India's Divided Loyalties?
Peter Heehs looks at the Indian army who threw in their lot against the Raj and with the Japanese in the Second World War.
The fall of Singapore was one of the greatest disasters ever suffered by the British armed forces. Left unprotected by the destruction of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the warships Prince of Wales and Repulse, the garrison waited helplessly as the Japanese army swept down the Malay peninsula. The siege began on February 8th, 1942, and was over a week later. 85,000 men, what was left of the British, British-Indian, and Australian forces, surrendered to the invader.
Not all the defeated soldiers had to spend the next three years in Japanese prison camps. Of the 60,000 Indians that surrendered, 25,000 chose to go over to the enemy. They became the core of the Indian National Army (INA), which two years later took part in the Japanese invasion of India. In that campaign INA soldiers faced their own. countrymen, members of General William Slim's mostly Indian 14th Army, which crushed them and the Japanese army they served, greatly hastening the end of the war. In May 1945 Rangoon was retaken by an lndian division; the same month the ragtag remains of the INA laid down their arms.
Soldiers are sworn to serve their country in peace and war. But to what country did the Indians who surrendered in Singapore owe their loyalty? To Imperial Britain, or to an India that was engaged in a struggle for independence? After the war, arrested members of the Indian National Army were classed as 'white', 'black', or 'grey' according to the perceived innocence or culpability of their motives. Most were considered grey. However much wartime publicists, and even some historians, view complex issues in monochromatic terms, little in warfare is really black-and-white.
Indian soldiers had helped Britain conquer India and Indian soldiers helped them retain it. During the First World War nearly a million Indian troops fought for the Empire in Europe and Mesopotamia. Up to this time all higher officers of the Indian army were British; after the war belated efforts were made to 'Indianise' the officer corps. This was in line with Britain's recently announced aim of progressively conceding self-government to India – a grudging response to a nationalist movement that, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was beginning to mobilise the masses.
During the 1930s the Indian war budget was reduced and the army's strength fell to less than 200,000 men. Few thought that a European conflict might have repercussions in India. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the viceroy announced that India also was at war. Provincial governments resigned in protest, hut thousands of young Indians flooded to the recruiting stations. Most were turned away. Military experts did not feel that India and Burma, which until 193 7 formed part of the Indian empire, were in danger. As late as August 1941 the Chiefs of Staff Committee considered 'the invasion of Burmese territory' a 'distant threat'. When the viceroy asked whether the Japanese, who had occupied French bases in Indochina, might attack Burma through neutral Thailand, he was told that with the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, they would never try it.
On December 11th, 1941, three days after the start of the Malayan campaign, the Japanese 15th Army moved across Thailand into Burma. Advancing against ineffective opposition, they reached Rangoon by March. Once Burma's capital and main port had fallen, the loss of the rest of the country was a foregone conclusion. Sweeping north, practically annihilating the Chinese forces defending Toungoo, the imperial army reached Lashio, the southern terminus of the Burma Road. Achieving their main objective in Burma by closing the only supply route to Chungking, the Japanese pursued the Chinese across the border into Yunnan, and forced Indian and British troops to withdraw, demoralised and in disarray, into Assam in north-east India. In just five months a relatively small Japanese army had conquered most of South-East Asia.
After the start of the monsoon the Japanese established a firm defensive line along the Chindwin River, not far from the Indian border. Apart from a few air raids on Calcutta and other ports, they made no move against India. But the north-eastern part of the country was vulnerable to attack, and the British soon turned this region, and much of the rest of India as well, into a huge military camp. More than 200 airfields were built, some of which became points of origin for supply flights to China across 'the hump' of the Himalayas. Voluntary en1istment to the Indian Army was stepped up, and by the end of the war it numbered 2 million combatant and a half-million non-combatant troops – the largest volunteer army in the history of the world.
The loss of Malaya and Burma was due largely to British unpreparedness; the Japanese owed much of their success to detailed planning. Part of their strategy was to mobilise anti-British elements in Malaya, Burma and India. Since before the First World War, Indian nationalists had tried to enlist the aid of foreign powers in their struggle. Much hope was placed in Japan, which after its defeat of Russia in 1905 had appeared to many to be the torch- bearer of renascent Asia. A number of activists had taken refuge in various countries of Asia, Europe and North America, establishing organisations such as the Indian Independence League (IIL), with branches in Tokyo, Bangkok and other capitals.
