Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
“Himmat teri barhti rahe,
Khuda teri sunta rahe,
Jo samna tera kare,
Tu khaq men milaye ja”
— From the INA marching song
THERE is growing recognition of the probability that the British may have been able to evolve suitable responses to the tactics of India’s Gandhian freedom fighters, like ‘non-violence’ and ‘satyagraha’, and hold on to India for a couple of decades beyond 1947. What really shook them was the raising, by Subhas Chandra Bose, of the Indian Legion in Germany from prisoners of war (PoWs) in early 1942. This was followed by Bose assuming command of the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army (INA) in Singapore in 1943. Realisation dawned on the British that every Indian soldier who loyally served the crown was also a patriot at heart; and therefore, sympathetic to the cause of freedom.
Disciplined militaries never dwell on mutinies, desertions and other breaches of discipline, regardless of the cause. Consequently, the attitude of Independent India’s armed forces towards the INA, and its Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), Subhas Chandra Bose, has remained guarded and ambivalent. Paradoxically, however, the ethos and spirit of the Indian Legion and INA have permeated into the Indian military. English words of command used in the British Indian army were translated by German military instructors into Roman-Hindustani equivalents for use by the Indian Legion. Many of these commands were adopted by the post-Independence Indian Army. The Indian Legion/INA greeting, ‘Jai Hind’, was first adopted by the Army, and is now universal in all three services. The INA marching song, ‘Kadam-Kadam Barhaye Ja’ has become the Indian Army’s marching song.
Exiled from his homeland, and a fugitive from the mighty British Empire, with no resources available to him except his own patriotism, audacity and enterprise, Bose believed that freedom would not be given by the oppressor, but had to be taken by force
I would rank Bose, in terms of stature and moral courage, with Charles de Gaulle. A grateful France elevated de Gaulle to the highest office, but all that we have done for Bose is to institute endless enquiry commissions into his death
Bose’s German biographer, Rudolf Hartog, has written, “One tends to forget that the Indian Legion was not only an army set up to fight the British, but that it personified Bose’s vision of the future India in which neither religion, nor caste, neither culture nor language… would divide the country… Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians served alongside.” Regrettably, fate intervened to deny Bose his cherished vision, and today a capricious nation needs to be reminded that this bold and daring patriot, in exile, shook the British Empire to its roots and, accelerated its demise in India.
The expatriate armies led by Bose in Germany and Singapore, his inspiring radio broadcasts from Berlin, Rome and Tokyo and his intense diplomatic exertions to muster support for India’s freedom were factors that not only motivated and galvanised the freedom movement in India, but also struck fear into British hearts. The 1946 mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy was to add momentum to the Independence movement. So much so, that General Wavell, the British Commander-in-Chief, ruefully remarked in a secret report: “It is no use shutting one’s eye to the fact that any Indian soldier worth his salt is a Nationalist…”
Bose’s career as a politician of national stature came to a premature end as his differences with Gandhiji led him to resign from the presidency of the Congress party. However, once he left India and formed a government-in-exile, he donned the political mantle of a notional head of state as well as the military mantle of a Commander-in-Chief. From then onwards, Bose needs to be viewed in a different light altogether; as a statesman of international standing and an outstanding leader who showed moral courage, sagacious vision and resolute action. He is fully deserving of the appellation ‘Netaji’— not in its current unsavoury political connotation, but as a true leader, and his 125th birth anniversary is an apt moment for a reappraisal of Bose’s national standing.
In the mid-1940s, Bose was arrested on charges of sedition, and while in jail, pondered over the developments in Europe. As a fierce nationalist, and a pragmatist, Bose sensed that a weak and enslaved India, pitted against ruthless British imperialism, was unlikely to win freedom through non-violent means. Convinced of an Axis victory, he reasoned that it was worth ‘supping with the devil’ and seeking help of the Fascists if it helped his country’s fight against colonialism. Should it, subsequently, come to a confrontation against the Japanese or Germans, he visualised the two-million soldiers of the British Indian army as his assets. But first, he had to establish contact with the Axis regimes.
On the night of January 17, 1941, while under house arrest, a disguised Bose escaped from his Calcutta home, and travelling by train, bus and on foot reached Kabul, 10 days later. Masquerading as an Italian businessman, he left Kabul with two German escorts for Moscow, whence he flew to Berlin, arriving in the German capital on March 28, 1941.
Bose was welcomed in Germany, and provided with a residence, car and office, by the Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop. Once firmly established in Berlin, Bose launched a multi-pronged campaign in his resolute pursuit of the cause of Indian freedom. He established a Free India Centre, with branches in Berlin and Rome, as well as the Azad Hind Radio from where regular broadcasts were beamed to India in seven Indian and other languages.
