“This is not just about what India did for the war. I also look at what the war did to India. The South Asia of today is in very many ways the product of India’s Second World War.”
—Thus a succinct Srinath Raghavan in his new book, India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945.
At just 39, the unassuming and charismatic Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, is now considered to be a leading military historian and writer on strategic studies. His book is an exhaustive account of the Second World War told from a uniquely Indian perspective. Raghavan looks at vital questions, like the Raj having a sub-imperial system of its own that stood ready to defend its own empire, the international dimensions of India’s war (Indians fought in the China-Burma-India theatre, West Asia, north and east Africa and Italy), how imperial war aims influenced these crucially formative years of domestic politics, socio-economic aspects and India’s rise on the world stage.
As such, Raghavan’s scope is huge—the politics and defence of India, the African campaigns, protecting crucial oil resources in Persia and Iraq, and the crucial war in Burma. The analytical arc of his writing goes into territories that don’t often make it to popular narratives—for instance, the way the exchanges between the secretary of state, the war cabinet and the viceregal office affected India’s political destiny. This is useful because, meshing ‘general’ and academic histories in a nuanced way as he does, Raghavan straddles different kinds of readership. Professor Lawrence Freedman, the supervisor for his PhD in war studies from King’s College in London, says, “Srinath was the dream student. From the start it was evident that he was a gifted historian. He had an ability to work hard and write in a clear, accessible manner. He barely needed supervision. I just learnt from him.”
The accolades have been piling up for Raghavan—the Infosys Prize 2015 in Social Sciences, the K. Subrahmanyam Prize for outstanding contribution to strategic studies in 2011, along with numerous international research grants.
Raghavan believes his interest in war history started during his stint in the army after completing BSc in Physics from Madras University in 1997. “There was a moment of epiphany when I realised that I wasn’t cut out for theoretical physics or pure mathematics, where you have to be really good or are no good. Some of my seniors from school were in the Army’s Short Service Commission. So I followed suit....” By the third year as an infantry officer, Raghavan knew that he wanted to pursue higher studies in military history and international relations. So, on completion of his PhD from King’s College in London in 2007, he was convinced that research would be the mainstay of much of his work. “Even my contemporary work—commentaries and strategic foreign policy analyses—get their point of view from historical work.”
Srinath’s historiographical sophistication and empirical discipline were reflected in two earlier works—War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years and 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Anirudh Deshpande, associate professor of history at Delhi University, says, “Srinath’s work demonstrates that history is a legitimate and pleasurable combination of knowledge and art which is forever sensitive to the dialectics of the past, present and future.” Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, is in fact of the view that Raghavan has emerged as the foremost historian of his generation on 20th century India in totality. “His trilogy—on WWII, the 1962 war with China and the 1971 Bangladesh war—goes well beyond India’s military history. It not only situates modern India in global history, but sheds unique insights on understanding state formation and ‘stateness’ in South Asia in general and India in particular, exemplifying Charles Tilly’s famous observation that ‘war made the state and the state made war’.”
Raghavan points out that there is no dearth of scholarly work on the Second World War, but most of those deal with India—a massive supplier of war materiel, men and itself part of a theatre—only tangentially. This paucity influenced his choice of subject. Thus, his new book focuses on one crucial point of departure: the sub-imperial system of the Raj, wherein large swathes of territory beyond India—Burma, Ceylon, Singapore in the east, and Afghanistan, Iraq and Persia (with their crucial oilfields), and the port of Aden in the west—were controlled by British India, where it extended its influence.
Raghavan was appalled to find that records for the war years (1939-45) were surprisingly ill-organised even in the National Archives in New Delhi. “I had to dig into memoirs, private papers, collections left behind by individuals, as well as libraries in India and Britain.” The 25-volume official history of the war, published jointly by India and Pakistan, turned out to be the main source of data. But research that spanned five years came to a crucial juncture when Srinath had to decide how he would convey the depth of material in a lucid manner, while also hooking the reader. “I wanted the book to be a serious work of history, not reduce it to a bunch of well-told stories. So, I looked for smaller stories that would illustrate larger processes,” he says. He drew inspiration from historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Adam Tooze, Stephen Kotkin and Sarvepalli Gopal.
After spending a term abroad teaching defence studies at King’s in London, Srinath moved back to India in 2008. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research, says that it took them exactly 30 seconds to conclude that Srinath should be at the think-tank. “He is scrupulous in use of archives and totally original in how he conceives a subject. All three books of his are unusual in their ability to do justice to local Indian history and historiography on the one hand and global history on the other.” Another colleague agrees that he has an ability to show the big picture, but from a people’s perspective. “So, you have references here to how idli (rava idli) was made using semolina when rice was in short supply during the war.” Outside of his purely academic endeavours, Srinath is a regular commentator on international and strategic affairs. He also served at the National Advisory Security Board for a couple of years until 2015. Publisher Rukun Advani believes that he’s articulate, hard-working and could reach great heights with his competence.
For now, Raghavan is keen on building on his research and academic expertise. He’s on to his next book that traces American involvement in South Asia from the late 19th century till the end of the Obama administration. Will he try his hand at fiction too? “I have a most deficient imagination, so fiction is out of the question. I would, in the future, like to work on a wider, comparative history of Asia after the Second World War, bringing in all the regions of the continent: East and Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East,” he says.
If history is a study of the past with an eye to the present, and policy a study of the present with an eye to the future, Raghavan is trying to bridge the two worlds. As ambitious as this may sound, his humility makes him shine a light on a cohort of young scholars he’s been working with closely. Even then, we know that the future looks exceedingly bright for him. Clearly, we’re all looking at the present with an eye to the future.