The title of the book may be misleading. The book is not about any of the wars independent India fought, but about a war that led to India's birth—the second World War.
It starts with the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow’s radio broadcast on the evening of September 3, 1939 that “India will make her contribution on the side of human freedom as against the rule of force.” That is, “on the side of Britain against Germany and Italy.”
Well, India was being ruled by the British and so that should have been a foregone conclusion. But Indian leaders, though mostly and morally on the side of the British, were dismayed that neither the executive council nor the central legislature had been consulted. It was that dismay that snowballed into a protest, energised the demand for freedom, and finally led Mahatma Gandhi to utter those two words that shook the foundation of the British empire—Quit India.
How could India demand to be consulted before it was drawn into the war, when even the Dominions of Australia, Canada and South Africa didn’t? The answer to that lay in the dynamism of the freedom movement in India. For, Indian leaders had wrested more autonomy in foreign policy than had been granted to Australia, Canada or South Africa.
While narrating the political and military events, the author also brings out the great moral dilemma of the Indian leaders. Even as they opposed the British policies and refused to cooperate with the war effort, they refrained from discouraging young Indians to get enlisted. The war split the leadership into several camps—those who advocated open and active support to the British war effort, those who wanted the British to grant freedom and then take India's support, those who wanted open alliance with the Axis powers. Subhas Bose was in the third category.
Without making value judgments, the book explains the context in which Bose acted—his escape to Europe through Afghanistan, his frustrated attempts to get Hitler to attack India through the northwest (without Bose's knowledge, Hitler was hoping for a compromise with the British by which they would let him rule Europe in return for him letting the British keep India) and his tie-up with the Japanese.
Hitler knew, and Bose didn't, that the British wouldn't give up India that easily. The events proved Hitler right. Even when their prestigious eastern outpost, Singapore, was falling to the Japanese, the British withheld using their air power so that it would be available to defend India.
Finally that is what happened. Routed from the entire east, the British took what then looked like a last stand at the eastern gates of India—at Kohima and Imphal. And then the tide turned.
Come to think of it, which were the tide-turning battles in the war? Though it is outside the purview of the book, this reviewer would list four battles: the incredible turnaround by the Russians in Moscow-Stalingrad on the European front, MacArthur's famously promised return to the Philippines on the Pacific front, Montgomery's victory over Rommel on the Africa front, and the bold, brave and desperate defence of India by the Indians in Kohima-Imphal.
Considered in that context, the 'misleading' title is well-justified.
by Srinath Raghavan
Published by Penguin-Allen Lane
Price Rs 699; pages 554