One of Netaji’s most outstanding achievements was to obtain German consent to raise an Indian Legion and then, through the force of his personality and convictions, to persuade British Indian army PoWs, captured by the Germans in North Africa, to join the Legion. Trained, equipped and armed as a regular unit of the Wehrmacht (German army), the outfit was designated as Infanterie Regiment (Indien) 950. The jawans who volunteered to serve in the Legion faced an acute moral dilemma, but they, stoically, swore an oath of loyalty to the German Fuehrer as well as to Netaji, and it was agreed that they would be deployed only against British forces, while awaiting the opportunity to fight for freedom on their own soil.
It was more than a year after his arrival in Berlin that Hitler finally agreed to receive Netaji in a private audience. Declining Netaji’s request for a formal declaration of support for “free India” as premature, Hitler advised him to work with the Japanese so that he could be much closer to his homeland. Netaji asked for a German aircraft to take him to Tokyo, but Hitler considered it too risky, and offered him a submarine, instead.
Netaji and his adjutant, Abid Husain, embarked on the German submarine U-180 in Kiel, and after an epic 90-day voyage, involving a high-seas transfer to a Japanese submarine, arrived in Tokyo in May 1943. Netaji’s meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, General Tojo, was the culmination of his single-handed campaign to garner support for India’s freedom struggle. He had now received assurances of support from all three Axis leaders: Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and could dream of liberating his motherland from the British at the head of an Indian army of liberation.
Having delivered a devastating air attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese forces swept across SE Asia to reach Malaya by March 1942. The British forces were caught by surprise and panicked; capitulating or fleeing into the countryside. At the fall of Singapore, a large number of Indian PoWs, feeling betrayed by their British officers, were persuaded by their Japanese captors to join a ‘volunteer force’, designated as the Indian National Army. Captain Mohan Singh was chosen by the Japanese as its first head, to be followed by Col Bhosale. However, it soon became apparent that this force was in need of a leader with a political vision; and Netaji was to be the man whose stature, personality and outlook made him an ideal C-in-C.
On October 21,1943, following a public declaration of solidarity by General Tojo, Netaji inaugurated the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind or Provisional Government of Free India, in Singapore, with Netaji as the head of state. Recognition was accorded, to the Provisional Government by Japan, Burma, Croatia, Germany, the Philippines, Italy, and Siam, and Netaji formally declared war on Britain and USA.
Having assumed personal command of the INA, Netaji was seen often at military functions in immaculate uniform, and became a powerful focus of loyalty and fighting spirit for the INA. The planned invasion of India, with Kohima and Imphal as its initial objectives, commenced in February 1944 through the Arakan Hills. Fighting alongside the Japanese 15th Army was the INA’s Subhas Brigade, accompanied by psychological warfare groups. Netaji gave the Indian troops their stirring war cry: “Chalo Dilli”.
Meeting stiff Allied resistance, the offensive, however, soon ran out of steam and, by early 1945, the Japanese were in full retreat. Dogged by the monsoons and disease, and denied full Japanese support, by May of that year, the short but eventful history of the INA came to an end when this rebel army laid down arms in Burma.
With the fall of Japan looking imminent, Netaji withdrew with his cabinet to Bangkok, where after much deliberation it was decided that the Provisional Government could only be sustained if support for India’s freedom was forthcoming from Russian leaders. Russia, having declared war on Japan, was marching into Manchuria and Netaji decided that the city of Darien would be a good place for him to establish contact with the Russians.
Two seats were found for Netaji and his aide, Habibur Rehman, on a Japanese Mitsubishi K-21 bomber which would drop them in Darien, after refuelling halts in Bangkok, Saigon, Da Nang, and Taipei. On the evening of August 18, 1945, just after take-off from Taipei, the heavily loaded bomber crashed and caught fire. Netaji suffered serious burns and died that night in a Japanese military hospital, with Habibur Rehman present at his deathbed. He was cremated in Taipei on August 20, 1945.
As far as the British Indian army was concerned, all the INA personnel had worn the King’s uniform and were considered ‘traitors’ or ‘Japanese Inspired Fifth Columnists’. Three INA officers, Shah Nawaz, Sehgal and Dhillon, charged with “waging war against the King”, were brought to trial by court martial and found guilty. The British showed good sense by suspending the sentences awarded, and stopping further trials.
As for Bose himself, in terms of stature and moral courage, I would rank him with another contemporary national hero, Charles de Gaulle; who also led France’s liberation struggle as an exile. The difference is that while de Gaulle made a triumphant return to a free France, Bose unfortunately perished on foreign soil with his dream unrealised. A grateful France elevated de Gaulle to the highest office, but all that we have done for Bose is to institute endless enquiry commissions into his death.
Netaji Subhas Bose was a charismatic leader of steely resolve. Exiled from his homeland, and a fugitive from the mighty British Empire, with no resources available to him except his own patriotism, audacity and enterprise, Bose believed that freedom would not be given by the oppressor, but had to be taken by force. His grand strategic vision for his motherland was limited not just to attainment of freedom, but to building a strong and secular India and ensuring its rightful place in the world order. An honourable and patriotic Indian, Netaji Subhas had sworn no oath of loyalty to the King-Emperor and therefore, he broke none. We can, with full justification, hold him up, today, as an Indian ‘military icon’.
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