Pro-imperial truths of the old world

This magnificent one volume history details the tumultuous days of the Indian army in the jungles of Burma

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A few years back during my doctoral research, I was invited to a colloquium on imperialism at Oxford, which, because of our modern standards of free and open intellectual discourse, was effectively a secretive little conclave. This was during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, around the time when, due to mob pressure, Portland professor Bruce Gilley’s “The Case for Colonialism” paper was redacted by an academic journal. The seminar’s organisers did not want hysterical teenagers egged on by activist dons to disturb what turned out to be the nuanced discussion you’d hope scholars would, and could, engage in.

A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain, 1941-45 by Robert Lyman (Osprey, £25)

There I met a man of very advanced age, whose name I cannot remember (to my shame) who had been a civil servant in India during the final days of the Raj. He told me something I have pondered ever since. “We were just a handful of people providing guidance and administration”, he said, “with overwhelming consent in a gigantic country. We even slept in the streets during summer on khatias and had no fear of being killed.”

Whatever politics was happening was between the British and Indian political elites, and plainly did not affect most normal Britishers or Indians. 

Consider, that in 1901 Indians numbered nearly 300 million while the British-born population of India was around 150,000. Colonialism was indeed by the consent of the governed, and the independence fight was primarily an intra-elite affair, where the mostly western-educated native would-be boss class fought with the foreign overlords who taught them, for political control.

In the sub-continent, the civil service, lower (and some higher) judiciary, magistrates, police officers, intelligentsia, landed gentry and local businesses were primarily Indian, a lot of them pro-imperial to the end of their time. What happened to those voices? In current post-colonial discourse, one cannot read any pro-imperial literature, which is either lost or considered too reactionary to be taught at universities, an injustice to a clear understanding of history.

Lyman calls the truths of the old world into existence to redress the balance of the new scholarship

Robert Lyman’s A War of Empires is essential in this regard, in that he calls the truths of the old world into existence to redress the balance of the new scholarship. His magnificent one volume history details the tumultuous days of the Indian army in the jungles of Burma, a theatre of the war which remains remarkably understudied. It is the story of the coming of age of the Indian army that Lyman focusses on.

India’s war, on the side of the Anglosphere and Commonwealth where it rightfully belonged, was one to defeat fascism and militarism. Not as colonised real estate, but as a nation that rightfully sided with a noble cause. Post-independence history erased this proud war. Both the left-wing Nehruvian socialists as well as the right-wing Hindu nationalists wanted to rewrite Indian history.

The Second World War in the context of nationalist and socialist myth-making was a war fought for another sovereign, where India had no agency. It is this narrative Lyman changes and corrects. “There was no such thing as the ‘British-Indian’ or ‘British Indian’ Army. In respect to post-mutiny India, there were only ever two armies, the British Army and the Indian Army.”

The mutiny of 1857 (the first war of independence, if you believe in revisionist history) was fundamentally put down by Indians, who either sided with the British for regional interests (Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwalis, Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats, Kumaons and Pathans), or because they didn’t want to go back to the feudal days of widow burning (mostly western-educated Bengali intellectuals).

There was never a concept of a united India other than the Maurya or the Mughal empire. Even modern India was only ever united under the liberal rule-based multi-ethnic and secular empire the British built. “Britain’s Empire was delivered on the cheap, and without much allowance, from London at least, for the peculiar nuances of race, religious or national identity. Most Britons shared this ambivalence … The fact that the map was red was what mattered to most, if indeed it was given much thought at all.”

Divided India, however, united to face the single biggest threat to its British-designed borders, from imperial Japan, by readying an all-volunteer force.

“The Indian Army”, Lyman writes, “grew from 194,373 in 1939 (not including the 75,311 soldiers of the Indian Princely States) to 900,000 12 months later and 2,000,000 in mid-1943.” Not all of them joined out of loyalty to the crown, but most knew what brutality awaited them in defeat.

