Listen: Raghu Karnad '05 on "The Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War"
Raghu Karnad '05, an award-winning writer and journalist living between Delhi and Bangalore, discusses his breakout book Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. The book narrates the lost epic of India’s war, in which the largest volunteer army in history fought for the British Empire, even as its countrymen fought to be free of it. It carries readers from Madras to Peshawar, Egypt to Burma – unfolding the saga of a young family amazed by their swiftly changing world, and swept up in its violence. In the talk, Karnad describes the process of historical research that informed his writing, as well as the events that led him to undertake his project.
The book has received glowing praise on NPR and from a myriad of media outlets including Times of India, Financial Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. Listen to Karnad discuss the book at NPR.
Karnad graduated with high honors from Swarthmore in 2005, majoring in political science with a minor in biology. He received an additional degree in English from Oxford University and is a contributing editor at TheWire.in.
Ben Berger: Thank you all for being here, at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. We're so pleased to have one of our own back. Raghu Karnard, class of 2005. Raghu was a student of mine, the very first year I started teaching in poly sci, a very raw first year. He was part of the class that broke me in, and that was I think maybe good for both of us. Raghu is a journalist who is based in Delhi and Bangalore. At the 2005 commencement, if I'm not mistaken, you gave the commencement address. Is that right? Yep. He majored in poly sci, minored in biology. He's always had a diversity of interests even though you're doing history now. That's a third thing drawn in there as well. Did poly sci very well and graduated with high honors. He studied at Oxford too where he took a first. I think did you not also know Emily Patton there who's going to be teaching for us? Yeah. Emily Patton is starting next year in the poly sci department doing international relations and met Raghu at Oxford. We won't say that's the real reason she got the job. She's very talented in her own right. Our people come together in unexpected ways.
Raghu has been a reporter on the Indian magazine's Outlook and Tehelka and a former editor of Time Out Delhi. He has won prizes in Europe and India. This book of his, this breakout book, which I was putting in the advertising because it's true, is getting spectacular reviews in the UK, in India. He's got a fabulous review in the Los Angeles Times book review here in the States. He's been on NPR and Morning Edition. Everything is coming up sparkling for this really phenomenal piece that combines prose writing with nonfiction and really scrupulously detailed history. It's an exemplar of the right kind of writing. It shows that at least we didn't harm your writing here at Swarthmore. I want to just read a couple of lines from your commencement address to show people here a little bit of the person that you used to be and the combination of sparkling wit and philosophy that Raghu embodied then and is going to continue to impress us with today.
Raghu said at the commencement address, "I've always been sentimental about this place. I think that being at Swarthmore is like a romance. No, that doesn't mean that it has been one continuously passionate sexy affair. Even the admissions office wouldn't go that far. But, I've often felt like my relationship with Swarthmore itself was subject to those ups and downs and ups." In conclusion, he said, "It was a lovely college. Actually you know there are ups and downs. Sometimes it was just unreasonable," which is true. "But, I work hard. I gave a lot, and I learned a lot. I didn't want it to last forever. Four years was about all I could take. We had a damn good time together, and standing here at the end of it, I'm proud of the person I've become." We are so proud of the person he's become and is still becoming because we know you're on to very big things after this too. I want to welcome you to talk about this fabulous book Farthest Field, Raghu Karnard.
Raghu Karnad: Well, Ben since you did quote from that extremely embarrassing composition of mine, it's obvious that one of those lines was not honest, and that was the one about how I didn't want it to last forever because when I was graduating, I absolutely did want it to last forever. The fact that I'm standing over here might be proof of that. Anyway, it's amazing. It's such a thrill to be back here after 10 years. We graduated in 2005, and here we are now. Here's a friend from Bryn Mawr over here from back in the day. Anyway, fantastic. Thank you Ben, wherever you've gone, and thank you to the poly sci department and the history department.
