Geopolitics

How World War II Helped Shape Modern India

Indian wartime experience not only contributed to making the country and her institutions what they are today but offers lessons that still have significant validity.

Indian troops in Singapore in November 1941
K. S. Nair*

NEW DELHI — The 80th anniversary of the start of World War II fell on September 1. And next year we will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the War. Both are occasions for lengthy recognition and commemorative events across the world. Most countries treat this global war, and their involvement in it, as defining episodes in their history and identity. India does not — as of yet.

World War II was unequivocally the most pivotal global event in 20th-century history. Its political, economic and social consequences are still being played out today. The formation of the United Nations, and the grant of permanent Security Council membership to five countries, the victors of that war, make up one set of such consequences.

India's consciousness of the War remains intermittent.

Another consequence, perhaps unintended, was Indian independence — which the War undoubtedly hastened. Decolonization was not a given at the beginning of the conflict. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill actually saw the preservation of Empire as a war aim. It was U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt who persuaded Churchill to commit to the agreement known as the Atlantic Charter — the terms of which effectively made it impossible for Britain to return to its imperial status quo after the war — and thereby triggered the global wave of 20th-century decolonizations, starting with Indian independence.

Yet, India's consciousness of the War remains intermittent. It is one of the best-documented conflicts in world history, but India's involvement has only recently begun to be studied in depth. And when acknowledged at all, the focus tends to be on Indian soldiers. The war also involved Indian airmen and sailors, in smaller numbers, but effectively transformed the Indian Air Force and Navy even more than the Army. Indian Air Force personnel served in the skies over England and France in the early years of the War, and also in the Middle East and North Africa. Indian naval personnel served in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Indian Air Force pilots in the 1940s — Photo: RAF photographer

In India, meanwhile, there were massive training, airfield-construction and port-development efforts, which completely transformed the dockyards of Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin and Trincomalee — which was, in fact, the primary dockyard for the Madras presidency — and took the number of airfields in the country from less than a dozen at the start of the war to over 200. Most airports in India today are legacies of that effort.

The war also gave a huge fillip to India's economy, industrialization and employment. By the end of the War, India had — incredibly — spent more on it than Britain. On independence, Britain owed India a considerable "sterling debt". For the first decade of independence, India financed all her imports from Britain through this balance.

Recognition of Indian contribution has expanded in the last few years, prompted partly by commemorations and publications around the centenary years of World War I. But many of them remain Western-oriented in historiography and represent Indian and other colonial participants as hapless victims of imperially-blinkered generals or incompetent government.

There is an incredibly rich vein of World War II stories in India.

Again, the reality is more nuanced. Indians participated in the war for a variety of reasons — sometimes out of economic compulsion. But war service actually opened up opportunities for professional growth and social advancement, both for the then still-tiny Indian middle-class as well as for marginalized groups. And in the multi-layered complexities of that time, despite the Congress's non-cooperation through most of the war, many Indian political leaders of the time — up to and including the Mahatma — discreetly encouraged Indian individuals to participate for a variety of reasons, both short-term political gains as well as for long-term nation-building. "Their aim," defense analyst Shashank Joshi observes, "was not to wind up India's pre-eminence … but to inherit it."

Like all wars, World War II was full of tragedies, but wars also provide a great many fascinating stories. There were conflict, drama and courage on display, every step of the way. Courage was needed not only to face enemy action but also to go to war with obsolete equipment against capable enemies — and indeed, to overcome imperial prejudice. There is an incredibly rich vein of World War II stories in India, which could be mined by Indian historians, novelists and even the Indian film industry.

Indian troops in Burma in 1944 — Photo: Imperial War Musem/Wikimedia Commons

The war brought many global celebrities or people who would later become celebrities, to India; among them writer Eve Curie (daughter of Nobel laureates Marie and Pierre Curie), naval officer Ian Fleming (future author of the James Bond novels) and RAF pilot Ezer Weizman (future president of Israel). Indian princely families made significant contributions to the war effort, and some young princes joined the Indian Air Force, just as during the First World War some Indian princes joined elite cavalry regiments.

The Indian film and entertainment industry actively supported the war effort, and outside official view, there were some unscripted romances between dashing young military personnel and glamorous figures from the film industry. There are also connections to the Indian cricket world, although Indian cricketers did not have the celebrity status then which they enjoy now.

How India dealt with all those challenges should be of enduring interest.

Indian wartime experience not only contributed to making the country and her institutions what they are today but offers lessons that still have significant validity. Social issues the world faces today are recognizably similar to some from that era — including identity issues and discrimination. Many of the Indian armed forces' contemporary military challenges had counterparts then: long-running, mostly unrecognized fighting of a unique kind; terrorism (or at least suicide attack); inappropriate technology for local conditions — they were all issues in 1939 as much as they are in 2019.

On top of everything else, that was a period of utter ruination of rural economies in India, partly because of the diversion of food to the war effort. How India dealt with all those challenges should be of enduring interest.


K.S. Nair is the author of some 60 articles on the Indian armed forces, featured in Indian and overseas publications and online. His second book, The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II is due for publication by Harper Collins India at the end of September.

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La Sagrada Familia Delayed Again — Blame COVID-19 This Time

Hopes were dashed by local officials to see the completion of the iconic Barcelona church in 2026, in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its renowned architect Antoni Guadí.

Work on La Sagrada Familia has been delayed because of the pandemic

By most accounts, it's currently the longest-running construction project in the world. And now, the completion of work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882, is going to take even longer.

Barcelona-based daily El Periodico daily reports that work on the church, which began as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. But a press conference Tuesday, Sep. 21 confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin).

El Periódico - 09/22/2021

El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world.

One tower after the other… Slowly but surely, La Sagrada Familia has been growing bigger and higher before Barcelonians and visitors' eager eyes for nearly 140 years. However, all will have to be a bit more patient before they see the famous architectural project finally completed. During Tuesday's press conference, general director of the Construction Board of the Sagrada Familia, Xavier Martínez, and the architect director, Jordi Faulí, had some good and bad news to share.

As feared, La Sagrada Familia's completion date has been delayed. Because of the pandemic, the halt put on the works in early March when Spain went into a national lockdown. So the hopes are dashed of the 2026 inauguration in what would have been the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.

Although he excluded new predictions of completion until post-COVID normalcy is restored - no earlier than 2024 -, Martínez says: "Finishing in 2030, rather than being a realistic forecast, would be an illusion, starting the construction process will not be easy," reports La Vanguardia.

But what's a few more years when you already have waited 139, after all? However delayed, the construction will reach another milestone very soon with the completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years and the second tallest spire of the complex. It will be crowned by a 12-pointed star which will be illuminated on December 8, Immaculate Conception Day.

Next would be the completion of the Evangelist Lucas tower and eventually, the tower of Jesus Christ, the most prominent of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated 13.5 meters wide "great cross." It will be made of glass and porcelain stoneware to reflect daylight and will be illuminated at night and project rays of light.

La Sagrada Familia through the years

La Sagrada Familia, 1889 - wikipedia

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