India and WW2: Through a Feminist Lens

The announcement for the creation of a Women’s Auxiliary Corps was published in the Gazette of India on 9th April 1942. It was the first time women were asked to contribute towards the war effort and until 1992 it was the only time that women in India joined the Armed Forces for non-medical roles.

The initial thought behind it was to relieve men from ‘desk duties’, so that they could take on ‘active service’ through the course of the war. The Women who joined the WAC were to work with both the Indian Army and the Air Force as opposed to its British counterpart, which had the Auxiliary Territorial Service for the Army and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force for service with the Royal Air Force. In Feb 1944, a naval section was formed so that women could serve in the Royal
Indian Navy.

Bhanu Galot, author
For the first four months the recruitment into the corps was only limited to ‘local service’, which
meant servicewomen could work in and around the place they resided at but as the pressure of the
war mounted, the demand for servicewomen to fill various posts in offices elsewhere increased and
this led to a change in the recruiting process and by September 1942 women in India were being
recruited both for general service as well as local service. The eligibility criteria for women to join
the corps were centred on their age and their knowledge of the English language. The age limit that
was initially set was 18-50 years; this was later reduced to 17 years so that more women could join
in to compensate for the shortage of recruits in many areas.

As for who they were and their ethnicity, in a report published in 1945 as mentioned in a paper by
Alan Harfield – “Out of every eight auxiliaries one is European, three Anglo Indian, three Indian
Christian and only one non-Christian Indian.” By the end of the war nearly 11,500 Indian women
had joined the Women’s Auxiliary Corps. This number does not include the women who were part
of the Indian National Army and women were not formally recruited but contributed towards the
war effort by working in factories that made war machineries on the home front and other such jobs.
As for the work they did, they worked behind the front lines as typists, switchboard operators and
drivers. They also worked in anti-aircraft direction finding, in parachute inspection and in more
traditional roles such as catering. The corps was disbanded in 1947 with Independence.

Here are stories of two Indian women who participated in the War:

Second Officer Kalyani Sen

Sen was the first Indian woman to visit the UK during the war to undertake a comparative study of the training and administration in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. A picture of her from the visit was published in all major Indian publications and she was being hailed as a symbol of new India.

In an interview with the Daily Herald that soon followed, Sen would explain: “In India, there is still a big prejudice against women working with men. But the women are so keen to get into the Services that they are breaking it down.”

Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan was British spy who owing to her ability to speak French was chosen to go to Paris and join a secret British organization that was set up to weaken the German. This was behind enemy lines through espionage and sabotage.

Born in 1914 in Moscow to Indian parents she is hailed as Princess because her father was a descendant of an 18th century ruler of the kingdom of Mysore.

In 1943, the Gestapo captured her. Despite the torture she had to endure, she did not reveal any information. She was executed in 1944.

In 2018, the New York Times started a series called Overlooked “Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, “we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.” As part of this series Noor Inayat Khan’s story or obituary was published by the NYT on Nov 28, 2018 – Over 70 years after her death.

My talk stresses on looking at the subject through a feminist lens because while these experiences
liberated women in a society which till date is extremely patriarchal – one needs to acknowledge
that at the time it must not have been an “easy transition for women make”, for them to occupy a
space that was defined by men that still is defined by men at least in India.

Stories of women in uniform are often left out from traditional war narratives. It is not enough for
us to say in the first sentence ‘commemorating India servicemen and servicewomen’ and then fill
the rest of the pages with stories of just men. As scholars and practitioners in the field we need to be
cognisant of this and ensure that adequate attention both publicly and scholarly is given to the many
ways that women contributed in this war.

I would like to end with a remembrance message, which is:

In memory of women who broke barriers, left home and contributed immensely towards the war effort during WW2.

This talk was given by Bhanu Gahlot during an India Remembers event, August 2020.