Since I'm more or less going to try and work in a crash course in India's World War II into this half hour, and it won't be much longer than that, I should start with a caveat, which is that I'm not a historian. I wasn't even an amateur historian until three years ago, which was when I first learned of the existence of a young man in my family. He was my grandmother's brother, and his name was Bobby Mugaseth. There's a photograph that will flash up of him at some point. Maybe I can start right there. Yeah, it's meant to be. Anyway, that was him. Bobby was completely unfamiliar to me. He had died many, many years before, and I only knew him as this photograph that sort of rested in a dusty frame on a table in my grandmother's house. He'd begun to fade from family memory like people do. After my grandmother's death and with the passing of that generation, he seemed to be on the verge of ceasing to exist in anyone's memory at all, sort of ceasing to exist even as a memory.
What I learned about him on that day three years ago, made me urgently need to recover everything that I could about this guy who was only a face to me. What I learned was that he had been commissioned into the British Indian army in 1942, which was the height of the second world war, but was also the height of India's freedom movement. For me, this was extremely unexpected for a couple of reasons. One, because I didn't know who on earth he was. The second was that, I'm a journalist, I thought I knew a fair amount about India's modern history. I thought I knew a fairly good deal about the second world war, thanks in part to Professor James Kurth, who taught a kick ass class about it, back here Poly sci 003. I don't know who teaches that now, but those are big shoes to fit.
But, thought I knew about the second world war, thought I knew about Indian history, but it had never once occurred to me in my entire life to think about how those two overlapped, what India was doing in the second world war. It certainly never occurred to me to look for a personal or a family connection in that overlap. What followed on this discovery about Bobby was that it wasn't just him. It was two other young men, his brothers-in-law, so all of the young men of that family in that generation who had signed up to go and fight for the British empire at exactly the point that their countrymen were fighting to be free of the British empire. They hadn't all come back. I didn't know why, but now I had to find out.
That was the beginning of a private quest that started on the pier of the town of Calicut in southwest coastal India and ended in the village of Kohima in the hills of northeast, the furthest, the fringe of northeastern India overlooking the border with Burma and passed en route through many different parts of the country and many different places in the world, none of which I had every expected or ever associated with the second world war but all of which it turned out were profoundly involved in the war and profoundly transformed by it. I'm talking about places like Eritrea and Ethiopia, Iraq, and Iran, places like Peshawar in the northwest frontier, which is now in Pakistan, places like Java and Sumatra. All of them turned out to be a part of the epic of the second world war. For some reason, which I would slowly piece together theory of myself, for some reason those campaigns and those theaters of the second world war were forgotten, as indeed was India's part in the second world war.
If you grow up in India, what you think of as happening in the middle decades or rather in the 1940's is the pinnacle of the Gandhian movement. There's really no notion whatsoever that India was involved in the fighting in the greatest military experience, or the most terrible military event in human history. The Indian army turns out to not have been a minor force by any means in the second world war. In fact by the end of the war, the Indian army was 2.5 million men and women strong. That made it the largest non-conscripted army, not just in the war itself, but the largest all volunteer army to have ever been raised in human history. That obviously meant that the war, the second world war was the largest military engagement in Indian history, which made it more surprising that it disappeared the way it had. The campaigns in which this army was engaged were not small campaigns. It turns out that they were each an enormous historical episode or historic event of their own.
An example, just one example of such a campaign, was that in 1941, about 60 years before a very similar campaign was conducted, and at that point I was here at Swarthmore, and that was going down. The Indian army landed two divisions in Basra in Iraq and fought the Iraqi army back towards Baghdad, this is 1941, sorry, and along with the Russian army coming down from the south and a British expeditionary force with the French coming in from the west, occupied the Republic of Iraq. Having done that, the Indian army then went ahead and invaded and occupied the territory of Iran. Then the Indian army formed, for the remainder of the war, had formed the bulk of an occupation force that held these two countries, three times the territory of France, and held them under occupation for a further four years.
