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‘India has largely forgotten its role in World War II’

DESPITE CONTRIBUTING THE “largest all-volunteer army in the history of human conflict” to the British war effort, India has largely forgotten its role in World War II. Is it because we see it more as a British effort rather than Indian? But how can we forget it when Indian lives were lost and Indian heroes won honour on the battlefield!


By all accounts, the war was closely watched in India when it was playing out in the European theatres. The forgetting came much later. Perhaps, the most recent, and most public, forgetting of Indian soldiers came when the film director Christopher Nolan whitewashed Dunkirk (2017). So this issue of THE WEEK is in remembrance, and from the word go I had no one else in mind to write it other than R. Prasannan, our chief of bureau in Delhi. Prasannan has fully vindicated my decision by writing enthralling stories of the Indian role in the war.


Let me also mention two new regular sections that we introduced last week—Very Informed Person and Dear Doctor. While THE WEEK’s VIP is an authority on a chosen topic, Dear Doctor brings in voices from the health care sector. Please do let us have your feedback. As always, I love hearing from you.


Now, back to the issue. Relying on memories and my grandfather’s notes, my father has made a few interesting observations about World War II in his autobiography. My grandfather, K.C. Mammen Mappillai, was a political prisoner in Poojappura Central Jail during the war. He was housed with other Congress activists who had opposed the policies of dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar. As his fellow detainees were also quite interested in news about the war, Mammen Mappillai would read out the newspaper to them and discuss every detail. Having been a schoolteacher and always a keen follower of international developments, he took great pleasure in these interactions.


Not long after Mammen Mappillai was imprisoned, a young undertrial was put in the cell next to his. A former member of the Congress Party, P. Krishna Pillai was by then a leading light of the Communist Party of India. So much so that in Kerala he is known simply as Comrade, an honour denied to titans who followed in his footsteps. Pillai, too, was part of the ‘salons’ that analysed the war. Mammen Mappillai describes him as a “brilliant young man… fluent in English and Malayalam”.


Their friendship continued well after they were released from jail, until Pillai died of a snakebite in August 1948. My grandfather mourned him deeply. I look at their incarceration and friendship as symbols of a principled time, when men embraced their convictions unto death and loved one another sincerely even when they believed in two entirely different political philosophies.


Politically, too, World War II was seen differently in India. I have read that the leftists in India saw the early part of the war as a clash between imperialists, and went hammer and tongs only when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Congress saw fascism as a greater danger and was prepared to support the British war effort—but only in return for the right to self-government. The detailed story is on Page 48.


I feel it is easy to look at World War II as a war against Adolf Hitler. Sleep well; the bogeyman is dead. But it becomes difficult when we look at the war as a clash of ideologies. As a war against dictatorship, majoritarianism and the stifling of voices. Suddenly we realise that there is no happily ever after and that eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.


Eternal vigilance.