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Book Review


Yasmin Khan. India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp xvi + 416. Photographs, Bibliography, and Index. $29.95 (cloth).


     Among the more notable consequences of the decentering of the nation state (both practically and academically) in the post-cold war era has been a move toward transnationalizing history writing. It must therefore be regarded as surprising that the same constellation of forces has also lead to a tendency to re-ground some of our narratives in more clearly delimited national perspectives. If counterintuitive at first glance, the air of paradox is quickly dispelled once we pay closer attention to which events are at issue. As a rule of thumb, the less well-known, or, 'event-like,' the event is, the more is its framing in transnational terms likely to stake a claim to being revelatory on grounds of being more than simply a narrative device. Recent works such as Vanessa Ogle's striking The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–19501 prove exemplary in this regard, moving the reader to points near and far across the globe—from the Germany to Britain to India to the Arab world, among others places. Contrary to what we might think we know about the rise of temporal awareness due to capitalist rationality and the discipline of factory work, the book instead argues that time was a phenomenon that emerged across more sites of action than is commonly understood. Conversely, according to the same rule of thumb, the better known the event is, or the more 'event-like' it is as a feature of world history, the more likely is its examination to stake an implicit claim to being revelatory on grounds of the very choice to narrate it from the standpoint of a national territory (or region) not typically imagined to have been central to its making.

     Yasmin Khan's India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War is a work of transnationalization that is decidedly in the second of these two veins. As such, it both puts an unexpected national society at the narrative center of the well-known story of the Second World War and it demonstrates how the war—and thus, the world—was far more important to "reshap[ing]" the domestic history of the Indian subcontinent than has heretofore been understood (xiii). Like Srinath Raghavan's similar 2016 study entitled India's War: The Making of South Asia, 1939–19452 , Khan's could be called an effort to "provincialize" World War Two if that term had not become as overused as it has since first being coined by Dipesh Chakrabarty in 2009. Like Raghavan's study, Khan's traces a lineage going back at least ten years to Sir Christopher Bayly's and Tim Harper's acclaimed 2005 book Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–1945.3

     Like its predecessor and more current counterpart, India at War is a tale told in relatively short and narratively thick chapters, some twenty-three in all, that rarely extend past twenty pages (hewing more often to the ten- to fifteen-page mark). Khan's is thus a book that is structured largely as a serial account of the years from 1939 to 1945. The survey is bound together through an underlying mission of "go[oing] one step beyond" recent writings in imperial history that have sought to demonstrate "the sheer scale of the contribution of the British Empire to the war" and the array of efforts that "Asian, African and Caribbean servicemen" made to its prosecution (xii). As suggested above, Khan seeks to do so by showing how the "gearing up for total war, and the rapid re-purposing of the Indian state into a garrison, barrack and training camp for a vast army, affect[ed] and shape[d] South Asian society" (xiixiii). In this respect, there is an important point of difference between her and Raghavan's efforts. For the story of the home front and the impacts of the war on South Asian society advert to being only two among some four other themes that Raghavan purports to braid together in his own narrative. India at War, on the other hand, gives itself an ostensibly greater freedom to inhabit its more streamlined list of preferred areas of thematic focus. (Of course, exactly to what extent this turns out to be an actual source of difference between the two books at the level of execution will be in the eye of the beholder.)

     Khan begins her book by calling our attention to the some 50,000-plus enlistees who entered the ranks of Britain's Indian Army on behalf of the empire in the first eight months of the war. (As per the title of the second chapter, this she dubs a process of turning "Peasants into Soldiers.") Tracing their movements out of the subcontinent and into the Middle East and Britain, the book paints a vivid picture of the lived experience of mobility and cultural encounter that warfare on such scale entailed. Much the same spirit is extended to the ongoing discussion of the retooling of life within the subcontinent for the purposes of supplying provisions and funding to the Allied war machine. Here Khan takes care to detail both the reactions and criticism of Indian protagonists to such new realities. She also provides a rich portrait of the influx of those from across the globe who were destined to touch down in the subcontinent as a result; importantly, in Khan's narrative, this included not just war-related personnel but also, perhaps most notably, as per Chapter Ten, the "[t]housands…who arrived in 1942 from war-torn Europe and the Middle East" (123). Among the latter, for example, were some 600 Maltese who "travelled through Turkey, escaping their besieged island" as well as "thousands of refugees from Greece and Malta" (123). Surely, the way a distant colony of the British Empire was able to take such individuals in during their time of need should still hold lessons, especially as Khan affectingly describes how refugees set down in places so distant and alien as the clearings that were made for them in the forest of Coimbatore. Of course, India at War also devotes considerable space to the influx of British and American troops into the subcontinent, particularly via the cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Karachi.

