India as the pivot in Asia

If there is anything to be learnt from the history of India’s Second World War, it is that India’s ability to be a pivotal power in Asia is contingent on the restoration of the strategic and economic unity of the subcontinent. Decades on, this remains a project worth pursuing

May 09, 2015 01:12 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:45 pm IST

Srinath Raghavan

Srinath Raghavan

“Whatever the present position of India might be, she is potentially a Great Power. Undoubtedly in the future she will have to play a very great part in security problems of Asia and the Indian Ocean, more especially of the Middle East and South-East Asia. Indeed, India is the pivot around which these problems will have to be considered…India is the centre of security in Asia.” These lines are from a Ministry of External Affairs note dated September 5, 1946. The notion of an Indian arc of influence stretching from Aden to Malacca was, of course, a staple of strategic thinking in the British Raj. Yet, these lines were written not by a mandarin of the Raj, but by the freshly appointed vice-president of the viceroy’s executive council, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The importance of India Nehru’s views on India’s current and future role in Asian security did not merely derive from the older ideas held by British officials. Rather, they reflected the reality of the moment. The Second World War had heralded India’s rise as a major regional power. Although India had been pulled into the conflict without so much as a by-your-leave to the nationalists, it had played an immense role especially in Asia. The Indian Army had recruited, trained and deployed some 2.5 million men. They had fought in an astonishing range of places: Hong Kong and Singapore; Malaya and Burma; Iraq, Iran and Syria; North and East Africa; Italy and Greece; Cyprus and Crete.

India’s material and financial contributions to the war were equally significant. India emerged as a major military-industrial and logistical base for Allied operations in South-East Asia and West Asia. Such extraordinary mobilisation for war was achieved at great human cost: the Bengal famine was the most extreme manifestation of widespread wartime deprivation. Yet, in the aftermath of the war, India’s importance was undeniable. By 1946, Japan lay prostrate in defeat. And China was enmeshed in a renewed civil war. India stood, therefore, as the most potent Asian military power.

It is essential to recall this moment as >President Pranab Mukherjee joins his Russian and Chinese counterparts to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Historical anniversaries are inevitably political occasions. More so, the anniversaries of the Second World War. During the >Cold War , the erstwhile Allies were not only ranged against each other, but also drew the former aggressors into alliances. This obviated the possibility of shared commemoration. The renewal of tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine has ensured that the current celebrations are almost as divided as those during the Cold War. India’s participation in the parade will inevitably signal the importance that it attaches to ties with Russia. Yet, it is important not to let politics overshadow history on this occasion. The government has done well to reclaim an essential episode in India’s ongoing rise to great power status.

The ‘Russian threat’ Indian participation in the celebrations in Russia is not without irony. Relations between India and Russia during the war were far from straightforward. The Raj had long held Russia to be the principal strategic threat to India. Indian military planners had spent decades drawing up schemes to meet the invader in Kabul or Kandahar. Concerns about the threat from Russia acquired a fresh lease of life after the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939. In the early months of the war, New Delhi and London remained apprehensive of a Russian threat to India via Afghanistan. With Britain embroiled in a continental war, it was believed that Russia might find this an opportune time to attack Afghanistan. These concerns were accentuated by the Soviet attack on Finland in late 1939.

The Afghan government was even more apprehensive about the Russians. For the past decade, Kabul had hankered after a British — effectively Indian — guarantee against Russian aggression. Although London had spurned these requests, New Delhi took it upon itself to send a small military mission to Kabul in early 1940. Even as the Indian and Afghan governments haggled over the quantum of military aid, the Germans booted the British Army out of Europe. Thereafter, the Afghans distanced themselves from the British and sought a rapprochement with the Russians. By late 1940, the Raj was relieved at the receding Russian threat to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, London and New Delhi were worried about a potential Russian threat to West Asia: especially the Anglo-Iranian oilfields and the port of Basra in Iraq. To secure these, a division of the Indian Army was earmarked to land in Basra. Within a few months, however, the strategic relationship between Russia and India was fundamentally transformed. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the latter’s early military reverses raised the spectre of a German thrust through the Caucasus to capture the oilfields of Iran. Since the onset of the war, Shah Reza Pahlavi had kept Iran resolutely neutral. Days after the invasion of Russia, London, New Delhi and Moscow discerned a common interest in taking control of Iran. The commander-in-chief of India, General A.P. Wavell, pointedly wrote: “It is essential we should join hands with Russia through Iran and if the present [Iranian] Government is not willing to facilitate this it must be made to give way to one which will.”

Invasion of Iran The Shah’s refusal to abandon his neutrality, led to a joint invasion of Iran on August 25, 1941. Around 1,00,000 troops of the Red Army attacked Iran from the north, while the 8th and 10th Indian Divisions struck south from Iraq. Three days later, the Iranian forces surrendered to Russian and Indian Army commanders. The Shah was forced to abdicate in favour of his pliant son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Indian Army occupied southern Iran for the remainder of the war: the now forgotten Persia and Iraq (PAI) Force. This episode also reminds us to avoid adopting too celebratory a stance on the Indian role in the war. The joint occupation provided a spark for Iranian nationalism, with immense consequences for the country and the region. Among those who denounced the occupation of the country and the acquiescence of the new Shah was a young Islamic scholar, Ruhollah Khomeini: the future leader of the Iranian revolution.

Glossed over, back home Why have such episodes been airbrushed in our historical memory? Some commentators have recently claimed that the Congress wished to have no truck with India’s role in the war and hence successive governments refused to acknowledge the part played by India. This seems too simplistic and facile. Not only was Nehru himself aware of the import of the war for India, but his government published a 25-volume official history of India’s participation in the war — books that remain indispensable. More striking is the fact that this project involved collaboration between official historians in India and Pakistan.

The war does not have purchase on our historical imagination for different reasons. In the first place, our historical profession has focussed mainly on the development of anti-colonial nationalism or various forms of subaltern resistance against elites of all stripes. The Indian Army has proved an uncongenial subject because it entails the study of subalterns who collaborated with the Raj. This accounts for the misshapen historiography of the Second World War, wherein a huge amount of ink has been spilt on the small Indian National Army, while the Indian Army — which was a hundred times as large — barely attracts attention.

Further, the political trajectory of the post-war subcontinent militated against a shared memory of the war. With Partition and the onset of the India-Pakistan rivalry, both the new states needed new stories for self-legitimation. Equally significant was the severing of Burma’s umbilical ties with India and the inward turn of that country for several decades. From late 1947, independent India was no longer capable of projecting its power in West Asia and South-East Asia as earlier. The Cold War further complicated India’s international position and drew it in a different direction from that envisaged by Nehru in 1946.

If there is anything to be learnt from the history of India’s Second World War, it is that India’s ability to be a pivotal power in Asia is contingent on the restoration of the strategic and economic unity of the subcontinent: both to its west with Pakistan and Afghanistan and to its east with Bangladesh and Burma. Seventy years on, this remains a project worth pursuing.

(Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His book, India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-45, will be published later this year.)

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