In October 1941 Imperial General Head-quarters sent Major Fujiwara Iwaichi to Bangkok to make contact with Indians, Malays and Chinese who might help in the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Fujiwara got in touch with members of the Bangkok IIL, signing an agreement of mutual assistance with one of them, a Sikh named Pritam Singh. During the invasion Fujiwara and Pritam Singh approached captured Indians and offered them freedom if they went over to the Japanese side. Their biggest catch was Mohan Singh, a colonel in the 1/14 Punjab Regiment. Resentful of discrimination in the Indian army, and influenced by nationalist ideas, Singh agreed to work with Fujiwara to win over Indian prisoners of war. Two days after the fall of Singapore, the two men addressed a huge assembly of Indians in a city park. Fujiwara told them:
The independence of India is essential for the independence of Asia and the peace of the world.... Japan is willing to give all-out aid and assistance to Indians in East Asia to achieve their aspirations.
Singh announced that he was forming, with Japanese help, the Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army, and asked for volunteers. The initial reaction to his proposal was mixed, but before long thousands of Indian soldiers and civilians had agreed to join the INA.
Why did more than a third of the captured Indian troops agree to go over to the enemy? Indian soldiers traditionally were loyal even in the face of racial discrimination (which, however, many found increasingly upsetting), and relatively untouched by the national movement. Philip Mason, wartime secretary to the Indian war department, placed the 25,000 defectors in four classes 'in proportions about which one can hardly be precise'. He felt that only a small number were ardent nationalists; another small number were 'frankly opportunist'; a few honestly planned to escape and return to their own lines; but the majority 'were puzzled, misinformed, misled, and on the whole believed that the course they took was the most honourable open to them'. Mason spoke of one battalion that was approached by a former officer:
He told them that the war was over and that they had the choice between digging latrines for the Japanese and once more becoming soldiers – but this time in the service of an independent India. They chose to be soldiers.
Despite the effectiveness of such blandishments, most of the captured soldiers stood firm, and paid the price. Some officers who refused to co-operate with the Japanese were tortured or otherwise mistreated, for example by being confined in underground cages or latrines. About one-fifth of the 35,000 Indian troops who remained loyal did not survive to the end of the war.
During 1942 the Indian National Army and the Indian Independence League had a brief flowering. Meetings of the IIL were held in Tokyo in March and Bangkok in June. These were presided over by Rashbehari Bose, a Bengali revolutionary who had fled to Japan after masterminding a bomb-attack on the viceroy Lord Hardinge in 1915. Bose was able to remain in the country with help from friends in the Black Dragon Society, a group opposing the British presence in India as part of' its pan-Asiatic ideology. The events of 1941-42 gave the almost forgotten Bose and the IIL an importance they had never before enjoyed.
At Bangkok the IlL resolved to take steps to bring about 'the complete independence of India free from any foreign control'; but before much could be done Mohan Singh began to quarrel both with Rashbehari Bose and with the Japanese. The Punjabi soldier grew suspicious about Japan's intentions in India, and came to think that Bose was a puppet of Tokyo. He wanted the INA to be a fighting force and was dismayed when he learned that the Japanese planned to use it only for preserving law and order in occupied territories. In December Singh decided to disband the INA. Later the same month he was placed under arrest.
If the Japanese were to profit from the INA and the League, they needed someone other than Mohan Singh or the ageing Rashbehari Bose to lead them. For more than a year they I had had their eye on a man who was ideally suited for the job, and who wanted to have it as much as they wanted to give it to him. But this man, Subhas Chandra Bose (no relation to Rashbehari), was in Germany. During the 1930s Subhas Bose had been one of the most important leaders of the Indian National Congress, his influence exceeded only by Gandhi's and perhaps Nehru's. Elected president of the party in 1938, he had challenged Gandhi's candidate the next year and won an unprecedented second term. The members of the Congress Working Commit- tee refused to co-operate with him, however, and he was forced to resign. As leader of the left-wing Forward Bloc, Bose took a strong anti-government stance, and in July 1940 he was jailed. Escaping from house-arrest in January 1941, he journeyed to Berlin by way of Kabul and Moscow.
