India in World War II

When England went to war on September 3, 1939, the Dominions had the right to decide in their legislatures whether to fight. Ireland remained neutral; Canada waited a few days to show their independence. India, with colonial status, had no such choice. India went to war when England went to war.

The India Congress Party, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawarhal Nehru, controlled the provincial legislatures. Rather than support the war, the Congress Party pulled their deputies out of the legislatures. With only the Nazis to fight, Indian units gave good service in North Africa; but the Indian public did not mobilize to support the war.

In 1941, India went from colonial combatant to potential battlefield when the Japanese attacked the Western powers. India became the scene of political upheaval. Gandhi and Nehru tied Indian participation in the war to Indian independence. Rioting and strikes led to the outlawing of the Congress Party in August 1942.

Gandhi’s political rival, Chandra Bose, went to Berlin and then Tokyo to raise an Indian National Army out of exiles and POWs captured in Singapore. Many POWs claimed they were coerced into joining. Bose raised 7,000 and joined the Japanese when they invaded India in March 1944.

In the Battle of Kohima-Imphal, the British and Indian units waged a running skirmish with the Japanese and Indian Nationalists, who were poorly supplied and far from their base of operations. By August 1944 the invasion was repelled.

Bose and the Axis powers had assumed that there was widespread contempt for England in India. In fact, Indians would support both England and the war effort. 2,000,000 Indians served in the Army, and 24,000 were killed. Major infrastructure was built to support both the Indian Army and the Allied Armies. By war’s end, most of the Indian Army’s officers were Indian. With food shortages after the fall of Burma, some 1,500,000 Indians died of starvation during the war.

Bose died in 1945, enigmatically dying in a plane crash on his way to Japan. Many have criticized his alliance with Germany and Japan, since they had no real support for Asian independence and committed many reprisals against civilians. The surviving members of the Indian National Congress were put on trial in 1945 by the British Colonial Administration, and they received huge public attention as support for independence grew.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, turned over the government to Nehru in 1947.