When I was at Swarthmore, we did a lot of thinking about the invasion of Iraq because 2003, it was actually going down. It was more than a little bit striking that this history, this precedent for the invasion of Iraq, and it's a very close precedent. It even involves the sort of same strategic movements that we would see 60 years later, that this precedent had been set by Indians, and I had never heard about it. That's the sort of example of the kinds of history that had been mislaid or perhaps even erased from the record, not just India, not just within India and within the public consciousness of Indians, but globally as well. I was attempting to try and piece together a story, nonetheless. I was lucky in two ways. I was lucky because the personal stories of Bobby Mugaseth and his family that I was following turned out to have a great deal of felicity with this larger story.
By following them, their story captured in reflection the larger story of Indians in the second world war. By following them, I could see through their eyes this hidden landscape of India's war. I was also lucky because I had come to this history, I had come to this story very late, 70 years after the event itself. In fact, this year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war, which is food for thought, which we can come back to later. In any case, I come to it late, much too late to ask my grandmother about her personal story, to ask her what had happened, obviously much too late to ask Bobby himself about what he had experienced or why he had committed himself to a war like that.
I was not yet too late to meet surviving members of that generation, some of whom are still with us. Some of them were civilians who had known the family and unfolded for me some of the stories and gave me insights into their personal, into their thinking. Others of them were veterans who hadn't known the family, Indian veterans, but who had known the war and were able to share with me some perspective and some understanding of what it meant to be in that position, to be fighting for an imperial power when your countrymen are fighting to be rid of it. With those insights and with those stories recovered, I wrote this book, which is called Farthest Field, an Indian story of the second world war.
I would love to tell you more about what's in the book. I won't tell you about the personal story because that would be a spoiler, obviously. I think that it would be interesting to everyone to have a sort of quick outline of what India's experience of the war was since it runs in parallel with the personal story as well. I have a map that's on a pdf on here. Do you think we can open that up? I'll make this as brief as I possibly can, but I want to run you through the historical events, and I'll give two short readings from the book while I do it. I want to run you through some of the historical events, so that some of the larger conclusions or implications that I want to share or to offer make sense.
That's an American train by the way. Lots of American military history involved in this situation as well. Okay. Anyway, here we are. This is India, in case any of you are paying attention to that part of the world. This is the little town of Calicut where Bobby grew up. This is Madras, which is the capital of the presidency, the largest of the colonial state that dominated [inaudible 00:15:33] back in the day. Now, where do I begin? In the 1930's, I'm sure you're all aware that the Indian freedom movement was led by the Congress party and by Gandhi who managed to create a mass movement that was largely nonviolent and had a great role in ... Yeah, you're on top of that, right? The 1930's were a period of respite for the Indian freedom movement because of some accommodation measures that the British government had rolled out including a constitution in 1935 that gave the first sort of limited representation to Indians in provincial governments spread across the country. That had neutralized a lot of the opposition from the Congress party, and there wasn't a great deal of active opposition to the raj.
That ended in 1939 when events in Europe, which you're more familiar with, caused Britain to declare war on Germany. As an immediate reaction to that, the viceroy of India declared India as alongside, well, there was some legal debate about this. He was legally compelled to declare India into the war as well. India was now committed to the war against the Axis. The Indian national Congress was not at all happy about this. In fact, they were fairly outraged that the viceroy had declared several hundreds of millions of people who did not have freedom themselves to fight for the freedom of European nations, for the Polish and eventually for the French. That question of whose freedom is really at stake, and who should be fighting for whom would become the central existential question running through the Indian army. Why are we fighting for the freedom or for the liberty or the liberation of European states when those European states had until a few years ago been denying that exact freedom to Indians and to others in Asia?
In any case, the Congress took a couple of years to warm up into a state of active opposition and new laws that were passed in India during the war meant that they were fairly well suppressed. The Indian army marched out without much disturbance. You'll be familiar with the campaigns in which the Indians first began to fight, at least the one in Egypt and Libya, where they faced the armies of the Italians and [inaudible 00:18:35]. To put it into a larger perspective, by 1940 after the fall of France, almost the entire European continent was under fascist control. England, or Britain, was trapped on the far side of it, which left India, as the keystone of an extremely large British empire. That should give you a sense of how crucial India really was to the war effort and to strategic possibilities as well.