“News of the barbarity with which the Japanese Army treated anyone whom it considered to be its enemy, exemplified by its brutal treatment of civilians in China, had long gone before it, together with the innate fear of Indians for their Burman hosts fanning the flames of panic.”

This is a recurring theme in Lyman’s clear-eyed books. His previous work, Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India contained similar primary source nuggets, where Indian troops coming across Japanese brutalities, the decapitated bodies of English and Sikh soldiers, as well as dead Burmese women used as bayonet practice, were determined on vengeance. “The Japanese believed this sort of savagery would unsettle their enemy as it had done in the previous two years. Now, however, it was beginning to have the opposite effect, instilling in the troops an implacable hatred of their enemy, many becoming determined on bloody retribution in which no quarter was allowed.”

Most Indian units fought to death in a war they knew they wouldn’t survive if they lost. Lyman wrote, “Soldiers of 4/14th Punjab came across a Japanese ambush party carrying, of all things, the decapitated body of a Sikh soldier. The 1/11th Sikhs, likewise, discovered the crucified and beheaded bodies of one of their comrades alongside that of a British officer. The discovery induced a shock of rage that led to a furious charge in which every single enemy soldier fell to an Indian bayonet.” We dismiss British tropes about Indian martial vigour at our peril.

Lyman never fluffs over British failures. He’s critical of Churchill and his prejudicial quirks

Ultimately, the war made a cohesive institution and a fellowship that never previously existed. It also showed that, as we are taught to phrase it, contrary to current hegemonic discourse, the loyalty of Indian soldiers was not just to the sovereign, but to a cause. They were men who had views about the world, not ignorant savages or exploited cyphers.

In a particularly poignant treatment of the retreat from Burma, Lyman records that virtually all men of Burma Army were sick with malaria and while all were exhausted Slim noted proudly that the fighting elements marched into the Imphal plain as soldiers. “On the last day of that 900-mile retreat I stood on a bank beside the road and watched the rear-guard march into India. All of them, British, Indian and Gurkha, were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows. Yet, as they trudged behind their surviving officers in groups, pitifully small, they still carried their arms and kept their ranks, they were still recognizable as fighting units. They might look like scarecrows, but they looked like soldiers too.” They had been defeated, but not disgraced.

Yet Lyman never fluffs over British failures. He’s critical of Churchill and his prejudicial quirks – the wartime leader saw at first hand the prowess of the Indian army in the Great War, so his failings remind us that events are not always a teacher, even for great men. The job of the historian is to chart what the participants missed, otherwise what is the point of them? This Lyman does.

Complacent British ineptitude is fairly covered. Her underestimation of the Japanese meant “Britain lost Burma, as it did Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Borneo, through incompetence, ill-preparedness, inefficiency and hubris.” Lyman almost channels his inner Nirad Chaudhuri, complaining about late-imperial British inability to understand or cherish the “special relationship” with India, treating them not as equal citizens but as subjects.

The book sheds light on another important issue. British-designed modern India with its parliamentary system, secular ethos, English education, rituals, and balance of power between various ethnicities and armed forces, was the first and only truly secular, liberal polity that existed in that landmass, a lesson that is often forgotten, ignored or refused.

Imperialism was the liberalising force, creating modern penal codes, and destroying casteism and ritualistic murders and exploitation such as widow burning or Sati, and the Jizya tax. Its army rose beyond centuries of ethnic and religious divisions. With increasing religious polarisation and a stark majoritarianism, India is reverting back to an older, premodern state. An India, with a solid Sikh, Christian and Muslim minority could exist only as a nation ruled by secular laws guarded by apolitical armed forces (who didn’t glorify the Maurya or Mughal past).

The immediate post-independence Kipling and Byron-worshipping Brahminical elite understood and appreciated that nuance far more than the current crop of post-colonial professors at Cambridge, for provincial example, but they’re long dead. Modi’s modern India is post-British but not in a way the scholars of post-colonialism safely tucked up in England should like or defend. The Indian Army defended the right thing.

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