Netaji’s Last Living Legacy
The official history of the independence movement largely omits events surrounding the INA, especially the Red Fort trials and the Bombay Mutiny, and ignores the significance in terms of rejuvenation of the independence movement and guiding the British decision to relinquish the Raj
Even the British have finally acknowledged it. The Battle for Imphal and Kohima has been adjudged as “Britain’s Greatest Battle”. Dr. Robert Lyman, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society made the presentation of the Imphal Kohima Battle in the contest that was held by the National Army Museum at Chelsea earlier this year. In the short list for the greatest battles fought by the British, the Imphal campaign polled nearly 25 percent of the votes, much more than the Battle of Waterloo and the D-Day Landings at Normandy.
The British forces had fought the combined armies of Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army and the Japanese. It is estimated that the British lost 16,500 lives while the INA and the Japanese lost 53,000 soldiers. The fight for Imphal lasted nearly six months, while the Kohima battle was on for three months. I have, in the last decade, met and interviewed hundreds of the remaining soldiers of the Subhash Bose’s Indian National Army. Most of them were reclusive, not willing to talk of their days in the Burmese jungles, the war which they fought along with the Japanese and the bitter taste of retreating from conquered territory. They were however willing to talk of the post surrender period. They had dreamt of a free India, of a glorious national future, of a welcome reserved for heroes who had sacrificed their all for the nation. What the INA soldiers got instead were a Red Fort trial, dishonorable discharge from an army that refused to accept them even after Independence, no pension and a swift disappearance from an extremely short public memory. Many widows of INA veterans who survived the war related how their husbands were unable to adjust to the new environment or to the fact that they did not get their due from Indian society and died broken hearted deaths.
Today, only a handful of them survive. Most of those whom I met believed India would have been different had Netaji survived the 1945 air crash. Surpri-singly, all those whom I have met believe that Netaji died in the air crash, they see no reason for him to engineer a disappearance. The official history of the independence movement largely omits events surrounding the INA, especially the Red Fort trials and the Bombay Mutiny, and ignores the significance in terms of rejuvenation of the independence movement and guiding the British decision to relinquish the Raj. Ironically enough, in committing sacrilege upon the glorious heritage of I.N.A., the Congress leaders were one with the alien rulers. Bose had thoughtfully named the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Swaraj and Shaheed islands. One of the first action that was taken by the free Indian Government was reverting them to their old colonial names.
The veterans, who I met, all mourned the fact that they were not successful in freeing India from the clutches of the British. A few of them told me that this failure was the direct result of a lack of dedication in many INA soldiers who had joined the force only in order to reach India. Many of them had just used the INA to get piggy back to India, And they just threw away their weapons and surrendered on reaching the Indian borders.
It is a known fact that the INA was a rag tag army which consisted of battle hardened patriotic fighters, but a sizeable element comprised of rogues and rascals who just joined the bandwagon for quick riches and gain. The Japanese, on occupying many of the South East countries, had opened up the prisons and released all the prisoners. Quite a few of those who joined the INA were criminals who had been charged with murder, rape and other heinous crimes. In the later days of the war, many of these elements revolted and had to be severely disciplined under the INA rules. A few just deserted when they found things too difficult. There was gross insubordination and revolt in many instances; for these elements it was each one for himself. How the INA kept the March onward speaks of the sheer determination and military strategy of the officers that Netaji had chosen.
It is a pity that there is no proper memorial for these brave soldiers. The INA War Memorial at Singapore’s Esplanade Park, which was erected in 1945 to commemorate the “Unknown Warriors”, was destroyed on Mountbatten’s orders as soon as allied troops reoccupied the city. There is now a small plaque erected by the National Heritage Board of Singapore which marks the original INA Monument.
The INA Memorial at Moirang in Manipur commemorates the place where the flag of Azad Hind was first raised on Indian soil. Moirang was the first Indian territory captured by the INA. The memorial suffered damage in an insurgent attack in 2004, the Statue of the Springing Tiger on the entrance was blown up. When I visited the Museum, I found a rather pathetic representation of the INA.
Y.A.Shishak, one of the last few of the Indian National Army veterans, lives in a small house just below the Shashank War Memorial at Ukhrul. He has a private museum with many knick knacks of the Great War. He looks after the memorial and maintains the small neat garden. He came out of his small house on seeing me, and as I entered his compound the old soldier gave me a Jai Hind salute. He took me inside; his small house was filled with war memorabilia. He has the first INA flag that was flown in liberated India at Moirang on the 14th April, 1944 by Colonel Shaukat Hayat Malik, commander of the Bahadur Group.