In 1941, when Germany broke the truce or the pact with the Soviet Union and invaded the Soviet Union and Russia, the fear this war was also turning against the Allies. The German army was advancing on Cairo. It was actually a palpable and material fear that the Axis armies might break through either Stalingrad or break through the Sinai. Since there hadn't been many reverses for them, yet it was actually imaginable that the Axis armies would rush right across the Middle East or across central Asia and invade India from Europe. Now seems like a completely fantastical idea, but at the time, it was such a real possibility that they put anti Panzer obstacles in the Khyber Pass. Luckily for everybody, things didn't go down that way.
What did happen was that in 1942, was that at the end of 1941, Japan entered the war. Japan entered the war obviously in the east and swept through southeast Asia and collapsed all of the defenses of the European colonies and countries, European colonies there, The Americans in the Philippines, and the Dutch in the East Indies, and the British in Malaya. They were completely unstoppable, and eventually within just a few weeks, in any case, sorry. No, this is good. It took only three or four months for the Japanese army to conquer all of this territory including Burma and push up right against the Indian border. As it turned out, the real threat to the Indian mainland was not from the West, from the European fascist armies but from the east, from Japan. The Japanese navy also returning from Pearl Harbor, in fact the very same fleet, entered the Indian Ocean and began and scattered the British eastern fleet and began to bomb the cities along the Eastern coast.
It's almost completely absent from the history of cities like Madras and of the eastern coast. To some extent it's still present in the histories of the city of Calcutta, that those cities lived in the shadow of the Japanese navy for a couple of weeks in this dread of a naval invasion in the weeks of March and April 1942. Enough of the big stuff. I will read a couple of pages from the book that'll give you a sense of the style of the writing and of how the personal story links up to this larger story. Bobby Mugaseth, that guy in the photograph, he and his sister, who is my grandmother, are currently in college. He's an engineering student. She's a medical student. They're in the city of Madras. The Japanese navy is at large in the Bay of Bengal and, I don't know exactly the chronology, but is about to bomb cities along this coast. I'll read two or three pages about what was happening in Madras.
Important context, and this is from their personal story. Bobby's sister Nugs, their family belongs to a community called the Parsis. Does everybody have a vague idea of who the Parsis are? They're essentially Iranian refugees who fled to India several centuries ago. They're just as furiously endogamous and opposed to intermarriage as any other Indian community. The fact that Bobby's sister Nugs was in love with someone from a Hindu community was bad news for them. They were hiding that fact from their families. They were in medical school together. In that context, it's April 1942.
This is a nice quote that I just wanted to share because it explains what the position of India in those weeks looked like at the time. This is a quote by George Orwell, who was working at the BBC at the time. He said, "The general plan is for the Germans to break through by land so as to reach the Persian Gulf, while the Japanese gain mastery of the Indian Ocean. The Germans and the Japanese have evidently staked everything on this maneuver in the confidence that if they can bring it off, it will have won them the war. If Singapore is lost, India becomes for the time being the center of the war, one might say, the center of the world." Well, as it happens, Singapore was lost without any resistance at all. Perhaps India was the center of the war for a while. It wasn't very happy to be there. Certainly no one in the city of Madras was. This is what was happening then.
"The script for their invasion was written, and only awaited its performance. The defense of [inaudible 00:25:11], the route at [inaudible 00:25:11], amphibian landing craft crunching into the corners of the beached temples at Mahabalipuram, the carnage in the coconut groves in flames. All that would be only the beginning of a cross India expedition, a rapid advance to reach the west coast and seal the port of Bombay. Around them, Madras prepared however it could. 22 miles of trench were dug around the city, and the ivory buildings of Queen Mary's College, a beach side beacon to enemy bombers, were painted over in dark gray." This is where these guys had done their undergrad basically.
