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South Asia's most important contribution in WWII was its labour

Written by James Kinuthia on Sunday August 13, 2017

The role of the British Raj in the Second World War is certainly not a completely forgotten story. There have been many advances in recent years in historical research on the Imperial and Commonwealth role in the war, in works by Chris Bayly and Tim Harper, Ashley Jackson, Tarak Barkawi, Srinath Raghavan and others.

And in fiction, too, the presence of the sepoy has been lingering for many years. Think of Kip in The English Patient. Vikram Seth has a semi-fictional character in Two Lives who has his arm blown off at Monte Cassino.

Amitav Ghosh’s Glass Palace recreates the invasion of Burma and Raghu Karnad, more recently, in Farthest Field, delivered a striking and imaginative reconstruction of a Parsi family’s experience of the Second World War.

There is no doubt that Britain deployed these imperial soldiers globally – as they did in the 19th century – to protect and further British interests. The soldiers of the 6th Rajputana Rifles, just to take one example, could be found from the Mediterranean to East Asia as early as September 1940.

The 1st and 4th battalions were readying to fight the Italians in North Africa, the 2nd and 3rd were battling resistance in the North-West Frontier Province, the 5th battalion was doing garrison duty in Hong Kong and the 6th was still being formed in northern India, and was soon destined for Bengal.

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