Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal on what a photographic collection depicting the recruitment of Indian soldiers tells us about the British Indian Army in 1942.

August 1942 was a moment of profound anxiety for the British Empire in India. Japanese forces had driven Allied forces from Burma and stood on India’s eastern frontier. Japanese propaganda claimed that Japan stood poised to liberate Asians from European colonialism.[1]

Meanwhile the Quit India Movement, a large-scale nationalist uprising against colonial rule, had shaken British rule in India to its foundations. Indian nationalists led by the Indian National Congress party were enraged with the colonial government’s decision to drag India into the Second World War without consulting a single Indian. Nationalist anger rose to boiling point by August 1942 exploding into the Quit India Movement in response to the colonial government’s unwillingness to offer India independence. British India was under siege both within and without. It is in this context that we turn to the present collection depicting the recruitment of Indian soldiers in the British Indian Army.

An Extra Assistant Recruiting Officer in Bangalore questioning men applying to be enrolled in the Indian Army.
© IWM IND 1255 Original caption: An Extra Assistant Recruiting Officer in Bangalore questioning men applying to be enrolled in the Indian Army.

The photographic collection is part of a wider British propaganda effort, the goal of which was to restore confidence in British rule by pointing to the Indian Army as both a substantial and enduring pillar of the empire. The photographs have been carefully staged so that they can speak to multiple audiences including the peoples of British, Indian, Commonwealth and Allied countries.

The collection portrays the process of recruitment including medical check-ups, the processing of paperwork and large gatherings of candidates. The collection also includes a substantial number of photos of near naked recruits posed at attention with a caption that labels their regional and ethnic origins. These photos, which are a mix of military and ethnographic photography, are meant to serve as evidence that the Indian Army was still capable of attracting recruits from castes deemed ideal candidates for military service by the so-called ‘martial races’ theory

This section of the India collection is remarkable for what it does not feature as much as it is for what it does include. A discussion of two major absences, that of the white British officer and the Sikh recruit, is revealing of the deep anxieties that pervaded the Indian Army in 1942.

For a collection on the British Indian Army, the present selection of photos is remarkable for the absence of white British officers, who would have made up the bulk of the officer corps of the Indian Army in 1942. The reason for the absence of even a single British officer in the photographs most likely reflects the increasingly widespread view among British propagandists that British officers ought to be kept ‘out of the picture’ in images of India in order to avoid offending Indian and American opinion.[2]  Indian nationalists had long pressed for ‘Indianisation’, the replacement of British officers by Indian ones. This would reduce the high costs of paying for British personnel from Indian coffers. It would also help put India on the path to independence by putting Indians in positions of responsibility. This meant it was politic to avoid showing British officers. Care also had to be taken to avoid inflaming the perceived anti-colonial sentiments of American audiences.

Despite the absence of images of British officers, the gaze of the photographs, as well as the original captions accompanying them, are unmistakably British. The colonial gaze, particularly in photos of near nude soldiers from the ‘martial races’, consistently dehumanises its subjects by portraying them merely as examples of a particular caste and region. British officers may be absent from the photographs but there is little doubt that they were behind their framing.


An Indian army recruit  has his thumb impression taken.
© IWM IND 1302 Original caption: An Indian Army recruit rejected on medical grounds has his thumb impression taken and is paid a compensation subsistence allowance

Another key absence from a selection of photos that is clearly informed by the ‘martial races’ theory is the lack of photos, with only one exception, of Sikh recruits. Sikhs had made up a substantial proportion of the Indian Army from the nineteenth-century when they had proven their loyalty to the British Empire by coming to its aid during the rebellion of 1857. Sikhs had been prized for their valour in combat and had been categorised as a ‘martial race’ by the British. Despite this not a single Sikh recruit is to be found among these photographs, an absence that is jarring given the collection’s obsession with exhibiting candidates from the ‘martial races’. The reason for the absence of Sikh recruits in the collection is perhaps explained by the colonial government’s displeasure with the community for its political activism in the inter-war years.[3]

By 1942 the Indian government had shifted increasingly towards relying on North Indian Muslims with more than a third of the Indian Army being made up of Muslims. The enormous demands of the war also forced the Indian Army to recruit increasingly from South Indian ‘non-martial races’ as indicated by the proliferation of photos in the collection of so-called ‘Madrasi’ troops being recruited from Bangalore in South India. Significantly southern soldiers receive none of the ethnographic attention reserved for their northern counterparts. Their inclusion in the collection is nevertheless indicative of the shifting nature of the Indian Army during the Second World War. Even as colonial propagandists emphasised the enduring support of the Indian army for the British Empire, the composition of the institution was shifting in fundamental ways. 

The absences in the photographs then point to both an army and a colony in the grips of a major transformation prompted by the Second World War. With Japanese forces on its borders and nationalist agitations within, the Raj was forced to rely on the Indian army not only to protect it militarily but also to legitimate it. Propaganda aimed at British, Indian and American audiences attempted to portray the Indian Army as a pillar of stability in a changing world. Nevertheless, as the collection itself hints the Indian army was undergoing a metamorphosis. This would have important consequences not only for the end of colonial rule, which the war made inevitable, but also for the new independent states of South Asia which would emerge from the wreckage of the British Empire in India.

About the author

Aashique Ahmed Iqbal is currently Assistant Professor in History at Krea University in India. He is an historian of modern South Asia with an interest in aviation, state formation and military history.

Aashique received his Masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a DPhil from the University of Oxford. A book, based on his doctoral research on the relationship between aviation and decolonisation titled The Aeroplane and the Making of Modern India will be published in early 2022 by Oxford University Press.

[1] C. Bayly and T. Harper, Forgotten Armies, (Penguin books, London, 2005), p 38.

[2] P. Woods, ‘From Shaw to Shantaram: The film advisory board and the making of propaganda films in India, 1940-43’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 21, 3, 2001.

[3] G. Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars, (Bloomsbury, London 2014), p 23.

Explore the photos


Explore the stories behind some of these historic images, with new captions written by researchers looking at how they can uncover new perspectives on recruitment to the British Indian Army in 1942. 

Behind the Photographs >

Further context
Explore the context behind some of the concepts discussed in this article.

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