided.
RK Yes, it’s a large number. The army itself grew to ten times its original size, from around 250,000 to over 2.5 million, which made it, at that point, the largest non-conscripted army in human history. So that’s the scale of what’s been elided.
But the story of the Indian experience isn’t just about the armed forces, it’s about the repercussions of the war for every social class, for factory workers, the middle class, women, everybody really. The way I narrated this story – very close up to the interior lives of the characters, with the romance, private dilemmas and grief that they encounter in those years – brings out some of that. The military account wasn’t really my priority.
To be fair to British historians and institutions, they have done a much better job of remembering this military narrative, at least out of nostalgia, than Indians have. What I wanted to write wasn’t a conventional history. It’s certainly not an academic history – it’s an unorthodox kind of non-fiction storytelling. If there’s a reason it works for readers, it’s probably that as I wrote, I was moving from being completely oblivious, to a realisation about the scale and significance of what there was to be found. Hopefully readers will experience the same thing. So Farthest Field isn’t just about what happened in the war, it’s also a reflection on how it came to vanish and what the potential is for recovering impressions of our past that are on the verge of being lost. My goal was not just to describe a war and a social experience, but also to register the ways we remember and forget.
The simplest way to lay out why these two countries – Britain and India – came to forget, is that in truth it wasn’t a British war. It was an imperial war from start to finish but afterwards it would suit the British to remember themselves, their place in the war, as being the feisty little island that stood up to global fascism. It would be inconvenient – in fact, it is inconvenient now – to remember that Britain remained the major imperial power of the world through the war. In troubling ways, Hitler was more inspired by the example of the British Raj and by the precedent set by the Anglophone colonisation of the world than by almost anything else in the modern period. That’s not a comfortable thing for Britain to remember.
In India, all we learn of the entire history of modern India – what suited the narrative of a postcolonial country – is the freedom struggle, this mythic, unified, determined and progressive movement. From school and from the movies, every image we have of the 1940s is of the non-violent revolution and then Partition. It’s challenging to that narrative to portray how, even while India moved through the peak of its anti-colonial struggle, even as we were fighting to be free of the British Empire, we were also fighting for it. That has been airbrushed out of the picture very effectively. So ultimately, after this imperial war effort, Britain chose to forget the “imperial” part and we chose to forget the “war effort” part.
Tank You’ve noted before that many of the places where your family members fought continue to be marked by conflict.
RK Yes, that was very striking. It began with me wanting to go to those places. See, it was my very good fortune that the particular trajectories of these young men and their units were like the point of a pencil outlining the overall deployment of Indians in the war. With the exception of Italy, they go everywhere else – Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, the Middle East, Burma and Southeast Asia.
These aren’t places that figure in what we imagine of the Second World War, the Western Front, the Eastern Front, the Pacific. When Bobby joined his unit it was resting up in Iraq. When I found the records that showed this, I thought, what? Iraq? Iraq had what to do with the war? Then I discovered another thing you’d think you’d know, which was that in 1941, independent Iraq was invaded by Allied troops, mainly Indians. They occupied Iraq and then before the summer was even done, they did the same in Iran. From 1941 until the end of the war, Iraq and Iran – a combined territory thrice the size of France – were held under occupation by mainly Indian troops. That is a major global event in its own right and barely anyone has any notion that it even happened. That’s fascinating. Just by following my characters I was encountering events that were so obviously relevant to present world affairs, but which have all been buried.
Looking elsewhere, one of my characters Manek joins the Indian Air Force during the war. For the first time, the IAF was growing into more than a token service – the RAF was overtaxed and Indians could take on some of their work. The first duty of the Indian Air Force was to go out to the border with Afghanistan and continue the bombing of tribal villages there. In 1942, at the height of the Empire’s war, this was what Manek was doing, bombing tribals in Waziristan. And in the year 2013, while I was writing about this, I realised those precise same villages were still being bombed – this time by Predator drones.
History was repeating itself, even to the extent that they had been hunting a dangerous, charismatic Muslim extremist leader who was hiding in caves. There was also a writ that pertained only to that part of the world, allowing forces to deal out collective punishment – aerial bombardments – in order to supress that extremism. So in all these places, like the Eritrean Highlands, Libya, Iraq or parts of Burma – places that I couldn’t visit for research – there seemed to be lineages of conflict that continue to the present day. I’m not enough of an historian to really theorise this, but I hope someone does.
Tank It’s fascinating. Often I feel like those lineages and long historical narratives that contain repetition get squeezed into a two-dimensional picture of what empire means from a British perspective and what it means from an Indian perspective, when actually there’s something much more insidious going on.
RK Absolutely. From that perspective – and this relates to the book – you learn more of the functions of “forgetting”. We need to forget that these continuities exist; we need to forget that there are so many ways in which these conflicts are reproduced. Every time a country invades Iraq, we’re encouraged to believe that it’s for the first time. When the new war began in 2003, I was at college in the US and no matter how outraged I was, no matter how much I tried to inform myself about imperialism in Iraq, I failed to learn that this history involved the Second World War, or Indians, or even my own family. That kind of forgetting obviously has its purpose. §