Between 1933 and 1936 Bose had lived in Europe, spending much of his time in Italy and Germany. These countries, along with Spain and Russia, provided him with models for the sort of government he wanted for India: not 'democracy in the mid-Victorian sense of the term', but 'government by a strong party bound together by military discipline'. When he returned to Berlin in 1941 he found such a system in full flower, and did not altogether like what he saw. Nevertheless he met Nazi leaders, including eventually Hitler, and asked for German support. He obtained little but vague promises. A trip to Rome brought similar results. Like the Germans, the Italians did not know what to make of Bose. 'The value of this upstart is not clear,' wrote Foreign Minister Count Ciano after a brief meeting.
Bose was thrilled by the Japanese victories in South-East Asia, and realised at once that he could do more to further his aims there than in Europe. The Japanese made no secret of the fact that they would be glad to have him. After consulting with Rashbehari Bose, who said he would step down in Subhas Bose's favour, they arranged with the Berlin government to have Bose transferred to the East. On February 8th, 1943, he left Kiel on board a German U-boat. Three months later he was transferred to a Japanese submarine, which took him to an island off Sumatra. From here he flew to Tokyo, arriving on May 16th. A month later he was received by the Japanese Premier Tojo Hideki. The two men hit it off at once. On June 16th, Hose was invited to attend a session of the Diet, where Tojo announced: 'We firmly resolve that Japan will do everything possible to help Indian independence'.
Tojo had made similar statements even before the fall of Singapore. Early in 1942 he had invited India to 'rid herself of the ruthless despotism of Britain and participate in the construction of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere'. Calling on the Indian people not to miss this opportunity for political and economic rebirth, he assured them that Japan entertained 'not the slightest thought of antagonising them*. Later, at a public meeting with Bose in attendance, Tojo reaffirmed that Japan had no territorial, military or economic ambitions in India.
Bose could not but be happy that Tojo had given him immediately what Hitler had always refused to consider: a clear statement of support and promise of non-interference. In his speeches he gratefully acknowledged Japan's assistance, but was independent enough to stress that he had accepted it to fulfil his own aims. Addressing his former friends in America, he said:
Japan is offering us help and we have reason to trust her sincerity. That is why we have plunged into the struggle alongside of her. It is not Japan that we are helping by waging war on you and our mortal enemy – England. We are helping ourselves – we are helping Asia.
It is hard to say how uncritically Bose took Tojo's assurances that Japan had no military ambitions in India. He was not unaware that the puppet governments of Manchukuo and other places occupied by Japan did little to check Japanese oppression of local populations. But he was confident in his own strength. He insisted that the Japanese recognise him as the leader of the Provisional Government of Free India and grant him the rights and privileges of a head of state. The Japanese seemed to respect him for this.
In July Bose arrived in Singapore, where he was given an enthusiastic welcome by the Indian community. He told them that he was:
... going to organise a fighting force which will be powerful enough to attack the British Army in India. When we do so a revolution will break out not only among the civil population at home, but also among the Indian Army which is now standing under the British flag.
The Indian National Army was reborn. Over the next year, while three divisions were organised and trained, Bose travelled throughout South-East Asia, delivering speeches and meeting heads of state on equal terms. Aides let it be known that he wanted to be called 'Netaji' (Respected Leader). When someone pointed out the resemblance between this title and that of Germany's dictator, his secretary answered: 'The role of India's Fuhrer is just what Subhas Chandra Bose will fill'.
Japanese leaders had revealed to Bose that they planned to mount an offensive in 1944. He assumed this would be an invasion of India, leading to a triumphal march on Delhi by the INA. The actual aims of the Japanese were more modest. They assumed the Allies were planning to move into Burma and felt that the best defence would be to attack first. The operations of General Wingate's 'Chindits' behind their lines had demonstrated how vulnerable their position was. By moving into north-east India they would disrupt Allied communications and create panic. A big victory would boost sagging morale at home; its propaganda value would be enhanced by their presenting themselves as a liberation army.
The Allies did intend to move east into Burma in l944, but planning was complicated by the differing aims of the American and British commands, The former wanted to reopen the Burma Road, the latter to retake Rangoon and Singapore. The Japanese decided the issue by moving first. In December 1945 they attacked Indian Army positions in the Arakan, the coastal region south of the present Bangladesh. By threatening the port of Chittagong, they hoped to draw reserves away from lmphal in Assam, where their main thrust would be directed.