     As the book progresses, Khan narratively touches on an array of other topics, including the Japanese war and its specific effects on those Indians whom it took eastwards as well as those parts of the subcontinent they left behind. At other times, the book brings the reader to unexpected destinations along its chronological path. Perhaps most notable in this connection is Khan's treatment of the little-known experience of the some 22,000 African American soldiers (out of a total of some 150,000 American troops) who came to India during the 1940s. Khan discusses both the climate of exoticization created by British officialdom's racialized fear about how "Aryan" Indians would react to these newcomers and also the forms of solidarity that emerged between African American GI's and the ordinary Indian men and women they encountered. The book closes, in its final chapter, by coming back to the experience of Indian sepoys, some 89,000 of whom were casualties of the war. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Khan weaves together her discussion of their experience with a consideration of the societies and communities that either lost them or to which they returned transformed at war's end. Here she also maintains the book's running focus on those soldiers and their families whose experience of the war as a military operation involved not fighting on behalf of the Empire as part of its forces but against it as part of Subhas Chandra Bose's vehicle of anti-colonial resistance, the Indian National Army.

     Given its overall focus, India at War is a book that is well suited for classroom instruction, whether for an introductory survey or higher level undergraduate seminar. The book provides a readily digestible narrative from what, to many, will no doubt prove a fresh perspective. In terms of sources, Khan makes use of both familiar materials as well as previously untapped evidence. In its use, for example, of letters by Indian soldiers to their families detailing their experience of the war, the book proves reminiscent of Sugata Bose's evocative and more sustained effort at doing the same to bring to life the Indian experience of the First World War. (See his A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Empire4). At other times, Khan uncovers strikingly new dimensions of the war experience through the hard work of archival exploration. Of particular note to this reviewer was her discussion in Chapter Three of the effect of long absences and poor communications on the families of those Indians who had made their way to the Middle Eastern theaters of the war. In bringing events to life, the author spends several paragraphs on the little-known local district welfare boards that the British had set up already after World War One to facilitate support for families with loved ones stationed abroad. Originating in the Punjab, given the heavy concentration of personnel from that province, the Boards, as Khan discusses, became important institutions for decommissioned soldiers returning to the subcontinent after the twentieth century's first great global military conflagration. Subsequently, by 1940, the Raj had gone on to institutionalize similar Boards in other parts of the subcontinent, including in the North West Frontier Provinces, the United Provinces, Poona, Madras, and Rajasthan. Manned by retired British officers the Boards tended to an array of tasks. With its longer standing and more reputable history, the Punjab Board, for example, set up tehsil-level sub-boards that served as "one stop shops" for families affected by the fighting to lodge grievances and obtain news about the progress of the war, for ex-soldiers to get help with finding employment, for widows and the elderly to obtain payments and other kinds of grant aid, and for the wounded to seek out treatment in government hospitals. As the author additionally reveals, "[t]he boards were also the chief channels for remittances, an important function as men often handed over more than three-quarters of their wage to their families." At the same time, Khan makes clear that throughout the Boards retained their underlying political role. In the case of Punjab Board, for example, regardless of what else it did, its "main preoccupation" was with "helping to enlist men and 'counteracting anti-recruitment propaganda.'" Likewise, in the case of the welfare board in Assam, Khan notes that it was "used to 'deny false rumours spread by enemy agents'" (3738).

     Such key moments aside, throughout, India at War remains a book sustained by the propulsive momentum of the war itself, whether for better or for worse. In this respect, it moves briskly along, rarely having time—or, perhaps, the intent—to find a plane of analysis that reaches beyond the narrative's basic embedded argument about the war being not just a 'world' event but an Indian one or, conversely, about India not just being a colony or Asian periphery but an integral part of the world. The author does, at various points, also fleetingly come back to observations about the "differing vantage points of Britons and Indians" and the way these could not be made to "converge in the face of wartime changes" (196). This line of analysis, however, tends to be made manifest largely through such express moments of declaration rather than in a way that structures the organization or ongoing priorities of the book. While India's centrality to the war effort and the centrality of its impact on Indian society is hardly an unimportant insight—and, clearly, one that is unimpeachable from the standpoint of what is generally seen as cutting edge in history writing—to some readers it may still prove somewhat weightless. Yet even for those readers for whom such is likely to be the case, much can still be gained from Khan's well-researched, briskly-paced, and detail-rich narrative. In particular, there are the reflections that India at War can be made to inspire about the multiple incarnations that transnationality now takes within history writing and about more specific possibilities or limitations that each may offer.

Faisal Chaudhry is a historian of South Asia and legal scholar who focuses on the global history of legal and economic ideas as well as contemporary issues concerning law and economic development. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of law. He can be reached at



1 Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

2 Srinath Raghavan, India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

3 Christopher A. Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

4 Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).




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