"The college lecturers who had taught all of the Mugaseth girls were issued with time tables and tin helmets and patrolled the rooftops after dusk, listening for the sounds of bombers. Below them, the campus was under blackout. Students walked into railings and tumbled down stairs. At the secretariat, the commissioner of the city O. P. Reddy learned one morning that Governor Hope and the majority of his staff were about to depart for the Nilgiri hills. The city was about to be evacuated. Reddy was able to put in a call to surcharge [Boeg 00:26:21], first advisor to the governor, requesting instructions. 'You can do what you like,' [Boeg 00:26:27] replied. I have no time to discuss details. 'I have to catch the blue mountain express in a few minutes.' It was left to Reddy and the commissioner of police, Sir Lionel Casson to evacuate the penitentiary and thereafter to evacuate the caged predators in Madras zoo. But, to Reddy's horror, Casson sent in a platoon of Malabar special police to shoot dead the lions, tigers, and panthers as well as a single polar bear, which may alone have been grateful for it.
"From the government came more and more rules for hiding. Vehicles must have their headlights shaded. No lights visible outside any building from any angle. Rather than suffocating behind heavy drapes and blackened glass, Nugs simply left the electric lights off. Like a singing ocean liner, the city descended into gloomy darkness, and thieves came out into the streets. Hundreds of wells had been dug around the city for fire fighting and had curdled with larvae. Mosquitoes poured out thick as gas. The air raid sirens struck up their song in the evenings. They were signaling practice drills, which meant blackout without stoppage of civilian traffic. There was a siren chart to memorize, so you knew which combination of a steady note and a modulated wailing meant a real air raid, but Nugs's mind went blank each time the sirens started.
"Gunny," and Gunny is her beau with whom she's conducting this secret romance, "Gunny arrived every day before sundown. As the light left through the window, they lit the kerosene lamp and slipped under their bed net together. The days were innovating, but at night their senses grew large from the narcotic mix of heat, dark, and dread. When the sirens fell silent, their hearts drummed in their ears. Their skin hummed, and sweat ran down their necks with touch as sure as fingertips. At any moment, the world might go up in flames. Nugs and Gunny made the most of that possibility. As one of those nights turned to morning, they were woken at a quarter to five by the siren crying out real air raid. The sound that had baptized half the world into war washed over them, but they didn't move. Nugs in secret felt more at peace than she had in years. For as long as she'd been with Gunny, they'd both felt a ruining anxiety about leaving their homes and losing their families. Suddenly that feeling was universal. Everybody was afraid of losing everything. It was wonderful. It made their vulnerability seem less like the cost of a private passion and more like the rule of a new age. Henceforth, all homes are forfeit. Everyone will be afraid."
That's a little scene from Madras in early 1942 as they anticipate the Japanese naval invasion, which never happened in the event mainly because the US naval fleet rallied and sailed out across the Pacific, and the Japanese navy had to return and meet them at a battle called Midway, from which the Japanese navy would never really recover. That was the point at which my protagonists entered the war. Here's a little sketch of where they and their units ended up going. This is the 5th Indian division, which is a [inaudible 00:29:56] division, which Bobby, my central character joins and turns out to be the first division as far as I can tell in the entire second world war of any army to face both every Axis adversary, the Italians, the Germans, the Vichy French, the Japanese, and in fact by the end, to face other Indians in the form of the Indian National Army, which was a renegade army that had split off and was turned by the Japanese to fight back against the British empire. That is the scale of the experience of the 5th Indian division.
To give an example of the kinds of places where they fought and the campaigns that don't hold much of place in our imagination of the second world war, they fought in Sudan and Ethiopia and in some fairly major battles in Eritrea. These areas are better known, but they also spent a good deal of time, as I probably told you, in Iraq and then sailed back to Bombay eventually as the dreaded Japanese invasion that didn't take place in 1942 was eventually attempted in the spring of 1944, but it was a land invasion. It took place over these hills, and the 5th Indian division was flown over there to fight at that point. In the town of Kohima, there was a very famous stand that was voted in a poll of British historians as the most important British military victory in history. That was obviously a very controversial verdict, but in any case, it was a surprise because most people don't remember what Kohima was, and most people don't know where Kohima is. It's over there, next to what's marked as Imphal.