Passing a division through the Arakan jungle, the |Japanese managed to get around the flank of the 7th Indian Division. In previous encounters, British-1ndian forces had with- drawn when outflanked, allowing the enemy to win both territory and supplies. This time, however, a new strategy had been agreed upon. Besieged troops would stand firm in strongholds and wait for air supply and reinforcements. The 7th Division did just this, and by February the Allies were on the offensive, encircling the Japanese and winning their first victory in Burma.
To hold on in the Arakan, it had been necessary for General Slim to commit his reserves. Early in March, while his forces were spread out, the Japanese crossed the Chindwin and attacked Imphal. Ordering the withdrawal of the 17th and 20th Indian Divisions, Slim called for the 5th Indian Division to be brought from the Arakan by the American air- force. The key to the situation was Kohima, a town perched on a 5,000-foot ridge. Here about 3,000 British, Indian and Nepalese soldiers were besieged by an entire Japanese division. Supplied by air, they held out for four months, preventing the Japanese from closing the ring on Imphal and from taking the unprotected railhead at Dimapur. Meanwhile the 17th, 20th and 23rd Indian Divisions had halted the Japanese advance. On June 22nd, 1944, relieving British and Indian forces met north of the town and the siege was broken. Seizing the initiative, Slim's 14th Army chased the Japanese back into Burma and, as the monsoon set it, got ready to cross the Chindwin the next year. Imphal was one of the greatest Allied victories of the war, a turning point as significant in Asia as EI Alamein and Stalingrad had been in Africa and Europe. 50,000 Japanese were killed and an equal number wounded. Indian and British casualties totalled 17,587.
Many British and American histories of the war do not mention the INA, or else relegate it to a footnote. This is not surprising. Only 8,000 INA soldiers were sent to the front, against 230,000 Japanese. And these 8,000 saw relatively little action. Some INA men were attached to each of the three main Japanese divisions, serving as guides, interpreters and spies; but the three small 1NA divisions were: kept mostly in the rear. Regimental commander Shah Nawaz Kbian wrote to Bose in April 1944:
When this regiment was raised, I, as well as every single soldier of this regiment, were of the conviction that we shall form the spearhead of the advance into India.... When we actually arrived at the front line, the type of duty that was given to us was: (a) road-making or preparing, (b) repairing bridges, (c) extinguishing jungle fires, (d) driving bullock carts carrying rations for Japanese troops.
Khan later was ordered to take his men to Kohima, and they marched through the jungle for days, only to find, after a symbolic flag-raising on Indian soil, that the battle was already lost. They were forced to retreat with the Japanese in conditions of terrible privation.
Bose's dream that the men of the Indian Army would join the INA as soon as his men shouted some slogans was never fulfilled. INA propaganda did contribute to the surrender of three or four small bodies of Indian soldiers, and in one case this gave the Japanese momentary advantage in battle. But as a rule the Indian Army treated the INA with special contempt. Many Indian and Gurkha soldiers were unwilling to let the turncoats surrender, and Slim was forced to issue orders 'to give them a kinder welcome'.
During the monsoon of 1944 the Japanese and INA regrouped while the Allies prepared for an all-out offensive the following year. In December the Indian Army swept through the Arakan, and began moving eastwards from the Chindwin towards the Irrawaddy. During February 1945 the mile-wide river was crossed in several places. At Pagan the initial attempt failed due to enemy fire. Then soldiers of the 7th Division saw a boat flying a white flag moving towards them. It carried two INA men, who said that the Japanese had withdrawn, and that they wanted to surrender. The 7th soon was safely across the river. This incident may be taken as representative of the contributions of the Indian army and the INA in the Burma campaign. Indian divisions of the 14th Army were always in the forefront, helping to take Mandalay, to re-open the Burma Road, to push south towards Rangoon. INA soldiers surrendered and deserted in droves, to such a degree that Bose issued orders that any INA officer or soldier who suspected another of treason could arrest and if necessary shoot him.
