V for victory soldier
© IWM (K 1254), December 1941

This photograph of an Indian soldier on board a troop ship to Singapore in 1941 confronts us with a familiar gesture from the Imperial War Museums archives. The soldier thrusts his head and arm through the ship’s porthole, and appropriates Churchill’s well-recognised ‘V for Victory’ symbol with the fore and middle fingers of his right hand. Incidentally, he isn’t attempting to be rude! Churchill himself didn’t realise that the ‘V for Victory’ symbol made with the palm inwards could be an insult until his aides briefed him. This physical gesture, frozen in motion by the wartime photographic lens, punctures our Eurocentric memory of the Second World War with a non-white colonial presence. The soldier’s smiling youthful face attests to the two-and-a-half million men from undivided India swept up by military recruitment for the British Empire – widely regarded as the largest volunteer army in the world.

This photograph belongs to a colonial archive, part of the British Ministry of Information’s collection, used for propaganda purposes in Britain as well as Allied and neutral countries abroad. Its caption states: “He gives the ‘V’ sign from the port-hole of a ship as he arrives at Singapore – and his ‘V’ is backed by a million Indian troops and the rest of the Empire as well.” The photograph was taken to demonstrate the loyalty and participation in the war of not just Indians but over eight million troops from across the British Empire and Commonwealth – imperial forces represented as fighting under a united flag, or symbol, in this case.

But what does recreating the ‘V for Victory’ symbol mean to this unknown Indian soldier? There is no name provided in the caption; the soldier is simply referred to as “he”. How does “he” stake a claim to his own presence in, and experience of, the Second World War? And what does Churchill’s famous ‘V for Victory’ symbol mean when it is performed by a colonial Indian soldier during the 1940s? The ‘V for Victory’ symbol dominated the Indian political landscape during the war years, but Indian people did not necessarily believe this war to be their own. The Second World War complicated the notion of freedom in India. It was perceived by some as a transnational war against fascism but also as an imperial war, in which undivided India was forcibly made to participate as a British colony. India, moreover, could not be partitioned into a neat binary of those who supported and those who opposed the war; neither did such political positions remain fixed for the duration of the war. Discourses of anti-colonial nationalism, anti-fascism and imperial war-service jousted with each other, and were fiercely interlocked.

Indian army recruitment centre
© IWM (IND 1300), 'Punjabi volunteers crowding round the gates of an Army recruiting office', 1942

Another colonial photograph, continuing to affirm Indian participation in the war and sitting within the Imperial War Museum’s collection of images taken by the No. 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit, captures a group of tall and well-built Indian men gathered outside an army recruitment centre. The photograph’s caption – “Punjabi volunteers crowding round the gates of an Army recruiting office” – suggests that the war is popular; Indians choose to volunteer; they must feel it is ‘their war’. Yet the photograph looks curiously staged.

The men themselves appear strangely stationary. With legs slightly apart and arms by their sides – a ‘stand-at-ease’ position – many of the men in the first row look directly at the camera. They know they are being examined, and so instead of pushing their way forward, they respond by inviting inspection themselves, as though already on military display.

What brought millions of men to the gates of such army recruitment offices for inspection, measurement and enlistment? At the start of the war, new Indian recruits were ostensibly granted the power of choice. Unlike Britain, conscription was never introduced in India, and enlisting was therefore voluntary. The British Empire, however, needed men urgently, and requirements for entry were considerably relaxed, including the acceptance of underweight and anaemic applicants – those most desperate for a steady income. However, even to those more physically able, war became many things aside from ideological positions. Participating in the Second World War was an opportunity for new employment, a means of protecting entitled access to jobs especially in the traditional recruiting region of the Punjab, and a battleground for securing particular community rights.   Diva Gupta is a PhD researcher in the Department of English, King’s College London. Watch a short film on her project here. You may also be interested in Exploring emotional worlds: Indian soldiers’ letters from the Second World War.