After the defeat of Japan's military expedition towards Kohima, their army collapsed back through Burma, and that was the beginning of the end of the war in Asia, the land war in Asia. Before I wrap up, I just want to mention one last episode of India's second world war and of the second world war in general. That took place here in this little town of Surabaya. It took place outside of what you would regularly consider to be the chronology of the second world war because it was a few weeks or a couple of months post August 15th, the date of the Japanese surrender. In early November, and we're soon coming up on the 70th anniversary of this major date that nobody's heard of, in early November of 1945, the 5th Indian division, which is the division that this book follows once it gets into its military chapters, sailed down from Burma and unloaded at the town of Surabaya.
Why? The terms of the Japanese surrender, now of course at this point the Japanese army was spread throughout this entire territory because they weren't pushed back out of it. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrounded from Tokyo, and so the army remained spread across this enormous territory. The terms of the surrender had it that Japanese troops on the ground were required to cooperate with Allied armies in returning all of this territory to its previous regimes. Its previous regimes in this case meant the Dutch would come back over here, and the French would come back over here. The Brits would come back over here and get that, and the Indian Brits would get that as well and so on. Of course the French themselves had only just been a few weeks out, a few months out of occupation. The same is true of the Dutch. They'd only been free of German occupation a few months. They were in no position to sail out and take control of their former colonial possessions.
Who was going to do it on their behalf? The British empire. Who was going to do it for the British empire? Indians. It wasn't that simple because in the years that the Japanese had held all of this territory, partisans, local partisans and freedom fighters had sprung up in all of these places who had resisted the Japanese in guerrilla fighting. Now that the Japanese were leaving, they certainly had no intention of sitting back while the French and the Dutch and the Brits came back to take control of their countries. Some of these would go on to be very famous people like Ho Chi Minh and [inaudible 00:35:05]. Certain Japanese commanders who were not inclined to help the Allied armies come take control of those territories decided to hand over their arms instead to these local partisans. Those arms included guns and tanks and automatic weapons with the result that in November of 1945, what I consider to be part of the second world war, and an important concluding episode in the second world war, Indonesians armed by the Japanese were pitted against Indians fighting under British orders on behalf of the Dutch in Indonesia.
It was sad to say not a minor firefight that took place there but a battle that led to the devastation of the city of Surabaya, the deaths of hundreds of Indian soldiers, some of whom who had been part of that division all the way from Eritrea and therefore had survived five years of the second world war but then perished in Surabaya and the deaths of tens of thousands of Indonesians, so many in fact that that date is still remembered as Hero's Day in Indonesia, a fact which is awkward for Indians to remember given that we were the antagonist. What are the implications of all of this? I mean, it's very complicated. Fighting for freedom, subordination, treason, it's all really mixed up in the identity of the Indian army and in the identity of everyone from a colonial society who is participating and aiding the war effort. Some of that confusion and that ambiguity goes a little way in explaining why history of this size and of this scale has vanished from memory. To conclude as clearly as I can, I'll just read from my final chapter about my conclusions about what happened and this memory.
"The surrender of Japan was signed on 15th August 1945. Two years later to the day, the British raj was over. India's independence was on 15th August of 1947. It was the intimacy of the two events that ensured that one or the other must be alighted. In the decades after the second world war as its empire declined, Britain cherished evermore its image as the brave little island that had stood up to global fascism. The war was Britain's redemption. Nazi Germany had been such a monstrous regime, and Japan's war making so phantasmagorical that it cast a general moral absolution over all the regimes that had held the world under force before them. It was preferable, almost justifiable to forget that Germany and Japan had mainly copied and outstripped Britain's own example. Their arguments were Britain's own ancient argument, now wielded by maniacs instead of MP's. Hitler had always admired the British surge in fact, and the horrors he strung upon Europe, the bombings and the concentration camps, were traditions of colonial rule unhinged by the fascist mentality and guided by the lights of perverted science."
