The Fourteenth Army, a multinational force of British, Indian and African units turned the tide in Asia by recapturing Burma for the Allies. Thirty Indians won Victoria Crosses in the 1940s.
But what about all the other people who were caught up in the war?
Numerous other South Asian people sweated behind the scenes to secure supply lines and to support the Allies.
There were non-combatants like cooks, tailors, mechanics and washermen, such as a boot-maker to the Indian army named simply as Ghafur who died at the battle of Keren in present-day Eritrea and whose grave can still be seen there today.
What do we know about the thousands of women who mined coal for wartime in Bihar and central India, working right up until childbirth? Or the gangs of plantation labourers from southern India who travelled up into the mountains of the northeast to hack out roads towards Myanmar and China? Or the lascars (merchant seamen) such as Mubarak Ali, remembered simply as “a baker” who died in the Atlantic when the SS City of Benares was torpedoed?
There were millions of other South Asians working towards the imperial war effort and we never hear about them.
Thousands of Asian labourers died building treacherous roads at high altitude, including the Ledo Road between China and India, working with basic pickaxes and falling prey to malaria and other tropical diseases.
Often for them it was just a job, a way of earning enough money to eat.
The illiterate left little trace of their service. And often their work – hard and poorly paid – was tough and dangerous whether it was wartime or not.
Experiences of the 1940s depended on caste, class, vantage point and region: a Punjabi soldier could see things very differently to a metropolitan student in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) or a factory-owner in Kolkata (Calcutta).
In the rush to write new histories of nation states after 1947, much of the history of the 1940s was locked out from official memory. Tales of the freedom struggle took precedence. And in Britain and the US, the emphasis was placed on remembering military contributions to major battles, not on the everyday lives of anonymous workers.
As one report put it at the time, this was not the “forgotten army”, but the “unknown army”.
Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.