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NY Times Op-Ed, August 2 2017
Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire
By YASMIN KHAN
OXFORD, England — Two and a half million soldiers drawn from Britain’s
empire in South Asia fought in World War II. But they are missing from
many British commemorations and accounts of the war — an absence
reinforced by Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk,” which does not
feature any of the Indian soldiers who were present at the battle.
The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British
India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army
Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to
Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the
Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport.
They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.
The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of
war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain. Paddy Ashdown, a
British politician, has spoken of his father’s being court-martialed for
refusing orders to abandon the Indian troops under his command.
World War II is memorialized everywhere in Britain. The catchy wartime
slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” appears on greeting cards, coffee mugs,
doormats. Towns still organize Christmas fairs with a World War II
theme. Balls and parties that involve dressing up in 1940s styles are
common on university campuses.
Yet Britain’s fixation with the war doesn’t do justice to the complexity
of the subject. The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks
diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the
globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two
empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all,
the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits
the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies
were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.
Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia,
Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never
more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined
the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British
This has real significance for British South Asians. Baroness Warsi, a
former Conservative Cabinet minister, said both of her grandfathers
fought for Britain in World War II, a connection that 20 years later
inspired her father to move from Pakistan to Yorkshire.
But others are unaware that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers
were involved in two world wars. Generations of British schoolchildren,
including me, sat through history lessons about World War II and never
heard about the connection to Asia. British South Asians have only
tentatively started to see their own place in this “British” story.
There are signs of change. Many historians, including Christopher Bayly,
Tim Harper, David Olusoga, David Killingray and Srinath Raghavan, have
written books about colonial soldiers and the war. The Imperial War
Museum London is constructing new World War II galleries to reflect a
more global story. Some schoolteachers make imaginative efforts to
diversify their approaches to World War II histories in the classroom.
Universities usually teach an even more complex and international
picture. But the core idea that the British war was an imperial war
still falls on deaf ears.
Perhaps this is because it is not a rosy, heroic tale of the empire
coming to the rescue of the motherland. Young men in Asia and Africa
often joined the army under duress. The war was fought for freedom, but
Indian political demands were brushed aside in the 1940s, with
nationalists enduring heavy-handed policing and imprisonment.
The British state bungled food supply in its empire. In Britain, wartime
food shortages caused hardship and great inconvenience; in India, they
caused mass starvation. At least three million Bengalis died in a
catastrophic famine in 1943, a famine that is almost never discussed.
The famine’s causes were a byproduct of the war, but as Madhusree
Mukerjee has proved in her book “Churchill’s Secret War,” the imperial
state also failed to deliver relief. Many soldiers signed up as
volunteers to fill their belly.
A simple multicultural twist to war commemoration tells just part of the
story. Histories of the imperial role in the war are convincing only if
they tell an accurate tale, which is one both of great bravery and
heroism but also of exploitation, uncertainty and divided politics.
The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is
a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British
history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that
underpin Brexit. A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59 percent of those
surveyed in Britain thought the British Empire was something to be proud of.
Today there is a willful distortion of the empire in the British public
mind, a strange determination to misremember it. An informed history of
both World War II and the empire is necessary if we want to understand
modern Britain. But in post-Brexit Britain, some are more interested in
turning back the clock.
Yasmin Khan, the author of “Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s
Second World War,” is an associate professor of history at Oxford.
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