Yasmin Khan ‘The Raj at War’ - Henley Literary Festival

‘The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War’ is the latest book by Yasmin Khan. Her talk at this year’s Henley Festival was an excellent exposition of its subject matter, delivered with élan and easy charm. Although Khan seemed a little nervous at first, she captivated the audience with her well researched material.

In her previous book, ‘The Great Partition: The making of India and Pakistan’, Khan examined one of the 20th Century’s great tragedies in depth to great critical acclaim, winning the Gladstone Prize for History from the Royal Historical Society.

On the one hand, ‘The Raj at War’ examines the Home Front in India, through the eyes of a wide range of individuals of varying opinions, regarding the country’s allegiances to the British Crown. The reader encounters a high ranking Indian Civil Servant with Diehard imperialist views, as well as an artist soldier with sensitivities for Indian aspirations for freedom, to the wife of a prominent member of Congress who becomes a radical activist.
The book also examines the Indian contribution to the allied war effort; both in terms of the Indian Army fighting on various fronts, to those civilians at home, who provided the materials and skills necessary to ensure the allied victory. How following the Japanese occupation of Burma, the terrible Bengal Famine of 1943 which destroyed millions of lives.

Khan is very good at combining revealing and pertinent details with ‘the bigger picture’. She shows how the defence of India was crucial to the ultimate defeat of Japan and looks at the significance of each event in context. In addition, ‘The Raj at War’ shows international aspects of the conflict. How soldiers from all over the British Empire were stationed in India during the war for a variety of reasons.

The book reveals aspects of the Indian and Pakistani struggles for individual Independence, which eventually came in 1947 at such a high cost in blood. Although winners in the Second World War, the UK could not afford to keep India ‘British’; either morally or financially. The vast area of regions; administered directly and indirectly under the name of ‘British India’ that are the subject of this book, are now of course separate countries and the ‘Empire’ a fading memory.

With ‘The Raj at War’, Yasmin Khan has given us a glimpse into a world hardly recognisable today. Of a history that still affects our lives today and will continue to do so.

(c) Gideon Hall 2015


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