The politics of 1942

The Indian political scene in 1942 was dominated by the Quit India Movement, a large-scale uprising by nationalists against British rule.  The agitation had its roots in differences over the war between Indian nationalists and the colonial government. Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India had declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, without consulting any Indians. This angered India’s largest political party, the Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi. Though Congress was not against fighting the war, it argued that Indians ought to be granted a greater power in the running of the Indian government with a view towards eventually gaining the country independence. Negotiations on Indian independence failed and the British used wartime legislation to repress Congress activities. Consequently, on 8 August 1942 the party chose to abandon the largely symbolic protests it had been carrying out in favour of an all-out agitation for independence. Colonial authorities responded by jailing the Congress leadership, including Gandhi, without trial and using military force to quell the Quit India Movement. The failure of the movement knocked the Congress out of politics for the remainder of the war. (Dr Aashique Iqbal)

Timeline of 1942

1942 was an important year for India. The year began with terrifying news for the colony; the Imperial Japanese Army had invaded Burma forcing Allied forces to retreat accompanied by hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly Indian civilians who had settled in the colony. By May the Japanese had taken all of Burma and were positioned to invade India. The Japanese Navy bombed Ceylon in April before launching minor air raids on India’s eastern coast. Pressured by the Americans to come to an agreement with Indian nationalists, the British government dispatched a mission under Sir Stafford Cripps which failed in March 1942 to achieve a political agreement with Indian parties. Disillusioned with the Cripps mission and with the British willingness to fight to defend its Asian colonies, Indian nationalists launched a mass agitation for independence called the Quit India Movement in August 1942. The movement saw widespread attacks by Indians against symbols of government authority. Colonial authorities responded with mass arrests and military repression. By December 1942 tens of thousands of Indians were in jail. (Dr Aashique Iqbal)

The British Indian Army in the Second World War

The Indian Army was a crucial, though often overlooked, part of the British war effort in the Second World War. India, as both land and resource, was central to both Allied and Axis strategies, but the war might well have been lost by the Allies without the efforts of India and other territories that still remained under British colonial control in the 1940s.

Numbering 200,000 Indian soldiers at the start of the war in 1939, the Indian Army grew to over 2.5 million men by 1945, through a concerted, and often coercive, British recruitment drive. The Indian Army included men from across South Asia, from the princely states governed by regional rulers, and territories under the British government which were given some measure of provincial autonomy under the 1935 Government of India Act. The Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India) recruited 11,500 women, in addition to the tens of thousands of women working as labourers on war contracts.

Figures for the number of Indian casualties have often been underestimated, but current research suggests that approximately 87,000 individuals in the Indian Armed Forces were killed. There were also about 80,000 Prisoners of War, mostly held in the eastern parts of Asia.

Indian citizens served in nearly every theatre of war. They were a major part of the first Allied land-victory in East Africa, then in North Africa, followed by the liberation of Italy. There was an Indian contingent with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940, some of whom were present at Dunkirk. Throughout the war 30 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indian, Nepalese and British soldiers serving in the Indian Army, 13 of them posthumously.

Indian men also fought in much smaller numbers in the Indian National Army in support of the Axis powers. The Indian National Army hoped to gain Indian independence through British defeat. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics team)

‘Indianisation’ of the Indian Army

The ‘Indianisation’ of the Indian army was a key bone of contention between Indian nationalists and the colonial government. In the aftermath of the First World War Indians had pushed for the appointment of greater numbers of Indians in the officer corps of the Indian Army which had been overwhelmingly dominated by white British personnel. Such an ‘Indianisation’ would prove beneficial since it would reduce the high wages paid to white British officers from Indian revenues. It would also demonstrate Britain’s willingness to set India on the path to self-government. Despite immense pressure on colonial authorities to ‘Indianise’ the army, they proved reluctant to recruit substantial numbers of Indians since this would compromise colonial control of the military and also because of the racist idea that Indians were unfit to lead as military officers. Indians were therefore permitted to rise to the rank of non-commissioned officers but denied promotions into the higher echelons of the Indian Army. The handful of Indian officers who were permitted into the Indian Army were confined to eight units and routinely subjected to racial discrimination. Only the outbreak of the Second World War and the shortages of British officers that accompanied the conflict forced the colonial government to commission Indians to the officer corps. The ‘Indianisation’ that accompanied the Second World War made independent dominions viable and contributed to the eventual decision to end colonial rule in India. (Dr Aashique Iqbal)

Recruitment handbooks

The standards and practices of recruitment into the Indian Army were set out in a series of handbooks for British officers, based on the inconsistent racist doctrine of ‘martial race’ theory, which had developed in the 1850s in an attempt to improve the quality of recruits to the British Army across the British Empire.

Each handbook focused on particular geographical groups, ‘castes’ and ethnic communities, though these varied in scope and definition and were added to over time. Each ’race‘ was attributed with a set of supposedly inherent characteristics by the British officers and ethnographers who compiled these volumes. Based on this pseudo-science, the physical type and character traits ascribed to each group were used to judge their suitability as soldiers and ‘loyalty’ to the British Empire. Individual merit, and the personal skills or abilities of each recruit, were less important.

The first recruitment handbooks were published from the late nineteenth-century onwards, regularly updated and still in use in 1942. By 1942 explicit use of ‘martial race’ theory had been largely abandoned. This change represented a pragmatic assessment of the need for increased numbers of soldiers, which overrode the demands of any ideologically based selection process. Application of ‘martial race’ ideology in military recruitment was not formally abolished by the Indian government until 1949, three years after Indian independence, but the legacy of this practice has continued to shape the armies in both Indian and Pakistan. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics team)

‘Martial race’ theory

From 1857 until the 1940s, British recruitment and organisation of the British Indian Army was constructed around the idea of so-called ‘martial races’, a pseudo-scientific, racist ideology.

It outlined that some Indian men, because of their ‘caste’ or ethic group affiliations, were more ‘suitable’ soldiers and should be targeted for recruitment.

Within the British Indian Army, the ‘martial’ groups included Gurkhas (mostly from Nepal) and Sikhs and Muslims from Punjab. The theory asserted that these groups had a tradition of participation in warfare, and that therefore each individual had a high level of bravery and a natural aptitude for fighting lacking in the majority of other Indian men, especially those from south and east India. This categorisation became a way for the British government to cut through and simplify the complexity of Indian society and history. Labelling the members of an ethnic or religious group as ‘martial’ or ‘non-martial’ reveals the way Indian citizens were racialised by the British in India.

The ‘martial races’ were also largely those who had supported the British in the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. A more accurate label, therefore, might have been ‘loyalist groups’. 

As the Second World War intensified, especially after Japan entered the war at the end of 1941, demands for soldiers from India increased. Recruitment into the armed forces was correspondingly widened to include all parts of the country, and all religions and groups. At a time when Britain needed men in large numbers, the old rule of ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ was abandoned. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics team)