In September 1939, Lord Linlithgow (Victor Alexander John Hope, 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow), the viceroy of India from 1936 to 1943, declared war on Germany and Italy on behalf of India and suspended the Government of India Act of 1935. Although this move was constitutionally correct, Linlithgow's failure to consult with the Indian legislature proved politically disastrous, as the British government had been endeavoring to encourage representative government by Indian elites. In response to Linlithgow's action, a large number of Congress Party members resigned their government posts. This outcome was ironic, as most Indians, including many princes and Congress Party leader Jawaharlal Nehru, opposed the Axis. A small number of Indian politicians, most notably Mohandas K. Gandhi, opposed all wars as a matter of principle.
In March 1942, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps arrived in India with a proposal for granting immediate self-rule after the war ended. The Congress Party rejected this offer and answered with the Quit India movement, announced on 8 August 1942. The movement called for an immediate end to British rule in India and involved mass struggle by nonviolent means. The British responded by arresting 60,000 leaders of the Congress Party, including both Nehru and Gandhi. Although the Muslim League also rejected the Cripps Plan, it benefited from its more moderate stance, and the influence of its leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, grew.
As noted, India was an important source of manpower for the Allied war effort. In 1938, British War Secretary Leslie Hore-Belisha recommended that the Indian army be reorganized, since too many British soldiers were deployed in India. But in June 1939, the Chatfield Commission held that a wholly Indian military was not feasible. The commission members believed British troops were necessary to keep peace between Muslims and Hindus—and, not incidentally, to maintain British control. In consequence, no major reorganization or modernization of the Indian army occurred. In 1939, the army numbered 189,000 men, of whom 65,000 were in administrative or communication positions. Much of the army's equipment was obsolete. Moreover, the army had no antitank units and only eight antiaircraft guns; there was also a serious shortage of artillery, let alone modern types.
The British government in India believed that the country would not be heavily involved with the war, particularly not overseas. Consequently, in the first eight months of the conflict, the government accepted only 53,000 volunteers to supplement existing forces. Even so, two brigades of the Indian army were deployed to Egypt in October 1939. And in 1940, Indian troops were dispatched to the Afghan border, Iraq, Malaya, Burma, and East Africa.
The Indian military grew considerably during the war. Defense spending increased from 49.5 million rupees in 1939–1940 to 395.3 million in 1945–1946. The army also expanded apace. A total of 2,644,323 men served in the Indian army during the war, of whom approximately 2 million were combatants. Indian forces fought in Syria, North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, Malaya, Greece, Sicily, and Italy. A total of 179,935 became casualties, including prisoners of war (POWs). Indians formed the bulk of Allied fighting troops in Southeast Asia; of 1 million British troops in the region, more than 700,000 were Indian. Although Muslims were only 27 percent of the total Indian population, they formed two-thirds of the Indian troops in North Africa, Italy, Malaya, and Burma.
In April 1942, in order to counter a possible Japanese invasion of India from Burma, the British commander in chief, General Archibald P. Wavell, reorganized the Indian army structure of independent commands and formed it into Central Command and three armies: Northwestern, Central, and Eastern. In December 1942, the Eastern Army attacked into the Arakan, and the next year, it became General Sir William J. Slim's Fourteenth Army. In 1943, the British command placed more emphasis on jungle training, which stood Indian forces in good stead when they engaged the Japanese.
In the Japanese capture of Singapore in February 1942, 60,000 Indian troops became POWs. Radical Indian nationalist politician Subhas Chandra Bose and the Japanese convinced some 25,000 of them to join the Indian National Army (INA, also known as the Azad Hind Fanj) and fight to end British rule in India. The Japanese viewed this force as an effective tool against British power, whereas its members saw themselves as an army of national liberation. Ultimately, some 7,000 INA troops were attached to Japanese units and fought in the Imphal Offensive into India. The remainder were used as auxiliaries. Most of the poorly trained and poorly equipped INA forces were either taken prisoner or deserted.
The rapid acceleration of the Indian war effort, especially following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, spurred tremendous economic growth and led to a major expansion of India's industrial base. India contributed vast amounts of material to the British Empire's war effort, including raw materials, steel, locomotives and rolling stock, assault craft, and electrical components. Batteries produced in India were a vital component of air-to-ground communications, and India took the lead in manufacturing parachutes and uniforms and in assembling tens of thousands of armored vehicles from Canadian and U.S. components. India also supplied more than 50,000 stretchers, in excess of 1 million blankets, 250,000 mosquito nets, 1.5 million water-testing tablets, and 160 tons of mosquito-repellent cream. Further, to cope with the Allied rubber shortage, India established rubber plantations, experimented with reclaimed rubber, and produced considerable quantities of tires and hoses. It also produced alloy steels for guns and small arms, bayonets, shells, primers, and explosives, as well as steel for the manufacture of antiaircraft guns, antitank shells, and light machine guns.
In addition, Indian princes contributed on an individual basis to the war effort, donating material goods such as blankets, woolen cloth, silk for parachutes, and rubber products. The nawab of Bhopal liquidated his investments in the United States and used the money to purchase a squadron of Spitfire aircraft.
The war brought restrictions on movement, civil rights, and food supplies. As the threat of a Japanese attack increased, the viceroy ordered a "scorched-earth" policy that mandated the confiscation of all bicycles and boats in major coastal cities such as Calcutta. These seizures threatened the livelihood of many Indians and made food distribution more difficult. Between 1940 and 1942, prices of basic consumer goods increased an average of 250 percent, and the government began rationing grain, sugar, and cloth. Bengal was especially hard hit, for a famine there in 1943 claimed between 700,000 and 1.5 million lives; it was brought on, in part, by Japanese attacks against shipping along India's east coast. In addition to the high prices for food, India was unable to secure food imports from Burma after it was controlled by the Japanese.
Once the war had ended, it was apparent that the British could not long retain their control of India: the war had strengthened indigenous nationalist movements. Consequently, on 20 February 1947, the Labour government in London announced that it would transfer power to India no later than June 1948. However, despite Gandhi's pleas, religious animosity led to the partition of India. The Muslim eastern and western portions became Pakistan on 14 August 1947; a day later, the remainder of India became independent. Laura J. Hilton
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Laura J. Hilton