Bose had little knowledge of what was going on at the front line until late in the campaign, when he moved to a forward position. He wished to die fighting; but as Indian and British forces approached, his men plead- ed with him to withdraw. He agreed, and during his retreat showed the finer side of his character, refusing to cross rivers until INA men and women had gone before him. But now the end was near. On May 1st Indian paratroopers were dropped near the port of Rangoon. The next day the 6th Indian Division captured the city. Mopping up operations continued through the next few months, but the surrender of Shah Nawaz Khan's second division on May 13th marked the end of the military career of the Indian National Army.
Ironically, the INA's real contribution to the Indian freedom movement had just begun. As the British-Indian Army liberated South-East Asia, it gathered up 25,000 INA personnel, all of whom were sent to India for trial. Technically each captured soldier could have been shot for mutiny and desertion, but capital punishment on such a scale was unthinkable. The government decided to divide the men into three groups. Some 4,000 whose plea that they intended to escape from the Japanese seemed plausible, were considered 'white' and restored to their former privileges. The 14,000 'greys' were adjudged to have been misled, and were released. But 6,000, the ringleaders and those who had committed atrocities, were considered 'black' and held for trial. Three officers whose crimes seemed clear were selected as the first to appear before the courts martial.
The trial was held in the Red Fort in Old Delhi, the very place Bose had said would be the site of the INA's victory parade. Many in India were sympathetic to the 'freedom fighters' and both Congress and the Muslim League chose to come out in their favour. The case was not as open-and-shut as the prosecution had hoped, and as the trial progressed there were demonstrations, often violent, in many parts of the country. The three defendants were found guilty and cashiered but not otherwise punished. Defending this leniency, India's commander-in-chief, General Claude Auchinleck, wrote:
It is quite wrong to adopt the attitude that because these men had taken service in a British-controlled Indian army that, therefore, their loyalties must be the same as British soldiers.
Public demonstrations in favour of the INA continued. Discontent spread even to the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy, who mutinied in February 1946. The INA, ineffective on the battlefield, had become what Bose always had wished, an inspiring force in India's struggle for freedom. As it became clear that India soon would be granted independence, the government decided not to hold further trials.
Independent India gives little thought to the men of the wartime Indian Army, who fought against Italians, Germans and Japanese in Africa, Europe and Asia, and without whom, as Auchinleck said, 'the war could not have been won'. On the other hand India remembers the soldiers of the Indian National Army as heroes and martyrs in the independence movement, and has transformed the life of Subhas Chandra Bose into legend. Killed in a plane crash on August 17th, 1945, Bose was believed by millions to be alive well into the 1970s. For a time sightings of him were almost as common as sightings of Elvis are today. In schoolbooks and magazine articles his many faults are glossed over and his military genius celebrated – this in spite of the fact that even a friend like Fujiwara had to admit that 'the standard of his operational tactics was, it must be said with regret, low'. His political acumen is more difficult to evaluate. He managed to gain the respect of many highly placed men in Tokyo, but was never taken seriously by the Japanese field commanders he had to work with. According to M. Koirang Singh, later Chief Minister of the Indian state of Manipur the Japanese army did not plan to honour Tojo's promise that Bose would assume administrative control over parts of India occupied after the fall of Imphal and 'certainly intended to control India as effectively as they controlled Burma'. Bose knew from first-hand observation in Rangoon what this would be like. He told sceptics that the British had never been able to take advantage of him and the Japanese would not succeed if they tried. With his great confidence in himself and in the Indian people, he seems to have felt that he could handle the Japanese once he was in his own country as its designated leader. This may not have been a realistic attitude, but it could hardly be called cowardly.
Western writers are inclined to dismiss Bose as a Fascist collaborator. He certainly consorted with dangerous Fascists and made statements that today read very badly, for example that the Azad Hind Dal (Free India Party) would 'be organised on the lines of the SS Party in Germany, or the Communist Party in Russia'. But Bose was not the only Oxbridge-educated intellectual to be swayed by Fascism or Communism during the 1930s (though his dream of a 'synthesis of National Socialism and Communism' may have been unique). His arrogance, intolerance of opposition, and love of militarism seem part and parcel of the Fascist mind-set, but his dynamism, inspiring leadership, and patriotism have also to be taken into account. It is probably best to agree with those who hold that 'Netaji' was basically a nationalist, even if misled.
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