Shishak’s house was full of samurai swords, helmets and many photographs lined the walls. His visitor’s book had scores of entries. There were testimonials from Japanese, British, Indian and even German visitors. One heartwarming one was from David Lemmi, of Hundung Village in Ukrhul. He had written: “I am the son of K.S.V. Harteo of Hundung Village. My father was a school headmaster. I was still in my mother’s womb when my father was killed by an Japanese Intelligence Officer in June 1944. My mother and three sisters suffered a lot of hardships and difficulties. However we have no enmity with anyone. I missed my father a lot, whom I loved. God bless us all, Japanese people and all” (2/10/2004).
Shishak showed me his passport, which proved that he had made two trips to Japan where he was honoured for his war efforts, but the Government of India still does not recognise him as a freedom fighter. “I was just a 14-year-old boy when I fought for Netaji, but the Commissioner at Ukhrul is not sending my file to Delhi with his recommendation,” he rued bitterly.
The Swatantrata Sainani Smarak is an Indian National Army memorial at the Salimgarh Fort, at Delhi, adjacent to the Red Fort, on the banks of the Yamuna. The site has been neglected for a number of years now and fallen into disrepair. Its houses a few exhibits and photographs of Subhash Chandra Bose. There were dogs sleeping in the Museum. I wrote to the then PM, Manmohan Singh and was surprised to read in the newspapers the next week that action was to be taken to repair and maintain the site. I do not blame the authorities, when I visited the place in June 2013, I was visitor number 157 that year.
Netaji Bose’s and the accomplishments of his INA borders on the miraculous. Unfortunately, due to ideological slants, these have very deliberately been undervalued and unrecognized. In a crass display of triumphalism the British had put three INA officers (a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh) on trial in the Red Fort. The news of the INA finally broke out and created a tumult in India. There were mutinies in the Royal Indian Navy and some units of the British Indian Army. The British read the writing on the wall and decided to quit. While the Quit India Movement petered out, it was only the specter of the INA which forced the British to wind up their empire.
Post independence, the Political elite fostered the myth that non-violence alone had won India its freedom. There can be no bigger untruth than this. At the conclusion of the war, the government of British India brought some of the captured INA soldiers to trial on charges of treason. The prisoners potentially faced the death penalty, life imprisonment or a stiff fine as punishment if found guilty. It was initially believed by Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, that no less than twenty death penalties were likely to be confirmed.
Between November 1945 and May 1946, approximately ten courts-martial were held. The first of these, and the most celebrated one, was the joint court-martial of Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon and Major General Shah Nawaz Khan held in a public trial at the Red Fort. They were charged with waging against the King-Emperor (the charge of treason did not exist in the Indian Army Act,1911) as well as torture, murder and abetment to murder. The three were defended by the INA Defence Committee formed by the Congress which included the three legal luminaries of the time; Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhulabhai Desai and Kailash Nath Katju.
The trials covered arguments based on Military Law, Constitutional Law, International Law, and Politics and much of the initial defence was based on the argument that they should be treated as prisoners of war as they were not paid mercenaries but bona fide soldiers of a legal government, the Provisional Government of Free India, or the Arzi Hukumate Azad Hind, “however misinformed or otherwise they had been in their notion of patriotic duty towards their country” and as such they recognized the free Indian state as their sovereign and not the British occupation.
These trials attracted a lot of publicity and public sympathy as the defendants were seen as patriots by Indians. The Congress and the Muslim League both made the release of the three defendants an important political issue during the agitation for independence of 1945-46. Beyond the concurrent campaigns of non-cooperation and nonviolent protest, this spread to include mutinies and wavering support within the British Indian Army. This movement marked the last major campaign in which the forces of the Congress and the Muslim League aligned together; the Congress tricolor and the green flag of the League were flown together at protests. In spite of this aggressive and widespread opposition, the court martial was carried out, and all three were sentenced to deportation for life. This sentences, however, was never carried out, as the immense public pressure of the demonstrations and riots forced Auchinleck to release them. Within three months, 11000 soldiers of the INA were released after cashiering and forfeiture of pay and allowance. On the recommendation of Lord Mountbatten, and agreed by Nehru, as a precondition for their release, the INA soldiers were not reinducted into the Indian Army. This is the important footnote in the history of India’s freedom struggle. These battle hardened veterans were the prime people who should have been taken in the army of the new nation. Had this been done, the debacle of China would have never happened.
It is about time that the nation should honour these valiant fighters and construct a fitting memorial for them. In fact each State should have a memorial as Netaji’s INA comprised of a pan Indian fighter force. Even the British felt that the Indian soldiers who had perished on foreign soil deserved a fitting memorial and erected the All India War Memorial which is today called the India Gate. The surface of the India Gate is engraved with name of 90,000 Indian soldiers and who died in World War I and the Afghan wars fighting for The British Empire and British India.
By Anil Dhir from Ukhrul in Manipur