I'll skip ahead. "The basic reason for British pride is India," Hitler once wrote. I think this is in Mein Kampf in fact. "The basic reason for English pride is India, and what India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us. In the center and east of Europe meanwhile, he pictured a racial colony as freely exploitable as the ones Britain founded in the new world. In fact, this war was nemesis risen from the hubris of the British world order. Even as it fought bravely for the freedom of nations, Britain remained the world's colonial hegemon. The most terrible imprint of colonialism, famine, would before the end tarnish all of Britain's enlightened designs. The famine in Bengal, which took place between 1943 and 1944, was in [inaudible 00:39:48] words, 'the final epitaph of British rule and achievement in India.' It's cost in Indian lives was ten times the cost of the whole war in British lives, military and civilian together. It was the last epidemic famine in India. Its toll meant that Britain could not step off its two hundred year old throne looking noble.
"Avoiding these scenes we grew accustomed to viewing the war as the western front, the eastern front, and the Pacific. To risk an anachronism, we take only a first world view of the second world war as if the third world had slept. The reality that the second world war was a war continuous with the world order before it was apparent in places that faced colonial suppression before and immediately after. For societies in north and east Africa, in the Middle East, and on India's northwest frontier, the distinction between the two world wars may have been elusive. Many of them had only known a continuous climate of imperial control and contestation. The reconquest of Burma after the victory at Imphal at Kohima was for General Slim necessary as a moral and military redemption, but to Churchill it was a play for the empire's survival. This was widely realized even at the time. In some quarters, what SEAC stood for was not Southeast Asia Command but Save England's Asian Colonies."
To the extent that a kind of imperial war goes on even today, reverse engineering, political crises, to justify new conquests, it goes on in much the same geography. British forces were back in Basra, suppressing local resistance 60 years after Bobby left from there. The world's current empire is still bombing tracks in Waziristan in the northwest frontier as I mentioned, trying to drag faqirs out from under their rocks. One of Bobby's brothers-in-law joins the very young Indian air force and despite the kind of commitment of the British empire to the war, in so many different territories, what the young Indian air force mainly does for the first few years of the war is it bombs villages on the northwest frontier of India. The world's current empire still bombing tracks in Waziristan, trying to drive new faqirs out from under their rocks. [inaudible 00:42:18] the very villages that Manek, my character's squadron flew out to discipline in 1941 were still being punished by predator drones in 2013, which was the year that I was writing the chapter, the exact same villages.
The empires of the world, old and new, have let these places vanish from the atlas of the second world war. We are able to think of those years as a hiatus rather than a climax of the west's imperial obsessions. When it comes to remembering the Indians who served in the second world war, however, nobody could do less than India itself. Like the subcontinent's many war grave cemeteries which lie in stillness behind walls of bougainvillea, the memory of those men and women rests in caches private and unvisited. Within the walls of their cantonments, army regiments still keep a discreet communion with their exploits for the raj. In the end, they had defended India from invasion, but there's no notion widely held that that ever occurred. Their own families would eventually not know them, the brown men, inexplicably saluting the union jack.
It's obvious that it's neither the preserve of, let me skip to the end now. All right. This is a good bit. "The second world war in Burma and India's northeast was actually the British empire's largest and longest lasting campaign. Even in 1944 when the fighting was at its peak there, the men called themselves the forgotten army. That prescient phrase would later be used to title books about these allied 14th army, about the Indian national army, about the wide array of nationalist militias that sprang up in Japanese held Asia, about books, about the RAF in Asia, about Claude Auchinleck, the champion of the wartime Indian army. Each forgotten force encloses others more forgotten whether they are the women's regiment of the Indian national army, or the legions Indian prisoners of war who fought for the Nazis, east Africans, or the sappers or even the mules.
"It's obvious that it is neither the preserve of one side or the other of regular forces nor irregular, rebel nor royal, to be forgotten. Rather, it was a fate that awaited everyone whose service occurred too near the overlap of colonial rule and world war. In the end, the annals of the west would prefer to forget the colonial factors, and the annals of the first colonial world would forget the war effort. Each found their narrative too deeply unsettled by the other. Between the closing chapter of imperial history and the first volume of India's national record, we let drop the page that had Indians fighting on both sides." That's a good summary about the book and of the history that has been more or less mislaid from modern recollection but provides, I think, a lot of value when we revisit the history of empire in general and especially the history of the second world war.